Drop Your Ego, Mr. Perfect Designer!
You're embarking on your dream career: web or graphic design. So what might be your biggest obstacle along the way? Programming snafus? Difficulty finding clients? Well, perhaps you could take a look in a mirror right now. You see that attractive person staring back at you? That person could actually become your greatest stumbling block.
That's because many designers let their egos interfere with their success. If your ego goes unchecked, it throws frequent temper tantrums, like toddlers craving juice.
Drop Your Ego
An Example of What Not to Do
Here's a parable to illustrate the self-centered artist syndrome, the belief that your ideas are better than everyone else's. John was a young designer who set up shop just outside of Los Angeles in 2009. He was fortunate to have access to a large pool of wealthy clients, thanks to his popularity at an elite college and to his father's contact list – his dad was an influential L.A. businessman. So from the start John worked for major firms throughout Southern California.
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He had a strong belief in his ideas, so strong that if a client rejected his first pitch, or asked for improvements, he'd invariably say something like: "I'm sorry, but I don't believe our working relationship can continue. You clearly don't see the brilliance on display before you." Within two years, John was employed as a teller at one of his father's banks.
Dealing with Rejection
Most designers, at some point, feel like responding to a customer the way John always did. After all, presenting concepts to customers can be emotionally fraught. You might spend hours laboring on a design; when that design receives cold rejection rather than warm appreciation, you might be deeply hurt. You might even feel like sucking your thumb in the fetal position right there.
The secret to dealing with rejection, however, is to intellectually and emotionally prepare. First, depersonalize the experience. Imagine that the work you're presenting is somebody else's, and tell yourself ahead of time that this design is not a final product but a springboard for revision and greater glory. When you finish a design, try criticizing it yourself – as mercilessly as you can, and out loud.
Literally slap yourself on the wrist if you'd like. That way, you're readier to hear whatever the client might say. In fact, what she does say is likely to sound gentle by comparison.
Handling Badly-Behaved Clients
Now, some clients might be so rude when turning down your work that you feel like throwing your laptop at them. But allowing your ego to flare up – insisting that you alone know the right approach – is not a solution. Neither is getting angry. These reactions inflame the underlying issues, and they make everyone angrier.
If it helps, get together with a group of designer friends every now and then so you can all talk about experiences with clients. These discussions will put matters into perspective; they'll remind you that harsh feedback is part of the designer's life, and that you're far from alone in having creative differences. Also, eat lots of ice cream at these meetings – that way you'll look forward to them more.
Another useful exercise for keeping that old ego in check is to imagine the design experience from your rude customer's point of view. He might be starting a business and making a risky investment. His family's economic situation might depend on the enterprise's success. Thus, he wants the best of everything for this venture, which means the best designs.
As a result, he might want you to keep trying, to give him a multitude of options from which to choose. When you envision the client's plight in this way, you might feel much more empathy for him. You might even feel like giving him a big hug whenever you see him!
Clients Who Request Inferior Work
There's another fact of life that's crucial for designers to acknowledge. Most people don't have an eye for high-quality design. Oftentimes customers prefer clichéd or otherwise inferior work to excellence and originality. Of course, this truth pains creative people of all stripes. For instance, brilliant but unpublished writers may grit their teeth when they see what's making the bestseller lists: novels about teenage vampires with perfect hair or sensitive, misunderstood werewolves.
Even so, being successful means accepting the realities of business. If you feel a client is edging you towards a lackluster design, swallow your pride and provide the best lackluster design you can muster. You may be right about what constitutes better work, but what good is that if you can't afford food? In other words, if you must choose between satisfying your muse and satisfying your stomach, choose the latter.
Is Being Praised Important?
Designers should never be praise-dependent. Rather, bear in mind something that Don Draper, the lead character of the cable drama "Mad Men," once told an employee who wanted a "thank you": the salary we pay you is thanks enough. You probably don't want to follow Don Draper's lead in other areas – for example, all that alcohol on the job probably won't help you concentrate – but this piece of advice is a winner. If a client pays you, then she appreciates your work. Some people are simply hard to please and/or stingy with praise.
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Thus, if all you get in terms of a verbal response is something like: "Yeah, that's OK," don't mope around the house in your pajamas for three days. Your goal should be to earn a living.
As long as your customers approve your work – with or without enthusiastic accolades – you'll keep on doing just that. If it's praise you desire, learn how to make balloon animals and volunteer at kids' birthday parties or or any charitable events.
Open Lines of Communication
Another rule here is, to paraphrase Billy Joel: "Tell your client about it." Clear lines of communication soothe egos. So, at every step, engage in deep designer-client conversations. Begin the process by sitting down with your client and learning all her priorities for the given assignment, all the targets you should meet. And when your initial designs are complete, arrange a meeting lasting at least an hour.
There, unveil your designs slowly, explaining how each meets the requirements she originally established. Then ask her to voice her thoughts and concerns. Take notes. Don't interrupt. Visualize yourself doing the hula on a Hawaiian beach if it helps.
When she's finished, address her points calmly and carefully. Tell her what alterations you can make based on her feedback. If you feel that one or more of her suggestions are blatantly harmful to the design, or if they contradict her initial instructions, point that out in a friendly, non-confrontational manner.
It's OK to defend your work, as long as you're respectful and you back up your points with specific evidence. The best evidence of all, of course, is a client's own words.
Additionally, don't just pay lip service to your client's ideas for revisions. Rather, always be willing to incorporate them into later drafts. In fact, once you're practiced in the art of blending your ideas with the ideas of others, you might find this way of working to be invigorating.
After all, it allows you to stretch yourself artistically. Instead of relying on just your own reservoir of creativity, you have direct access to the creativity of many others. It’s a much bigger sandbox in which to play.
Yes, it’s important to have confidence in your ideas, and in your ability to present those ideas. But whenever you accept a commission, you might ask yourself the following questions.
What's your primary mission? Is it to serve your client, to bring to fruition what she wants to see? Is it to maintain a rewarding career and support yourself and your family? Or is your mission to satisfy your ego?
Is pleasing yourself your ultimate goal, no matter what? In the end, are you a hardworking professional in a highly competitive industry, or are you the next Pablo Picasso?