I write about how designers can establish ourselves as experts, persuade people to follow our recommendations, and build trust so that we can avoid revisions and other frustrating aspects of working with non-designers. But sometimes you have to do what they say, and there's no avoiding it.
As a designer, you will always be working for someone else. It’s either a client or a customer, always.
The person who writes the checks has final say, even if they are wrong.
This introduces frustrating influences into our creative process. We designers sometimes feel we are losing control over our work, just because we do our work for others. If they are paying, we have to do everything they say, or we have to work hard to persuade them to follow our advice.
The day-to-day work of a practicing designer is a twilight battle zone. We fight on two fronts: creative battles against our own ideas and inspiration; and practical battles against the people who pay for and use our design.
But sometimes, it’s okay to wave the white flag and retreat.
You are not the boss, and you shouldn’t try to be.
That might sound strange coming from me. After all, I often write about how to earn trust and persuade clients and coworkers to follow your advice.
But, on rare occasions, the strategies don’t work. This happened to me recently.
Sometimes, the person paying you wants want they want. And you think that you have to comply and get paid, or walk away unpaid.
In these situations, I encourage you to realize that this is a false dichotomy. There is another option.
If you are unable to persuade your client or boss to use the design as you made it, you still don’t have to agree to change requests you know are bad.
Instead, you can find a new solution.
Usually, when unstoppable force meets immovable object and you see no path forward for the amazing design you have made, what you actually have lurking beneath the struggle is a new design constraint.
It’s frustrating to realize that you have a new design constraint after having already made a design.
But, while frustrating, when you hit a dead end in a design project, you have an opportunity and a choice:
You can either remain stubborn about your recommendations, which can make you look like a jerk. (I did this recently, and do not advise it.)
Or, you can back down and find a new solution that fits the new constraint. You can be the designer instead of trying to be the boss.
Yes, it is hard work. Yes, it sucks to step back from an awesome design and rethink many of your decisions. Yes, you want to avoid doing this whenever you can.
But, finding a new solution when you are at an impasse shows the real value of working with a design professional.
A client might see a design, refuse to approve it, and think that if you can’t solve it, their project must be hopeless. They fear there is no solution to the impossible problem they have given you. They don’t feel great about the impasse, either.
If you take that opportunity and use your awesome creativity to solve the new problem, again, in the face of seemingly impossible-to-everyone-else odds, here’s what will happen:
Upon seeing the new design, your client will be pounding her fist upon her desk, screaming “HELL YES THIS IS AMAZING” at you over the phone. And then she will proceed to rehire you for another project.
Sometimes, backing down from our vision for a design is the best way to be valuable. Sometimes, we designers need to set aside our own vision, and just solve the problem the client actually has. Even if they didn’t clearly explain it to us at the beginning of the project.
Sometimes, our job as designers is to find the problem before we can solve it. This means rework and scrapping great ideas. This is certainly an exercise in humility. It is a difficult pill to swallow.
But I have never had a client react so strongly and passionately to one of my designs.
For me at least, that is what success as a designer looks like:
Solve the problem no one else can solve.
Solve the problem they didn’t know they had.
Solve the problem, even if it’s not the way you prefer.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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