Common Questions About Design Professionalism

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The design profession is full of happy folks, and understanding why so many designers enjoy their work is not hard. But not all are so happy. If you’re not careful, the joy of getting paid to pursue your passion can be tainted by the less joyous realities of the professional world.

You see, no matter how skilled you are as a designer, unless you are equally prepared in professional matters, your prospects will be limited and your circumstances compromised. This is true whether you work freelance, for an agency or in-house with a company.

Every week I hear from designers who are struggling to come to terms with these realities. Unhappy with their current circumstances, they write to ask for advice on improving their lot. Usually, they either claim not to understand how things got so bad, or they lay the blame somewhere other than at their own feet. In every case, however, the sole cause is their poor choices and lack of professional acumen. It needn’t be so.

Design is craft
Design is craft, but no matter how skilled you are as a designer, unless you are equally prepared in professional matters, your prospects will be limited and your circumstances compromised. Image source1

Professional Diagnosis

Here, I’ll paraphrase a few emails I’ve received from designers seeking advice. For each, I’ll diagnose the situation, explain in no uncertain terms what should have been done to avoid the situation and suggest a strategy the designer can follow to improve their circumstances.

These circumstances are not uncommon. Many of you reading this are likely experiencing similar problems… or may at some point in the future. I hope that the information, advice and strategies presented here will help you avoid these and other problems.

1. From A Freelance Designer

Question: “I recently graduated from design school and have started freelancing, and I’m wondering how you get clients? How do you get your name out there?”

This person may just as well have jumped out of an airplane and then asked, “Now, how do I go about finding parachute? Oh, and should I land somewhere specific? How exactly do I do that?” Even so, this lack of foresight is quite common. The immediate lesson is that you shouldn’t become an independent professional with little to no professional experience, with no prospects and knowing little to nothing about the business.

Fresh out of college or design school, you’re not a professional; you’re a technician (by definition, the opposite of professional). For the next few years you should be acquiring the skills, knowledge and understanding required of a design professional. The place to do this is in the company of peers and under the wings of mentors: at an agency or in house with a company. The successive lessons and built-in support system inherent in these environments are essential to a designer’s professional development.

The way to “get your name out there” is to establish a pattern of excellent work and a reputation for integrity over several years, while you let your agency or company carry the burden of acquiring clients and running the projects. If you are any good, in time you will earn the respect of your peers and superiors, establish a good reputation (spread by word of mouth) and acquire professional acumen. If in that time you make any effort at all to share your work and thoughts with the wider design or business community, your name will become known (through word of mouth and your portfolio or blog), and your reputation will be built on substance rather than on social marketing’s smoke and mirrors. This would be the appropriate time to embark on a freelance career.

As a freelancer, you’ll be running the whole show. So, you’ve got to be an ace at finances and budgeting; at speaking with and converting potential clients; at knowing what to discuss in order to weed out unsuitable potential clients; at preparing all manner of legal and project-specific documents, writing proposals, project management, intra-project client communications (and being the confident, unflinching pro in the face of every client request, question and distasteful situation); at dealing with dozens of types of unforeseen issues without hesitation; at maintaining tax information and constantly preparing various tax and business forms; at marketing, preparing and maintaining your own branding and identity, with its various elements; and at knowing how to begin and conclude all kinds of projects confidently. Oh, and you’ll also need a constant flow of interested potential clients.

If you’re not confident and accomplished in all of these areas, then you’re not ready to be a freelance designer.

Freelancing is only suited to seasoned professionals. Pursuing a freelance career as your first step in the profession is almost always a foolish move. Professionalism is maintained by habit. If your first step is a misstep, you’ve set a poor tone for the work ahead. Unless you immediately correct your mistakes, the habits you’ll develop will be clumsy and unprofessional.

Design is craft
The way to “get your name out there” is to establish a pattern of excellent work and a reputation for integrity over several years. You need to be good at whatever it is you are doing. Image source2

2. From An Agency Designer

Question: “I’m not very good at the discovery meeting with clients. I’m never really sure what to ask or how to figure out what sort of design they’re looking for. My project manager or C.D. usually ends up asking most of the design questions. What’s the best way to handle this situation?”

This is a common issue for designers at agencies, especially those with little experience. Luckily, an agency is a good place to gain experience and competence. But the question signals a few issues that require attention.

First of all, design questions are not really appropriate during the discovery process. Granted, specific branding constraints may need to be defined and understood, but the design you will craft will come not from the client’s judgment and understanding of design but from yours alone. The design will be your articulation of what they need, based mostly on their business aims, the website’s purpose, their customers’ needs and expectations, the end users’ specifics, etc. In fact, if you ask no design questions at all, you’re probably on the right track.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a physician trying to determine the best course of treatment for your patient. In that situation, you would not ask the patient what he thinks should be prescribed. Instead you would inquire about his symptoms, history, environment, physical needs (e.g. is he a pro athlete, or does he simply need to be able to get around normally?). The answers to these questions will define the constraints and indicate the appropriate course of action. Your patient’s opinion on what prescription would be appropriate is likely irrelevant; he came to you because he lacks the ability to help himself.

Go into the discovery meeting prepared. Before the meeting, learn as much as you can about the company, its history and its past and current activities. Script a list of questions—some specific to this client and some appropriate for any client—to get the ball rolling. These questions will serve as a springboard to more in-depth discussion, which in turn will flesh out what you need to know.

One more thing: you’re the design professional and it’s your responsibility to conduct the project successfully. You (not the PM or CD) should be driving the discovery. Use your time at the agency to improve your discovery skills, taking on more responsibility with each successive client. Reflect on each project’s discovery process, and look for ways to improve the process and your questions. With time and effort, you should become competent in this essential part of the design process.

3. From A Freelance Designer

Question: “Some of my clients expect three or four (or more) comps from me. But that’s a lot of work, and I would prefer to show just a couple. Should I just charge more if they want more comps? How do some designers get away with just one or two for all of their clients?”

These are interesting questions, and they beg a couple more:

  1. Why is this designer allowing his clients, who are not designers, to set the number of design comps?
  2. Why is he letting quantitative preference rather than qualitative necessity frame his understanding of the issue?

Good design is not found by picking from a pack of arbitrary options, but is rather the result of deliberate, contextual choices. Taking a scattershot approach to design is in no way effective. Your clients may not appreciate this, but you certainly should! Your responsibility is to ensure that your clients don’t shoot themselves in the foot.

The only person who knows how many design options are appropriate is you: the designer who is engaged in the process. And in almost every case there is one best design solution. Sometimes another compelling direction is worth considering and presenting to the client, but this cannot be known until you have fully engaged in the process, conscious of the parameters specific to that project.

In most cases, you’ll explore a host of options during the design process. A thorough exploration will cull a majority of the trials, leaving only the most appropriate and compelling candidate(s)—one or two. These and only these design options should be shown to the client. Inferior designs should never be presented, even to fulfill a request for more options (options for what: mediocrity?).

As a freelance design professional, or even as an agency designer, your responsibility is to define how many design options to present in a given situation. If a potential client insists on a less effective and less professional process, do not agree to work with that client. Compromise never brings excellence and has no place in design or professionalism. If you become comfortable making this sort of compromise, other compromises will also become easy for you. Your clients deserve and are paying for more than a compromised design.

4. From An Agency Designer

Question: “I seldom get to meet my clients before I present design comps to them. By that point, the projects almost always become a tiresome series of re-workings of my original ideas. How can I change this?”

One wonders what these original ideas were based on if the designer has never met the clients. If so, either 1) this person is at the wrong agency, and/or 2) this person lacks the professional understanding or the backbone to insist that she decide how the agency should structure design projects and client-designer interaction.

Relationships are built on trust, and trust is born of experience and understanding. Your client cannot trust someone they have never met and whom they know nothing about. So, when designs are presented by someone the client has never met, no wonder the client is a bit reticent and inclined to second-guess the designer’s decisions. These and the ensuing problems are all a result of the designer’s failings. Yes, it’s on you. Always.

As the designer and an aspiring professional, you must insist on driving the design process. This means that you must be the one to meet with the client in the beginning. If a project brief is required, you must be the one to create it, based on your direct conversations with the client and his team.

If your agency has a process in place that prevents you from fulfilling your responsibilities, your options are either to change the process or to find a better agency. Anything less relegates you to an irresponsible practice in an unprofessional environment. Hopefully, this is not acceptable to you, because it would erode the habits you are professionally obliged to cultivate.

5. From A Freelance Designer

Question: “I love to design, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’m not comfortable talking to clients. Whenever I’m on the phone or in front of a client, I get very nervous. I think my nervousness makes me seem less capable, and I’m pretty sure I lose some of my client’s confidence. What can I do to correct this? Should someone else do the talking?”

Effective communication is one of a designer’s most important jobs. Every communication, whether by email or phone or in person, is an opportunity to demonstrate value and win confidence. And if you don’t demonstrate value, you’ll seldom win confidence. Like designer #1 above, you may simply not be prepared to be a freelance professional.

If you fail in communicating, no matter how skilled a designer you are, you won’t get the chance to ply your skills very often, and seldom for the best clients. The best clients are those who invest complete trust in their designers. That trust must be earned before any actual designing happens (see designer #4 above).

And no, someone else should not do the talking. The design professional’s job is to show confidence when dealing with clients. No one else can communicate your value or win trust for you. The reason clients distrust those who do not communicate with confidence is because this trait signals other incompetencies. This may sound harsh, but it’s a fact: if you’re not confident, it is because you lack capability (whether professional competence, design skill or perhaps vocabulary)… and you know it. Address this void, and your confidence will shine through.

If you lack confidence in conversation, start to address this deficiency immediately or find another calling. Otherwise, you may have a bright future as a production artist somewhere, but not much of one as a design professional. Design professionals are experts at every aspect of interacting with people.

Confidence aside, it goes without saying that excellent vocabulary is an important component of effective communication. People judge you by your words, as well they should. Knowing this, your professional responsibility is to work on your vocabulary, just as you work on your design ability: daily.

Professionalism

Skill in design is only part of what defines a competent professional. Professionalism is also measured by integrity, preparedness in handling and interacting with clients, and breadth of understanding in the myriad of issues that will confront you in the course of working with others (whether clients, co-workers, employees or others). Professionalism is also measured by how well you uphold ethical standards in making the difficult decisions in every area of your work.

Talent and skill can make you a technician; and a technician is, as we noted, not a professional. For context, think of traditional professions: lawyers, doctors, architects. The enormous responsibility they are entrusted with, and their ability to carry out that responsibility across the scope of their work, makes these people professionals. Thus, an able professional would not be troubled by the questions posed in this article. Rather, they would know precisely how to proceed or how to circumvent these issues. If you have any of these questions, you may not be prepared to be a design professional.

Screenshot
Professionalism is also measured by integrity, preparedness in handling and interacting with clients, and breadth of understanding in the myriad of issues that will confront you in the course of working with others. Image source3

All of these situations result from designers believing that being a good designer is good enough. This profession has little room for those who lack a professional’s integrity and broad understanding. Designers who are willing to compromise and simply accept the faulty decisions that are handed to them have had their profession stolen from them. These designers have no business working with clients who pay good money for professional service.

Be better than this. Your first step to success is to assume your rightful responsibility for everything that involves you. Dissatisfied with the flawed structure at your agency? You chose to work there; change your circumstances. Frustrated by your perpetual lack of prospects and stalled reputation? Sounds like you’ve got deficiencies to address. Overwhelmed by the challenges and complexities inherent in freelancing? You probably started freelancing without sufficient preparation.

Fix it. You fix it. It’s all on you.

Designers: you get paid to do what you love. How great is that!? But this fortunate and enviable situation leads to fulfillment only if you take full ownership of your profession. Otherwise, you’re carrying a time bomb. When it goes off, your career will either falter or be blown to smithereens. Don’t let this happen to you. Educate yourself. Have the courage and integrity to habitually make good choices so that you enjoy a long and happy career as a design professional.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/s-t-r-a-n-g-e/2239001689/sizes/o/
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/10813066@N06/2056353545/sizes/o/
  3. 3 http://www.flickr.com/photos/peter-heindl/3201114199/

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Andy Rutledge is a principal at Unit Interactive in Plano, Texas. When not working, road cycling, or banging on the piano, he's usually found ranting about design or professionalism on his personal site, Design Pro. You can follow Andy on Twitter.

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  1. 1

    Wow, just the ‘whack’ I needed to remember what I think I knew and sort-of forgot, as well as some new insights, at any rate this is a great article. Thanks.

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  2. 102

    My first design job was for a novelties company that owned hundreds of dot coms selling essentially the same products. I worked with two egomaniacal designers who set the bar really low for professionalism because they were being underpaid as was I. My mistake was instead of following my principles regardless of the situation, I succumbed to the lack of professionalism I was surrounded by. It was my misfortune in the end because it turns out they were less expendable than I. Even though I have a lot of talent and potential the attitudes of my co-workers including my manager, who often slammed her desk, muttered curse words, and never smiled all rubbed off on me and made working there miserable.

    Sometimes you can be in the worst situation but you have to remember what looks good on paper, what’s good for your career, and what future employers will see when they look at your resume. Those first few jobs probably wont be the most professional or best experience you will ever have especially in this economic climate but if you stick to your guns regardless of the numerous eye rolls you will receive something better will be on the other side.

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