Do you think I'm a prima donna?
Everyone thinks that they need to direct a designer. Everyone is a critic and everyone is of stronger strategic mind than a designer. Or so they think. Unless you are a Pentagram partner or work for one, chances are you work in an office where strategists, client service directors, engineers, editors or marketers rule over designers. I write this not to be antagonistic, but to share the view from a designer’s perspective.
It’s not that I mind collaborating. Not even “mind”—I love collaborating. You can’t create work that solves another person’s problem locked away using only your own perspective and whatever empathy you can muster. The other perspectives you’ll gain while collaboratively solving a brief make this way of working essential.
But here’s the thing: Collaborate doesn’t mean that strategists, client service directors, engineers, editors or marketers get to be creative directors or design dictators. And I think it’s up to designers to advocate for themselves in a diplomatic way to avoid this scenario.
My aversion to creative directors who aren’t Creative Directors comes not from a personal place. It’s not about feeling threatened or cheated out of the limelight. I believe that designers should be consulted early and often, and viewed as experts equal to those in other fields because design is a naturally humanist discipline, and one could argue that it’s tied to the very core of why we exist.
While I was visiting family in Philadelphia over the weekend I saw an episode of House Hunters centered on an American man teaching English abroad, looking to upgrade his space in the Czech Republic. The show took us through tours of Communist-era apartments and various other homes until he picked a large unfinished condo. What fascinated me most was the way the man explained working with contractors to turn the space originally designated as a bathroom into a walk-in closet.
"Are you crazy?" They asked. "This should be a bathroom. Why do you need that?"
The old Communist way of thinking, the American man explained, was still heavily ingrained in society—a way of thinking where contractors were there to provide a favor, not take direction for building what would be seen as excess. Whereas in a Capitalist society, he who pays the piper tends to call the tune... even if the tune is a seemingly excessive one. Being mindful of this difference, he explained, was an important and necessary part of getting that closet built.
This illustrates the importance of perspective, and understanding ingrained perspectives of others in order to better work with them.
Designers view relationships as partnerships in which they will add value, especially with our internal colleagues and clients. We bring more to the table than Adobe Creative Suite skills and a knack for putting a pretty polish on other people's concepts.
A quick Google search of “working with creatives” yields an onslaught of insulting articles written by strategists, marketers and executives about how to work with us. Some assume we're prima donnas. But strong-minded creative professionals are not wild horses to be broken in. Creative professionals are just that: professionals. It’s worth stepping back from a heavy business and facts-focused perspective to see the enormous benefits a designer's humanist approach can bring. It’s also worthwhile to remember that both strategic planning and marketing are fairly recent professions compared to design and art direction.
We shouldn’t get hung up on titles and educational backgrounds, either. I’ve seen strong art directors and copywriters veer off the traditional track and be promoted into the strategy realm, and yet you’d be surprised at how many raised eyebrows you’ll encounter as a designer if you express a desire to make this move. And it doesn't balance out. Strategists and marketers, and everyone in between and above, have no problem owning "creative" when it suits them. If only designers were afforded the opportunity to own "strategic" as often. My theory is that fitting people into nice, neat little boxes makes us all feel a lot more comfortable, and trying to break out of the box someone else who perceives themselves to be more valuable has placed you in creates a certain kind of uneasiness in them.
As design becomes ever more involved with business, and until the business world begins to value a humanist approach, we’ll continue to see the same polarization. I don’t believe that one side should move entirely to the other or dominate the other. I believe it’s a matter of both sides moving just a little closer together. I want to see business classes being taught in design schools, and design theory classes being taught in business schools. I want to see design theory offered as part of every company’s Learning and Development, and I want to see corporate “Mini MBA” courses open to designers. Not to make suits into creatives and creatives into suits—instead, to give each a chance to peer into the mindset of the other and learn to collaborate better with the other.
I read it more than 18 years ago, but I’ll never forget Atticus’ advice in To Kill a Mockingbird:
"First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
The way he puts it is very Silence of the Lambs, but the advice is timeless and will always ring true: Compassion is based on empathy, on being able to put ourselves in another person’s place to understand why they act the way they do, even if we don’t agree.
If each side allowed the other to teach them and embraced being taught the role of the other, maybe we'd end up with a few CEOs and Executive Creative Directors inspired to try to swap positions. And would that really be so bad? Worst case, we'd all get the chance to fancy ourselves King, or Prima Donna, for a day.