08 November 2006
Jan Conradi
Jan Conradi

As designers, we don't create great work all by our lonesome. We depend on a group of suppliers, from programmers to print professionals, to help us produce the best possible results for our clients. Yet, instead of managing the process to ensure that everything goes smoothly, many of us end up blaming these same suppliers when it doesn't. This article shows that great design comes largely from building and managing professional relationships and offers a twelve-step program to success.

"The printer messed up."
How many times has a designer uttered those words - to a client, supervisor, or colleague - as a justification for an end result that wasn't exactly expected? I've said it myself more than once. But what if the shoe is on the other foot? What if the printer has a complaint about you, the customer?

On a listserve I frequent, a veteran printer was lamenting the decline of his craft. "Where I live and work," he said, "the customer wouldn't know good printing if it hit them in the head, nor do they want to know good printing. The motto is fast and cheap, be it black and white or six-color with UV coating. That's what is driving me up the wall! I have virtually no satisfaction anymore in a job well done."

His comments made me feel a little guilty. I remembered the times when I came in a bit late and counted on the printer to get the project delivered on schedule. The times I asked if a price couldn't be a teensy bit lower. And the multitude of other times when I conveniently used the printer, supplier, or someone else - anyone but me - as a lame explanation for what didn't flow smoothly or end up quite as planned.

No one is immune from occasionally experiencing frustrations with a job, but smart designers know that by carefully constructing a solid design team, problems can be lessened, and their impact can be minimized. It is rare for anyone to have a job that can be done in complete independence. In commercial design, it is non-existent. At every step of the process, we rely on others to do their work so that our work is good. Our ability to design is impacted dramatically by our ability to communicate effectively and work positively with others. Think about it. You may have created a fabulous design but if the printing and trimming are sloppy and slightly off, does the good design really matter? Worse yet, what if the design is solid, the printing is just as good, but the fulfillment house runs late with the mailing, and an event isn't publicized on time? Will anyone care that the concept is eloquent?

Creating a rapport with coworkers, printers, suppliers, paper reps, and all the other people involved in the design process is critical to professional success. Working relationships must be built just the same as personal relationships. So, how do we nurture and maintain a solid working relationship with all the other folks who impact the job we are trying to do? By making it a habit to approach our work in a way that is conscious of others, not just conscious of visual style.

A dozen points separate real professionals from the rest of the pack. Give yourself a pat on the back for every point that is already an ingrained part of your modus operandi. Make it a goal to include the others. If you are a senior member of your firm, share these points with new hires as a part of the firm's expectations for success.

Plan ahead and communicate clearly to allow adequate time for what needs to be done at each stage of a job. Make sure everyone knows exactly what the specifications are for their part of a project. Don't rely on memory as to what was said and to whom - write things down. Whenever you can, give advance warning so others can anticipate and plan their own schedules accordingly. While seemingly cumbersome at the beginning, the planning process gets easier with experience.
Budget realistically for images, paper stock, and other materials of appropriate quality, i.e. don't expect to get specialty paper at newsprint prices.

Be honest. When gathering information or getting quotes on a project, let people know you are checking with multiple sources. Keep the job specs consistent, so that comparisons are accurate. Notify everyone when a decision has been made, even those who did not win the job.

Ask for input before beginning to work on the project. Feedback from trusted colleagues and suppliers makes our best ideas better, and it makes working more fun. Who isn't pleased to be asked for feedback? Knowing that colleagues respect your ideas and value your views is gratifying and adds greatly to job satisfaction. Two heads really are better than one, if both are working together. Enthusiasm is infectious.

Be reasonable and flexible in your expectations of people and of services provided. Occasionally, it's just good business to let your own project wait for someone else's needs to be addressed.

Thank people for a job well done. Verbally is good; in writing is even better. Understand how the system works: If someone has really gone above and beyond the call of duty, it is great to let his or her supervisor know about it. After all, we try to secure reference letters for ourselves, so why not do the same for others?

Ask questions before losing your temper in cases where the project isn't proceeding as expected. If you address a problem without alienating everyone involved, perhaps a solution can be found. If you fly into a rampage, people will be more concerned with self-preservation than problem-solving.

Don't take a bad day out on everyone who has to work with you. Keep it to yourself and don't rain on anyone else's parade. At the very least, explain how you feel so others can be alerted.

Share the joy, if you are having a good day. It's nice to see a smile and hear a lilt in someone's voice. However, sharing your good mood and goofing off are two different things; being distracting is not fair to others either.

Share information with your network. Let others know when a supplier, printer, or other support person has done a great job.

Say you are sorry when the situation warrants it. Take responsibility for your actions and be willing to eat crow, if that's what you deserve. If the poor results come from your own ideas, don't shift the blame to a supplier. Own up to both your client and your vendor. An apology doesn't have to be profuse, but it should be heartfelt. In the same vein, be gracious in accepting apologies offered to you. All of us are human, and mistakes happen.

Finally, learn from your mistakes. This is a critical part of building professional relationships and growing as a designer. A good designer takes calculated risks in pursuing new approaches and developing new projects. It is often impossible to know if an idea will work until it is completed. Asking for input from others increases the odds of success, but if your grand scheme turns out to be hare-brained, accept the consequences and move on.

Hopscotching from one source to the next is not conducive to getting the best results, so most designers develop a group of suppliers, printers, and support personnel they work with on a regular basis. Your goal should be to build long-term trust and understanding in your professional relationships. While most of us try to do a good job on every project, we often try a little harder when working with people we know and care about.

As to my chosen lot in life, teaching, I believe that understanding and knowing how to build productive working relationships should be a part of every design curriculum. I try to help students realize the importance of this issue, and it doesn't hurt to remind professionals that there is little more satisfying than working at an interesting job with great colleagues. A photographer I often work with makes me smile just hearing his voice on the phone. The briefest of e-mails from a favorite printing rep is a pleasure to read. The fellow professor who listens thoughtfully and shares insights freely increases my determination to do my very best at teaching. And the people who say "thanks?" They are the greatest treasures of all.

Afterword: Do unto others
Once, in the days before digital files, I took a stack of photos to the camera room. The lesson I learned that day will never go out of date. I walked in the door and saw the stack of current jobs on the counter. "Ron, I hate to ask, but this project is critical. Could you possibly rush these negatives?" He looked at the stack on the counter but said he'd start on my request just as soon as he finished his current task. I thanked him, asked for a call when the negs were ready, and turned toward the door. In walked a designer from another division. "These are a rush," she said, flopping an envelope on the counter and hurrying back out. Ron walked over and picked up her envelope. Lifting the work stack, he carefully tucked her envelope at the very bottom.

"Is that what you are going to do with mine once I'm out of here?" I asked. Nope, came the reply. I didn't understand. "She does this all the time. Every job is a crisis; every project is a rush; it's never a request but an order. I'm sick of it. You don't do that. You plan for reasonable deadlines, you organize work so it's efficient for me to do, and you say "thanks" when it's done. So if you have a rush project now and then, I know it's important, and I'll do my best to help you."
Wow. "Do unto others" isn't just a Sunday school lesson. It really works. Doing your work to the best of your ability is only one part of being a design professional. The other is being professional. Being smart about doing your job effectively and anticipating needs before they arise is learned through experience. A novice designer lacking experience must rely upon lessons taught since childhood: Being fair, good-natured, and considerate of others.

About this article
The above article is reprinted from Visual Arts Trends, with permission. 2001, Visual Arts Trends

About the author
Jan is the education editor of Visual Arts Trends and an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at SUNY Fredonia in New York, USA. She is committed to excellence in undergraduate design education and has a particular focus on graphic design history in both studio and lecture courses. With previous teaching experience at Ball State University in Indiana and Iowa State University, she has been educating students in the joys of design and typography for thirteen years. Jan is a member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), Mid-America College Arts Association, and Typocrafters. In addition, she maintains a freelance consulting practice and is the founder of ComingHome Press, a venture dedicated to producing limited edition hand-bound artist books.

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