Written by Russell Shaw
Posted on September 21, 2016
Four years ago, I experienced a moment that is rare to most people: the chance to hang out with my idol.
Stefan Sagmeister was set to speak at a conference in Atlanta for which I designed a visual identity and promotional materials. The organizers asked if I would like to host him during his stay. This would involve picking him up at the airport, getting him to the venue, ensuring he had what he needed during the event, and taking him back to the airport to catch his flight that evening.
I immediately said “yes.” He was my favorite designer and had been for years. I remember discovering “Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far” in college; that book helped solidify visual design as my desired field (and helped teach me that design could be gritty, human, and full of personality and craft).
Once the reality of the responsibility set in, however, a lot of nerves followed. My car was completely falling apart. The leather on the passenger-side door was peeling off and was being held up by electrical tape, and the air conditioning was out (bear in mind this was Atlanta, in the summer). It was a little embarrassing, to say the least.
I picked Sagmeister up at the airport and felt relief when he was kind and personable, and did not seem to mind about the less-than-ideal chariot to the venue. He reminisced about one of his first clients, who was headquartered in Atlanta, and traveling to our city on a business meeting when he was just getting started. They tasked him with creating an icon for a small button that should represent activating a bidet, and how it was actually pretty challenging to come up with an effective, tiny symbol for washing your butt.
He also asked a lot about me and my work – how I got into design, how I saw the field, and what I wanted to do. It felt strange to spend time talking to Sagmeister about myself, but Atlanta has horrendous traffic, which on that day worked in my favor, so we had a couple of hours. At the end of my spiel, he nodded and told me it sounded like I was on a “similar trajectory” as he when he was beginning. I was floored. And then he volunteered to give advice he wished he had received when he was in my shoes.
He said that I should pick a place that most resembles the type of studio I would want to someday open myself, go work there for a year or two, and consider it as real-world “graduate school.” There is a business side to the design industry that has nothing to do with theories or aesthetics, and it will be best learned by seeing it in practice by others.
I took this to heart. But I’m also stubborn, so I had to follow the advice in my own way.
I looked around at the studios that were here at the time and, to be honest, I couldn’t find something that looked anything like what I wanted to build myself. The design groups whose ethic and ethos I found compelling were located in far away places, and I didn’t have the resources to pack up and leave (as an aside, this is a central beef of mine with current creative conference keynotes on the vague platitude of dropping everything to “follow your passion” because, hey, for those of us bootstrapping things, rent is real and we’re simultaneously just trying to make it).
So I worked at a smattering of places that had aspects of what I wanted. And I also worked in places that turned out to be nothing like what I wanted at all – and those proved just as helpful, in their own right. I observed everything. And it turned out that the advice was spot on. Getting a real design education requires life learning that is beyond what any art school program can teach you.
Here are four “notes from class,” so to speak.
At one agency, I learned that design managers work with a pool of junior- to mid-level designers, and then turn it around and sell the work to clients for an enormous markup. As a younger designer, I thought, “Hey, this work was not guided or improved upon by someone senior – we sent this work out exactly as I created it but the firm is charging a way higher rate.” At first, this was a bitter realization; later, it proved to be a powerful one. It helped me realize that I was almost always undervaluing whatever it was that I was creating for someone else.
I think a lot of people have a pretty constant problem with underpricing what they offer. Working inside of an agency’s team on bids, I began to realize that a reasonably-sized business often has an ample marketing budget, that they intend to use it, and that designers need not be timid to request of it for their work.
Underpricing yourself does not do favors for anyone. It’s going to burn you as the designer out quickly because the model will prove unsustainable over time, and it will also ultimately devalue the goods and services that you are offering. If the contracting company feels a bit of skin in the game then they will see you as a partner. Good agencies know this. They know how to price competitively, yet understand that the value of what they offer and that pricing helps position them as a trusted confidant and not just a hired hand.
To sum it up: everything is worth a lot more than you think. If what you are offering to a company is going to elevate what they do, that should be worth something to them. Plus, there’s just not that many people who can do whatever it is that you’re trained to do and do it well – and that is not said only to boost your self-esteem. What seems simple to you is totally foreign to someone trained in a different field. You are bringing value to the table, and that should be something valued indeed.
2. Quality Work and The Value of Big Teams
Another agency-side realization was that if I can produce this stuff on my own with just a dash more intentionality and personal care, I can offer something premium to people. Agencies run on tight timelines which often necessitate turning and burning projects. This sometimes makes the team miss opportunities for exceptional work because they are forced to skip deeper creative thinking in order to start making. Observing this, I made a commitment to myself that, if I ever open a shop of my own down the road, I only want to take on work that we can do properly. I do not believe in attaching my name to something that does not live up to my own standards.
A converse of this was also a realization of what I am not able to offer as a freelancer: those studios never have to turn down work. They have larger teams poised to always accept newer and larger clients. They have a steady pool of great talent to throw at whatever comes in the door. On the other hand, I regularly have to dismiss work – something that is never easy, disappoints the prospective client, and makes me fear “what if I just missed out on something great” (which, in hindsight, I definitely have – a couple of times). On my own, there’s only one of me to go around. I can only take on so much. I have accepted that and now try hard to curate specific clientele that produce the best working relationships and allow for the best and most creative work.
3. Consultants and Pete’s from Mad Men
Be wary of studios that position themselves as design-centric but don’t have much current work to show for it – they’re actually just vague strategy consultants. That’s not a knock on strategy consulting, but you should know what you’re getting into and know that there will not be much of a maker’s spirit. Almost every time, the value of your design work will be trumped by the value of the account.
I’ve seen “account executive” done very well, and I’ve seen it done very poorly. It can be an extremely valuable thing when done well. It can be a person who helps translate business goals into design projects between the client and the designers. And vice versa. Some designers can quickly get tangential about a font or a particular user interface element, and a good account executive knows how to speak both languages so that jargon gets translated into business solutions that help sell the work.
What can make things go very, very wrong is when the account executive sees his or herself as being on the side of the client rather than the go-between. At that point, a designer finds his or herself making a “Final-Final-FINAL_Version_26.pdf” change because there’s no one advocating on behalf of design to the client, and the client ultimately dictates the design at the expense of the design team’s expertise. This will make the designers feel like someone else is using them as a button to push and out comes “graphic design,” rather than trusting them as trained professionals. It will feel bad. They should talk to someone about it. If it doesn’t get better, they should leave.
4. What Branding Really Is
This was a big one.
Working with design firms and studios, you often do not realize what is really involved in building a brand. I didn’t get this for a while – and I think most designers don’t get this until they work for a company outside of an agency setting. When you are part of a contract design team who has been hired by a client company to create “branding,” this often translates into creating a certain kit of parts – a logo, color and type recommendations, an asset library – and a collateral system – a web design template, a stationery system, perhaps a poster or brochure. And once the agreed upon work order is completed, you as the design firm are able to walk away. You think, “Okay. That company is branded.”
In reality, what you have done is only a small piece of the puzzle.
This really became apparent to me working in-house with companies – some of them over the span of years. After an outside firm leaves, we are left to figure out what it all means. A brand is more than a logo; it’s any and every experience that a person has with your company, and what he or she thinks about your company after such an interaction. So even with a nice kit of parts and collateral system, real branding is how it fits together years later – still miraculously being consistent yet somehow not becoming old, stagnant, and “done before.” It’s a challenge.
Strict style guides based around current trends are not very helpful when an in-house team needs to create a new marketing campaign several years after the style guide is complete. It’s tough. I don’t have a real solution for this yet. This was a big realization for me: style is – truly – just kind of… whatever. It matters, but it also really, really does not. It’s fleeting. If it looks fine and is on trend, sure, that’s okay to push it out into the world – but just don’t put all your eggs in that basket because the style and trend will be different the next day. “Style” is not branding.
And it was an important realization working inside of companies over longer periods of time that the real brand is something very fluid and dynamic. It has to be built upon over time – somehow being unified with the old yet “new” at the same time. My only takeaway thus far is that the initial branding needs to leave lots of room for growth, and that contracted firms need to understand that the work of maintaining and growing the brand will remain long after they are gone. This means approaching the in-house design team with respect and humility – helping establish standards for them to follow, and realizing that ultimately the success of the branding work will rely on their ability to interpret what you’ve done creatively once you’re gone.
I once worked with a consultant who had a client that was trying to interpret what to do with their visual identity system. It was a big surprise to me for that project to come in the door, because it was a system designed by a fairly renowned designer whom I admired (and still greatly do) and the project received high accolades and awards when it was launched. But when we spoke to them, while they still really loved the design work, they were confused and didn’t know how to move forward a few years later and create something that felt “new” and compelling. The marketing was struggling to remain relevant. It was eye-opening. This is all much more complex than I could have imagined when I was just starting out and thought that “branding design” could ever have a definite beginning and a definite end.
* * *
These are just a few observations made over the past few years. But the overarching principal is one that I aim to make lifelong: never stop learning. Take in everything that’s happening around you, and learn from others who have gone before you. The work that we do requires a lot of business-side thinking that has nothing to do with aesthetics and is not taught in art school. So find those who are doing it well and observe them. But even in ten, twenty, or thirty years, hold on to the humility that there is more to be learned and always room for growth.
“There is a business side to the design industry that has nothing to do with theories or aesthetics, and it will be best learned by seeing it in practice by others.”