Everyone is a Designer Except You

Filed under : General Stories

Story 121 of 365

Est. Reading Time 12 minutes

(slight apologies for breaking one of my rules, but it’s been awhile and I’m making up for it)

I have mentioned before my first “Adult Human Person Job“, but not about the reason I quit. This isn’t a self-serving “let me tell you about a rough day at work” rant. There’s a lesson to be learned here, and one that took me many years to learn myself – long after this story took place.

This is a story about how Artists are treated by Numbers People.

Numbers people are analytical about binary decisions : “Does this work?”, “Did the company improve year-over-year?”, “Is this employee worth the money we pay them?”. Artists are far more nuanced : “Will people understand the point I’m making with this piece?”, “Can I justify my feelings about this artistic decision?”, “Did I waste my time trying to make what seemed like a great idea work?”.

The reason the art world is a fucking nightmare filled with grifters, confusion, pack-rats, and shrewd know-nothing assholes is because art is subjective. Numbers are objective. After years of being somewhat jealous of programmers for having an objective job, I became one myself — albeit not a great one, but I can somewhat co-exist in the two worlds. A programmer’s work is judged on an extremely binary scale  of “does it work?”, or to put it into pseudo-code 1I’m well aware that one wouldn’t put return true / false statements within PHP code, nor would they put them after a function call, but I ...continue :

if($ItFuckingWorks == true) {
emailBoss();
return true;
} else {
continueWorking();
return false;
}

As an artist : your job, utility, expertise, and opinion are so constantly questioned that you might pull your fucking hair out in frustration long before you appease the Numbers People. This is one such story.

There’s been some fun videos about design and clients wanting their fucking logo bigger, and I’ve ranted publicly about the “designer’s plight” before, but 20+ years later this interaction still sticks in my fucking craw.

The Story

I was hired on as a Graphic Designer for The Independent newspaper in Phoenix (since the logo is identical, I assume they’re the same the same The Independent in London, but I’ve never been able to nail that down), but I rarely did any actual graphic design work. I worked in their Classified Ads department, which was comprised solely of women over 35 years of age and clearly didn’t need their own damn designer and the boss of the department – Linda – had no idea what a designer did.

My glorious moment of being able to show my skills came just as I was on my way out. My roommate had a job offer lined up for me, making more money, and it involved a binary job : “Did you make the sale, or no?”, but I was sticking it out because I’m, like, an artist or whatever and I feel more, like, fulfilled when I’m, like, expressing my shit and stuff, man.

Linda came to me saying “I’d like to create an ad that advertises our ‘free classifieds’ in an eye-catching way. This is your chance to impress me”.

I was pretty excited, really, because this was my first actual design job. I’d never designed anything for anyone before – it was always either for myself, my band (myself), or for an assignment in my design class (also basically myself) in high school. While sitting there contemplating how to do it and what to say – I saw a nickel sitting on my desk that I’d play with when I was bored. I thought “that’s it!” and popped open my scanner, scanned the nickel, and got to work.

I fucking love minimalist advertising, and I either never get a chance to do it, or I never feel confident enough to do it. The only “collection” of things I have of any note is about 100+ Absolut ads (and the book about the Absolut ads) and I’m so jealous of every designer who gets to work for TBWA Chiat-Day 2while I never accept FB friend requests from people I don’t know, I did get one from a London TBWA employee the other day and I’m still a ...continue because those motherfuckers understand the impact of simplicity.

Anyway, here’s a reproduction of my initial ad (click to embiggen) :

Pretty basic, no? I thought “hey, a picture’s worth 1000 words – I just need it to say a few here”. The support text below the headline basically filled in the details of the offer. That was more than enough space to write out “That’s right! When you place an ad for your common household item that you’re selling for under $1,000, we’ll give you 20 words in our paper, along with your contact information, for 2 weeks for free! When the ad runs out, just give us a call to place it again and it’ll run for another 2 weeks or until you tell us to cancel it. When you’re ready, just give us a call.”

So, here’s convo #13This is as close to accurate as I have, since I was able to find my recollection of it from the week it actually happened with Linda:

Linda : Uhh… well, I like where you’re going with it, but… it needs to say more. It should at least say “THIS is more than…” so people know what you’re referring to.
Me : Isn’t a picture supposed to be worth 1000 words? I can’t get TWO outta that?
Linda : Well, I just think it reads better. It’s a complete sentence that way. It’s just proper english. We like to promote that. Also, it should say “in the Independent” instead of “our paper”. That sounds too generic.
Me : So, they’re not going to know what paper they’re reading, despite our name being on every page PLUS the bottom?
Linda : That’s how we do things, Mitcz. Go change it, please.

I’ve since learned : companies fucking love their fucking name. They want it everywhere they can get it. Seriously, it’s a running theme “make sure our logo is on it – mention our name more”. “But.. sir, the ad just says ‘ShittyCo wishes you happy holidays, what else can I put there?”. “Well, I just want to make sure our logo is on the top and the bottom, so they realize it’s THE ShittyCo, and not just a ripoff using the same name”. Yes, that’s the logic of management people.

Now, the appeasement ad..

(the conversations I’m writing out here are as close to the actual conversations as I remembered them at the time – I’m taking these from a private diary I kept 20+ years ago. I am a snooty bitch sometimes when I feel like I’m being condescended to or treated as if I don’t know any better, so it’s probably mostly accurate)

Linda : Okay… it says ‘more than the cost of an ad’ but it’s not just “an ad” – it’s a classified ad. And, for free items. Cars aren’t included, for instance, you know that.
Me : Yes, I understand that, and that’s why there’s this paragraph of text explaining everything, right here.
Linda : I see nothing about not being able to sell cars in that paragraph.
Me : My bad, this is a mockup. I’ll add that line right now so we can send this off to print.
Linda : No, no… see, people don’t read anything. They’re not going to read that fine print. They’re going to think EVERY ad in our paper is free, no matter what. Our phones will be ringing off the hook.
Me : So, you’re actually telling me that people, READING a paper, aren’t actually reading it and they’ll come across this ad and assume the fine print is just filler, and toss aside the natural American paranoia about everything and just call up a random number to place an ad without reading a single line on the ad?
Linda : Yes, Mitcz. That’s what these people do. Also, we can bring the phone number’s size down a bit, else people might be calling the number before they know why they’re calling it, and bring up the size of the logo (editor’s note : remember what I said about companies and their names/logos?).
Me : Okay – so what about all this fine-print stuff?
Linda : Just make it bigger.
Me : Then people will suddenly decide it’s time to read?
Linda : I’m very busy, come to me with the changes

Managers are also “very busy” a lot of the time. They don’t have time to tell you how to do your job. And they’ll say just that – “I don’t have time for this, you should know how to do your job”. I do know how to do my job. How about we switch places and we’ll see what the fuck you can do in an hour of sitting in front of my computer, and I’ll tell you a new reason every 10 seconds why it’s worthless shit to me?

In all of my years of managing teams while also doing the job of the people I manage, I have yet to figure out what the fuck a manager does with their time. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been one in that capacity – it’s just pretending to look busy and yell at people while pretending to know what the fuck you’re talking about while having no idea what you’re talking about. Seriously : answer for yourself what your fucking manager does all day and I’ll bet you’ll come up short after “well, they… manage… the … uh…”

My next appeasement :

Linda : No, no, no… you didn’t change the headline. I just told you, people aren’t going to read fine print!
Me : You told me to make it bigger. It was 12 point Helvetica, now it’s 16 point Helvetica. That’s pretty big, and not really “fine” print anymore.
Linda : The headline should say “This is more than what it costs to run a classified ad in the independent for household items under $1,000” then give it a phone number, a little smaller, shrink the nickel down, and bring up the logo size a bit more.
Me : If I do that, you’re gonna have a 4-line headline. That’s ridiculous. What’s the fine print going to say?
Linda : The fine print should be large, and should say “Cars may not be placed for sale in the Independent for free, regardless of price. However, we’ll gladly place your vehicle’s classified ad for a small fee. Call us for details.”
Me : Are you serious about this? I’m gonna do it just to show you how bad that looks
Linda : You do that, and we’ll take it to the head of the design department and she’ll tell you otherwise.
Me : And if you’re wrong, can I show her my original and get her opinion?
Linda : Mitcz, you’re young and you’re fresh out of high school. I think you’ve got talent, but you’re not a designer. I didn’t hire you as a designer. Go make the changes I requested and then sit with (designer lady’s name, which escapes me) and she’ll tell you why it’s the preferred ad.

I decided I’d appease her and keep the copies of the ad that I made so I could tell this story to people later in life. I think I still have those copies in a box somewhere, where I’ve also got all the printed papers that show the company logos I “modified” to look like Jesus being fucked in the ass, guys with their cocks hanging out, and a few hidden curse words behind certain areas that probably only I was able to see. I wouldn’t do that kind of thing these days, but – also – you shouldn’t fuck with your designer any more than you should yell at the guy in the drive-thru. He can spit in your food, I can photoshop a penis onto your logo that you won’t see until it goes to print.

Now, this is the pile of shit that my ad became..

The fucking bitchmouth looked over it, said “hmm…” and then “okay, come here” to usher me towards the head of the design department. This is a lady I’d never met before, oddly enough, but I was excited to see Linda be so very fucking wrong. I may not have known much – but I knew that ad was a pile of shit. I put a copy of my original ad in my pocket, to show this designer lady, knowing this was my final showdown. I’m gonna call the designer lady “Sally” cause I can’t remember her name.

Linda : Sally, could you come take a look at this ad, and tell me if we could run this
Sally : Sure.. what ya got there?
Linda : This is an ad that Mitcz did
Me : It’s actually nothing like what I made…
Linda : (now cutting me off) Just let me know your full opinion
Sally : I don’t wanna be rude, but.. Mitcz – where did you go to school?
Me : You mean for design? I took a class in high school
Sally : And they told you to use 18 point Helvetica for support text and 4-line headlines?
Me : No… I…
Linda : (cutting me off again) Can we run this ad?
Sally : Are you kidding me? With a 4-line headline? Why didn’t you just write all of that in the support text? Smaller, support text, no less. And, You could make the headline much cleaner and shorter. Focus on the nickel, that’s what grabs their attention.
Linda : You see, Mitcz? We can’t run this ad.

I was so pissed, I couldn’t even respond. She blamed her design decisions on me. I quit right then and there, saying “Linda – you can go to hell, and I’m going home” and I pulled out the “good one” from my pocket to show to Sally. She said “This is much better”. I responded “Good! Then you can design it for Linda and we can all pretend this whole thing never happened”.

The Lesson

If you’re an Artist up against Numbers People, shit can be tricky. In an ideal situation, you pour a little piece of yourself into everything you do and hope for the best. But, when Numbers People come back with “well, what about…”, a piece of you dies because  you got personally invested in something they basically couldn’t give less of a fuck about but they need to justify The Numbers™. So, you either put your personal feelings aside to get the job done and feel no responsibility one way or another (and cease to give a shit about the final product) or you passionately try to defend your Artistic Vision.

When that happens, you’ll find out they’ve consulted other Numbers People and “artistic people” who have absolutely no business calling themselves artists (a distant cousin, their husband or wife who has a weekend hobby, the other manager who can’t even coordinate their tie-to-pocket-square combo, etc), or actual artist (which means they’re even more opinionated than you are, and you best be in their short list of friends) and you’ll come to realize Everyone Is A Designer Except You.

What I’ve learned is : you compromise accordingly.

When you’re working on a project that someone else has to sign off on, set some mental lines in the sand of which you won’t cross. Ideally, there should be 4-5 of those lines. Once the client, boss, manager, club promoter (hello, I’m still a comedian) breaches 3 of those lines, you call it off. Pick your fucking battles – not all 4-5 of those lines are absolutely uncrossable, and certainly less so the more money they’re willing to throw at you.

If you compromise nothing, you’re either an asshole or a pretentious fuckwit. If you compromise everything, you’re not an artist.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I’m well aware that one wouldn’t put return true / false statements within PHP code, nor would they put them after a function call, but I wanted non-programmers to understand without knowing WTF this code would actually do
2. while I never accept FB friend requests from people I don’t know, I did get one from a London TBWA employee the other day and I’m still a little tempted to accept it because holy fuck!
3. This is as close to accurate as I have, since I was able to find my recollection of it from the week it actually happened