That Dirty Word — “Creative.”

04.12.2010 / Author: Speider Schneider

I needed my appendix removed so while being wheeled into surgery, I told the doctor I only budgeted $200 for the operation but if I liked his work, I had other organs he could remove down the line at a higher fee. I asked if he wouldn’t mind if I had a few people look over his work and make some suggestions on how he performed the operation. One of them was my 10 year-old son because he was a whiz at the game “Operation.” When I came to, I was in the gutter wearing nothing but a hospital gown and my appendix still rupturing.

I see nothing wrong with what I said as my work as a designer seems to be open to such negotiations and “design by committee.” Clients almost always have a child who does creative finger painting and therefore are used as barometers of good design. A recent client, while sitting at a bar had my logo design redrawn by an alcoholic college student on a cocktail napkin and he showed me it in a fit of inebriated excitement. After an hour of my showing him why pencil sketches wouldn’t translate to size, color and readability, he still didn’t understand why the drunken scrawls wouldn’t work.

People never really question the work or bills of Doctors, lawyers and plumbers. They do their job and people accept the work because they are trusted professionals — and they themselves can’t perform the work. So why do people think creatives are easily replaced, functional morons? Although I have a diploma from one of the most respected art schools in the world and a client list of the Fortune 100, some people still seem to think I need help doing my job.

Having put the question of design by committee on LinkedIn, most creatives joined in to complain about the lack of trust they receive in a professional setting. The “design by committee” is not a helping hand but a slap in the face that daily sends a message to the entire staff that a creative is incompetent in their ability to do the job for which they were hired. If a creative, however, joins in with suggestions for marketing, writing or sales for the “team vision,” they are “out of their league” or “stepping on toes.”

On the other side, the non-creatives had a different view. As one “suit,” as he referred to himself put it, “I have to have the confidence that the design solution is meeting the needs of the client and is achieving strategic/tactical goals. Because of that, if there are elements of your design that I’m uncomfortable with, I will call them out, and in some cases, will nix them. Similarly for the client; they have to be comfortable about how their own brand is being presented, how their market will react, even how their own staff will react.”

“How their market will react.” That should be the only concern. Can all of these people be appeased and still have the graphic message work? Should they be appeased or should the suit sell the design, writing and images as the proper method for the best communications to the consumer? Can a proper message work with the “suit” being the one taste censor not schooled in how colors make people react emotionally or how size relationships push the eye around the page but instead playing to individual egos? With this in play, is it any wonder consumers label most commercials and ads as “lame?” Third rate is the new first rate. Expectations have been lowered but increased ROI is still the number one concern.

I blame the home computer and the average person convincing themselves that design is easy because they can create a child’s party invitation using clip art and Brush Script (all upper case) in MS Word. The current economic downturn just might signal that it is not the case and calls for innovation in a company’s products and client/consumer retention and outreach should spell out that creatives hold the key to the thinking that will open a world of possibilities.

Those who managed to put forth creative innovation always did the breakthrough work in the creative field. The risk-takers. The mavericks. The people who sought to be different and distinguish their work from the crowd of copycats, and those who dumbed down innovation. Too many cooks creating a thin broth – pleasing all, and none.

People often ask me, in light of my work for well-known brands, how I get my ideas. “I’m creative,” I reply.

They stand there with a blank look because the word means nothing to them. It’s not tangible. It’s like breathing – we all do it naturally. Perhaps I should just announce that my two small children will be joining my studio because they are creative, as seen in their art class drawings and they will be art directing my client’s big budget branding projects. I wonder if it will be met with a satisfied smile of relief or that same blank look when I tell them to trust me because I’m creative?

Speider Schneider is a former member of the Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, Hallmark Cards, among other professional failures and embarrassments and writes for assorted newspapers, web sites and blogs. You can reach him through his blog or on Twitter.

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54 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. 04.13.2010

    Great post. Sounds all too familiar.

  2. 04.13.2010

    I love the Doctor analogy. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to educate the client better in order to avoid the committee approach? Or thoughts on how to better manage a committee so that they keep the end goal in mind instead of personal preferences?

  3. 04.13.2010

    That post is brilliant! It happens in the web design world too.

  4. 04.13.2010

    You are spot on in your analysis. I’ve noticed that this awful attitude is strongly correlated with the size of the client organization in question. The bright side is that appreciative people who really do value your talents are out there, but they are usually the entrepreneurial, small business types, not “suits”.

  5. syugoff

    All too true!

    Check this out. It’s good for a laugh

    • 04.13.2010

      Love that one. Ever see this one?

    • 04.14.2010

      @syugoff and @Speider : those vids are so funny and revolting at the same time. Could you imagine one client asked me to do a printing job without paying anything before and to take the risk of not being paid after (in case their product does not work). All of that on confidence and the fact we are from the same church!!!

    • 04.14.2010

      @Philippe: My own uncle used to do that to me (nephew art). Died owing me thousands.

      We all have the same stories. It’s just part of the service we offer with a smile.

  6. 04.13.2010

    When design by committee is the norm, chances are that the art director has been beaten down so much, they will sit in the meeting, looking forlorn and being silent. Comments will fly from different people and the person running the meeting will say, “okay, get to those changes.”

    You must sum up the changes aloud so nothing has been missed and you don’t take on any directions that contradict each other. Follow up with a written email brief of changes. You may attempt to address each change and ask why the person thought it would make a stronger design. They will more often than not have no reason other than they “like” a certain color or font or image. Even gently attempting to steer them off that change will insult their sense of empowerment and contribution. You will be seen as “difficult.”

    You can kiss an incredible amount of ass and compliment each person’s contribution and “expand” on the great suggestion and steer the design back a bit. You will excite people that you recognize their contributions as legitimate design ability.

    You can turn to the art director after the round of suggestions and ask them to sum it up after the meeting. You can, if the job is hourly, relate the extra costs involved, or, if a set fee, say that the changes will exceed the changes spelled out in your contract (you DO have a contract, right?).

    Whatever response you choose, chances are the committee will rule. Do the job and move on. We are a service industry. Take the one job every now and then that will give you creative satisfaction and use that in your portfolio. Let the mangled designs fade away and the money made be spent wisely.

    • Daniela

      @speider – I really enjoyed your summary. I think everybody who has something to do with creative process encountered this situation. Love to hear other views on this subject.

  7. 04.13.2010

    This is a great read! So true.

  8. 04.13.2010

    Great article. I once worked for a client who wanted me to display some interesting graphics (which I would consider… 1999 standard). I understand client requirements, but for some reason their team believed they had a lot more creative integrity than I had.

    I ended up completing the job but have not displayed it in my portfolio. I will never understand why designers will never get the respect they deserve from their clients.

  9. 04.13.2010

    Very well written and so full of truth. Now that we have all know the problem, whats the solution? We all have this happen, but how are we solving it or finding ways to make it work for us?

    • Tom D

      Did you honestly just compare being a designer to being a doctor? Ego check time. Odd that you find it difficult to transfer that sense of self-worth to your clients. If you want respect, demand it.

    • 04.14.2010

      @Tom: No. I compared two professions and why design is thought of as one that payment and respect are negotiable. I don’t believe I wrote with a stutter or in some tribal clicking language.

      What other professions have a constant negotiation phase? What other professional is asked for free work? Respect starts with the value people see in the person, service or product. An intangible, such as design in the minds of people who believe creativity is upon all creatures, cannot have value yet we do not see the packaging that sways us to buy a product, a print ad we pin up because it pleases our senses, a brochure that is not a struggle to read because it is well laid out with a sensible font and color range. They are there because they were designed by professionals.

      Look around you and all you see is design. Billboards, signs, menus, etc. If it fails it’s purpose it’s a waste of money. Would you want your product marketed by those who don’t know marketing?

      Respect is earned, they say. Not demanded or seized. My good clients know and trust me but as one expands their business, new clients are introduced and there will be those that can be taught to see design through personal preference and those who make the project simply a paycheck.

  10. 04.14.2010

    Thank you for posting this! I’m hoping this somehow makes it around to some business blogs. The “suits” really need to read and understand this.

  11. the other side

    medicine is a science.. creative is not.

    apples and oranges.

    • 04.19.2010

      You think Science isn’t full of educated guesses?… Last time i looked it was made up of guesstimates and hopes… you think no-one has ever died because of a bad guess? Oh and the Hadron Colider… did anyone know 100.0000% that it wasn’t possible to cancel out existence for sure? No. So get off your horse.

      Aesthetics have also been picked apart infinitely to the point where they could be considered a field of science.

      While i don’t pretend that designers will ever be held aloft as some other professions, even though the training and experience input can be the same. I would however like to see a little more respect for the ‘creative’ industries.

  12. 04.14.2010

    I can relate to this post, it happens to me all the time. It is a sad thing, but what do we do about it?

  13. 04.14.2010

    Thanks for that great article, you really spoke my mind!

    I’ve been working on a new team (all Marketing and Sales People) for a couple of weeks and now and everytime I design something the “committee” thinks it needs to start redesigning everything.

    It makes me so angry and I just wanna scream out loud that I’M THE GOD DAMN DESIGNER and I know what I’m doing, but I don’t want to sound…I don’t know….arrogant or step on anyone’s toes. It’s not that I don’t appreciate their comments, some do make sense, but when they say things like “that font size should be 15” it just goes to far….

    How do you handle that? Do you tell people nicely that they should trust you more in your design decisions or what would you advise me to do?

    • 04.14.2010

      Hand hold. Look pensive and nod a lot when they are giving you changes. Say, “let me go over this so I know exactly what you want.”

      As you address each change, explain why you made certain decisions, apologetically offer it out as part of your service/job to explore the best solutions, and there are many. Ask if they like the idea of expanding on their suggestions and, if you stay calm and think quickly, usually you can steer some decisions back on track.

      It’s customers/clients/coworkers. You have to play the game and use the system as best you can. Educate when you can, pick your battle wisely and learn how to be flexible.

      As for staff situations, I have told people that they are not in a position to request changes. That brought bad feeling between myself and them and the rest of their department. I have asked, after having a layout torn apart, why this person thought I was unable to do my job properly. I was labelled “difficult.” Best advice — see previous paragraph.

    • 04.14.2010

      How do you handle it? When it’s with your own team the obvious solution is to discuss it. Maybe those sales/marketing guys have a very good reason for the font size need to be 15. Maybe they’ve got some very excellent stats to prove that in this situation, for this market, 15 is the perfect size for that bit of text.

      “I’m the designer” doesn’t cut it. Everyone needs to justify their reasoning for their designs/suggestions, whether they’re the designer or the marketer. With extensive experience and training in design principles and theory it’s likely the designer is right about a lot of things. But with their own fair share of user testing and research the marketers may also have a very good case.

      Clients are a different story though…

    • 04.14.2010

      Very true, @John. To be a professional, a designer has to know the right questions to ask to put forth a proper communication piece and marketing people should have imparted the 15 point rule up front. That’s a proper creative brief. Every job has its parameters. The magic we do is taking all of the information and tying it up into a cohesive package that fits the purpose. Goo, sound suggestions are akin to proofreading on occasion. Often, at least in my experience, suggestions come from random egos who need to hear their voices or want to brag how they “oversaw the design” on a successful initiative. Now, when the initiative fails because the communication of the output is a mishmash of opinions in colors, fonts and spacial relationships, who will take the fall? Come on…you know the answer to this one.

  14. 04.14.2010

    Good read. I think every designer is familiar with this. So, how do we handle this problem? I’ve read a lot of valid concerns on various blogs, but few solutions. Are the large company “suits” simply hopeless? Or is there a way to approach these clients in a constructive way in order to meet their needs AS WELL AS the designer’s? How do we change the way people think about designers?

  15. 04.14.2010

    This post is something that has been said time and time again, and whilst I can happily sit on my pedestal complaining about the moronic actions of purely ignorant clients, I can’t help but feel the industry has brought it on itself somehow.

    Web design encompasses much more than it’s name would imply, and there are even professionals out there that don’t understand this. You need exposure to sales environments, you need to understand how strategic marketing works and you need to have a strong grasp of usability and your target demographic.

    This is why, and I can’t blame them, marketing and sales get involved with the production process.

    Creating a great and effective website cannot be compared to installing a boiler. If anything, the closest I can only compare that to that would be a programmer, who’s work is more linear and systematic.

  16. 04.14.2010

    Yes, true and sad. I went through so many presentations and I’ve seen it all. One issue is the fact that there are organizations/individuals who consider the design department or the freelancer’s work just a decorative service. In other words, they believe that designers are just sketch boys who know how to do nice illustrations and have no clue about printing, manufacturing, assembly, cost, marketing and so on. Perhaps letting them know that we understand their business and our work is based on that will help. It comes to how you say it, not what you say.

  17. nicktalop

    ROI is the key here, where it stands for Return On Incompetence. And it definitively is the number one concern of many designers.

  18. 04.14.2010

    A colleague of mine said that it has all to do with the visuals. In plastic surgery it will be way more like designing, people can see it! Thanks for the great post!

  19. 04.14.2010

    Brilliant post!

  20. 04.14.2010

    I love the Doctor analogy, that was really funny and spot on

    We’ve been having this debate forever. We have no idea why clients can’t treat designers as professionals. But truth hurts. A lot of things related to our industry (be it web, graphic design, animation, programming and more) can be found on the Internet, for free. Inspirations, tutorials, theories, books etc – name it!

    I guess this is one the reasons why people just can’t treat us as professionals. They think it’s a hobby? Something easy to do? A career where you don’t have to have a degree to excel? *shrugs*

    But I see a lot of differences with design agencies, big companies, *ehem* design rockstars – most professionals respect these people. I wonder why.. perhaps, to be respected in this industry, you have to come up with theories & cults other fellow designers in the community will adhere to? Or instead of selling your creativity & work, sell yourself first as a professional designer without actually talking about your work?

    That’s what I see most of these group of people do anyway

  21. 04.14.2010

    I get that the whole premise is facetious, but it’s not just ‘creatives’ – it’s everyone.

    In fact, you need look no farther than your doctor analogy. Find a general practitioner, and ask them what they think shows like ER and internet sites like Wikipedia and WebMD have done to their trade!

    Everyone believes they have a right to an opinion on everything- and they do. I’m actually _for_ the idea that people question me; if they choose to over-rule me they’ll either be right, and successful, or wrong, and be less successful.

    As long as you’re putting forward your best work, I don’t think you can complain because people want to have an opinion. I’m an experienced software engineer, but it doesn’t mean I’m never wrong, nor does it mean that an unqualified client has never been right.

  22. dwilder

    In web design there is Jacob Nielsen, self anointed “usability Guru,” who is simultaneously used as a crutch and a cudgel to maintain a level of uniformity that rewards the lowest common denominator at the expense of any real conceptual rethinking of how we organize groups of data.

    Just imagine if slang was not considered an essential characteristic in the ongoing creation of language.

    I assume our original premise did not include a prohibition against new ideas. It’ just seems more expedient when creativity is sacrificed in favor of crowd control.

  23. 04.14.2010

    Fantastic read. I have been there many, many times. The lack of respect seems endemic in creative industries. I’m a writer, but my experience is the same. Everyone thinks they have valuable input, even when they have no idea what they’re talking about.

  24. 04.14.2010

    I pretty much agree, happens to us developers too :/

  25. Vinay

    Very Nice analysis!! Facing same problems!!

  26. 04.14.2010

    I would share my thoughtful comments, but you have said it all very well. I’ll defer to your judgment! Great post!

  27. Ed

    Excellent post – it’s like someone who thinks they can shoot a Hollywood movie because they’re a film buff.

  28. 04.15.2010

    Great post….

  29. 04.15.2010

    I used to think it happened only in my city… Yet, here, it goes even worst; what can you do when the technicians at the printing service provider start making creative decisions on YOUR work… And the client APPROVES it?

    And when your boss is just an ascended printer operator who just “don’t like any of those crappy old-looking fonts; use only Arial, that’s a good, clean font”?

    The Doctor metaphor is great. Once i told something like that but referring to lawyers… i mean, almost nobody tries to tell a lawyer how to do his (her) job.

    • 04.15.2010

      I had a boss who thought Helvetica was a “modern, MTV-ish font.” He also hated using circles or ovals in a layout. Squares, rectangles and Helvetica were the approved design parameters.

  30. 04.16.2010

    Great post.

    I don’t completely agree with your comparison of doctors and designers, especially because people have two completely different approaches to these professions, one being personal (the doctor) and one being business (the designer).

    Doctors also have a far more standardized education and job than designers. In theory everyone that has a computer with a graphics program can call oneself a designer (even if their not), it’s not like that with doctors.

    I think the big problem is that clients don’t trust designers because there are so many different designers with different quality and ability levels.

    • 04.16.2010

      Thanks. The comparison was not about what a person goes through to become a professional but the practice of asking for discounts, freebies and directing the work of a professional.

      It’s true that if you can pay the tuition for art school, you are in. Talent be damned. Usually years in the industry weed out the third stringers but, of late, I have seen too much third rate work. It’s all about the initial investment these days and not the ROI and that’s the thinking that has this nation in such a mess.

  31. 04.19.2010

    Currently reading a great book that dives into this even deeper. Its “a fine line” by Hartmut Esslinger who is an exceptional Industrial Designer and is the founder of frog design. I would really recommend it to any designer who is looking to learn ways of convincing the “suites”!

  32. PJ

    As a fellow creative, I really think the problem is not with clients, it’s with creatives. Let’s face it, no one will die if you screw up a logo. Surgery on the other hand…

    Also, I happen to believe that the client a) knows way more about their business and audience than I ever will, b) has to love the design solution I provide, or they won’t use it. Before you know it, they will hire a starving college kid and redo your work.

    Sorry, but that’s how it works. If you want a lasting relationship with a client who trusts you, you have to persuade and give a little.

    Ok? Ok.

    • 04.23.2010

      The real world, for better or worse.

      Not to beat a dead horse but, again, the parallel was drawn to illustrate that in PROFESSIONS, only creative services are open to negotiation and the opinion of children (too many stories out there with someone mentioning how their child approved/disapproved of something. God knows why but there have been reports of people behaving oddly on this planet). Certainly we all know that to be the case, even after delivery when the bill is “questioned.”

      I don’t want to sound like a complainer when, after all, the point of the article was to identify and air a problem we all face. If this happened too much I would be writing more…and I am, but that’s another story.

      The humorous side of me, which is asleep right now, makes me point out that if the business “dies” because the branding or marketing isn’t effective and the designer knows it, well, at least we don’t have to pay for malpractice insurance. Oh, SNAP!

      Thanks for reading, everybody!

  33. 04.27.2010


    I appreciate your follow-up comments even more than the article itself– I suppose its purpose was to elicit feedback from others, and obviously it did.

    It takes time and experience in our profession to understand what it means to provide a service that is helpful to a client and that is, in turn, worth paying for. Judging from your comments it sounds as though you know this very well.

    From my perspective, I can generally tell within the first ten minutes of an introductory conversation with a prospective client whether the light is green, yellow, or flashing RED.

    In the end, if we have clear perspective we can choose not to work with flashing reds. If we’re hard up for cash and have a team on payroll that needs work, well then maybe we just have to take on the project and be a little better at keeping the client happy and steering the project toward a billable conclusion. They don’t teach those skills in design school.

    Savor the few opportunities to exercise self expression and “creative brilliance.” Even better, take on a self-inflicted project and enjoy being your own client. There’s a lot to learn from this as well.

    Thanks for the post.

  34. Tobe

    The old saying. Don’t get a dog and bark yourself.

  35. Sondra

    Try being a free lance writer! I’ve come to believe that copy editors are spawns of the devil. How about sending in a piece and seeing it in print with not a sentence left intact but with your name still on it?
    Everyone thinks they are creative? Everyone thinks they can write!

  36. 10.07.2010

    You really hit the nail on the head here, Speider. Obviously, this has been discussed and complained about many times before, but you neatly and concisely illustrated the fundamental double-standard we all feel in the design profession.

    Sadly, this situation seems to have always existed and I’m not sure it will change any time soon. In fact, I think it’s getting worse. I’m tired of trying to “educate” the client — there are plenty of smart people I’ve worked with for many years who still don’t get it. For some reason, it seems they don’t want to get it. The best I can do is put my opinions out there and hope that I’m doing my part to make things better, even if in a small way. We all need to keep fighting the good fight.

    But isn’t it fortunate that we creative people also find it so easy to laugh?!!

  37. 10.07.2010

    You’re talking about a completely subjective form of media and communication. More accurately, there is no way to validate or qualify that your ‘blue’ is bluer than mine. Or our clients for that matter. And I’m glad. What a boring world it would be.

    Another issue, maybe the worse of the two, is that many people within the committee do not know how to contribute in a constructive manner. Hence, many heads and only one wrist. People lose objectivity when their accountable.

    Art requires no explanation. Design is an explanation. Design loses it’s balance and beauty when it becomes accountable to anything other than the message–no matter what strategy or barrage of opinions accompany the critique.

  38. 04.11.2011

    This is true my dear friend. Totally agreed. Anyways nice post…