08 November 2006
Andrew Lam-Po-Tang
Andrew Lam-Po-Tang

Graphic designers, like many creative professionals, often find themselves in bewilderingly difficult situations when outside of their own studios. Why is that?

(Time to borrow your watch to tell you the time, as the quip goes). Designers are specialists and perfectionists. Common enough in designers, you would imagine - necessary, in fact! In our 1996 graphic design industry study clients said, attention to detail, is an attribute of successful designers. This response reflects recognition of both specialisation and perfectionism. So where s the problem, then? I think it s easier to understand the issues by looking at some of the common assumptions that accompany these mindsets and then look at the implications for interactions with individuals who are neither specialists nor perfectionists

Designers are specialists
For the purpose of this discussion, I define specialists as people who have consciously chosen to build up, through education and experience, knowledge and expertise in a functional field.

ASSUMPTION NO. 1: THE WHOLE WORLD WORKS THIS WAY, IE. MOST OTHER PEOPLE ARE SPECIALISTS TOO. This is incorrect. Managers, unlike designers, are usually charged with the responsibility of looking after an entire business process which involves lots of people, both specialists and non-specialists. Their job is to maintain a team and its focus on the big picture . In fact, diversity of experience is an asset when you are a manager as it broadens your problem-solving capabilities! Funnily enough, these people often end up being clients of designers.

ASSUMPTION NO 2: EVERYONE UNDERSTANDS THAT DESIGNERS ARE SPECIALISTS AND IN PARTICULAR , THAT I WOULDN'T HAVE THE GALL TO CALL MYSELF A DESIGNER IF I WEREN'T A SPECIALIST. Well, if assumption no.1 is incorrect, why would no.2 follow? In reality, non-specialists, while recognising a degree of expertise, may not fully appreciate the passion behind the original decision to specialise and therefore can easily and inadvertently step on the sensitive toes of someone who takes great pride in calling themselves a designer.

ASSUMPTION NO.3: MY JOB AS A SPECIALIST IS TO FOCUS ON MY PART OF THE PROCESS. The problem with this assumption is that it is true, but only partly. A specialist is always going to be part of some larger team, with a larger purpose. This is very true of graphic designers, as they work within the marketing process. When a specialist demonstrates apparent disinterest in a discussion of the larger process, the only thing a manager do is likely to do is make a note to double-check the final design to ensure it supports the larger objective. You can understand why clients in our study said that they prefer, and look for, designers who have strategic vision and who understand the internal and external constraints we work within.

ASSUMPTION NO. 4: I WILL TREAT OTHER SPECIALISTS THE WAY I WANT TO BE TREATED. The way it goes is, I am a designer, you are a marketing manager, therefore I will do the design, and you do your marketing stuff (whatever that is I wouldn t know, I m not marketing specialist). This scenario is where all hell can break loose. The designer presents; the client asks some good questions; the designer is wounded and then gets defensive; the client perceives the designer as uncooperative; and finally the client goes into over-control mode because they are, of course, the client. This all started with the best intentions, mind you.

Are you dismayed yet? As they say in those awful commercials, but that s not all

Designers are perfectionists
Perfectionism is a good thing in designers. It means they ll sweat and slave over the most extraordinary details in order to get it right. You can see packaging designers wandering up and down supermarket aisles, trying to understand the impact of different colours and type-faces at different shelf heights. Publication designer will collect vast libraries of brochures and coffee-table books, and corporate identity designers will carefully study the way a bank s symbol has been adapted into the security pattern on cheques. And if you catch someone looking a street poster from 10 centimetres distance, that s a designer trying to work out how it was printed. However, when designers take this passion out of their work and into the larger world

ASSUMPTION NO. 5: THE RIGHT WAY IS THE ONLY WAY. Perfectionism can be so close to arrogance, it s frightening, especially if the client gets the impression that the designer is also quietly saying, and it goes without saying that you hired me because I come up with the right way. And within the business of design, perfectionism is a disaster because it is a recipe for paralysis.

ASSUMPTION NO. 6: GOD IS IN THE DETAILS. If you re a specialist, this goes without saying. The problem lies in getting non-specialists to understand what you mean with that innocent term, detail. If the designer has just spent three days agonising between Frutiger and Helvetica Neue, an innocent comment like, I m not sure that a modern typeface is what we need can be pretty explosive. The client was probably just looking for something innocu-ous to get the discussion going.

ASSUMPTION NO. 7: EVERYTHING IS EITHER FABULOUS, ORDINARY OR TRULY [INSERT EXPLETIVE OF YOUR CHOICE] AWFUL. In the world of a pragmatist who is trying to achieve the best possible compromise within a myriad of constraints, this can come across as extreme, dogmatic judgement. At which point, the manager is extremely worried about how to make this obviously non-cooperative person get with the program (see assumption no. 4).

And so it goes

It is easy to see how creative professionals can find themselves in a morass of unmade decisions and inaction, against all their best wishes, abilities and common goals. Fortunately, Forewarned is forearmed, and the simple act of examining these issues in the light of personal experience and interpersonal preferences can empower practising designers to become more effective and constructive managers of their clients.

About the Author

Andrew Lam-Po-Tang was AGDA General Manager in 1996. His day job is as a strategy and management consultant with The Boston Consulting Group, focussing on e-business. He joined BCG in mid-1993 after completing the MBA program at INSEAD, France. Previous to this he ran Lam-Po-Tang & Co, a small graphic design studio in Sydney, which he launched after a stint with Cato Design Inc. in Melbourne. He has also worked as a design curriculum developer and lecturer and has been been an AGDA Councillor or National Council Advisor since 1989. He has an irregular column called Observations on the AGDA web site. He welcomes all correspondence with designers, in particular from the insanely committed ones who run design associations.