"The most important thing is to be able to enjoy your life without being fooled by things."
This morning I was crossing the intersection of Denny and Broad, and the truck heading towards me wouldn't stop. It wasn't until my eyes met the driver's gaze that he hit the brakes. Otherwise, he would have mowed me down.
Catching my breath, I couldn't shake from my mind the following thought: He wasn't even there until he saw me.
Just as when I'm in a meeting, or talking with a friend, or driving myself to work, or reading my news feed on Facebook, my mind regularly wanders off on a tangent, taking my everyday awareness with it. It's like my head is just a balloon tethered to my body by a thin red ribbon. When this happens, I lose the ability to understand what people really mean when they want to communicate with me.
This is very problematic, since some of the most important traits of a designer -- and by extension, a human being -- are as follows: to listen, to accept, and to understand.
You listen attentively because you don't know all the answers. As we get older, we increasingly understand how little we have a capacity to know.
You accept what you are being told because it's another person's point of view, no matter whether you agree with it or not.
You understand the essential feelings that your clients need you to express at a fundamental human level. This happens on a plane beyond language, and we attempt to distill those feelings through our practice into tangible things. And we can never afford to be fooled by them. You are not your work.
Continuing on my half-mile walk to, well, work, I couldn't shake this thought: What are the differences between that truck driver and a design client?
Here's my metaphor. You're driving down the street in a Mini. That's your design firm. Up ahead is a big F150 pickup. That's the big client that you want to work with.
Your vehicles -- your businesses -- are designed to zip you about town and protect you. However, simply by their construction, they can't get too close. This creates a set of artificial limitations on how you can relate. You pull up next to each other, roll down the windows, and have a conversation. You exchange phone numbers. Send each other a bunch of emails and texts. You spend a month or two courting each other from your vehicles. Every so often, you can shake hands, but you have to open the door a little.
At one point or another, you have a little fender-bender and the insurance adjusters have to fuss over the little dings and make sure there wasn't any major damage. If there's a major crash, the police might step in. Then you're in front of the judge, pleading your case before a jury of your peers. Everyone loses.
There are a wide range of car makes and models from all over the world. And there are many different types of car owners, from the aggressive weekday commuter to the Sunday driver.
Aggressive drivers -- usually the ones that are late to work all the time and honking at anyone who gets in their way, can practice what I'd call the more ruthless, corporatized form of design business. There's a type of decorum at play in these engagements that can be painfully effective. Somewhat mechanical. Not very human. Crafted to protect each project outcome at the cost of our distance, and perhaps our humanity.
Then, alternatively, there's another style of business engagement that I'm seeing practiced more and more often -- the laid back pedestrian. Instead of a drive-by client engagement, designers ask that their clients park the car, hop out and have a bit of coffee or tea, and get to know each other beyond the business. And, vice-versa, clients will ask designers to do the same.
I've found that the clients that I respect, admire, and keep in touch with as acquaintances and friends are able to find a perfect balance between personal respect and professional courtesy. When you show them creative work, they know that even if the work isn't bang on, you always have their best interests at heart. (Either that, or they were once designers, and know what it really takes to put out great work.)
The laid-back client doesn't hire you because you have the shiniest car or run a design factory. While you may have executed a gazillion logos, and your working process may be razor-sharp, these kinds of clients are savvy enough to understand that you never step in the same river twice. These clients respect the journey that we must take through the design process. They want to go on it with us. They understand that there can be a little meander here or there. We might stop at the boutique on the corner, or have martinis at 4 PM.
These clients demand a level of attention and respect that is merited not because of your fee, but because you really do want them to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
This is the age-old conundrum that working designers face: Choose clients that pay you very realistic fees for design work that is handled as a commodity -- and by extension, your role in the process -- or work with clients that provide you with a level of great respect and compassion as human beings, but may not be able to provide you with a fee that covers your overhead and provides a living wage.
Is this actually true? Do we really need to live in such a dualistic fashion? Are these clients often one and the same, and we just don't connect?
I feel like sometimes we're striving towards an illusion of balance in how we practice design business, questing for that "perfect" client. Every client is different, no mater how we try to conform them to a type. And in the end, they're still people, just like you and me. Why is this fundamental truth about our work so easy to forget? In the heat of some strong feedback, the mind takes over, and all of a sudden we're just arguing about things.
Take a time out, step out of our respective vehicles, and let's go for a walk together. Our collective breath will pool as steam in the cold winter air.
Who knows? On that walk, you might discover something of value far beyond what you can imagine, create, or sell for money.