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The benefits of growing a pair

Stefan Sagmeister: A man with balls.

This is a post about courage. Not the Edward Snowden, or even throw-yourself-off-a-cliff-in-a-wingsuit magnitude of courage, but courage nonetheless. Everyday, professional courage.

I once worked on a prospectus for a university. This particular university’s excellent recreational facilities included a bar with pool tables and I remember picking out a picture from the university’s own image bank to compliment a section on the student’s union. I found the perfect picture: two South-Asian female students (the university had a large international pull) smiling and laughing next to the pool table. Cheesy stock photo, you may think – but this was real. Real students having a real good time at a really excellent student hang-out.

The image was rejected by the client. What, why?

“Well, you see, these students are obviously having a really good time, maybe too good a time. You know, as if they may have been drinking alcohol. And they’re Asian. And Asians don’t drink alcohol.”

Wow. I was shocked at the time, but in hindsight I understand what the client was really saying: A considerable segment of their target audience was South-Asian. In some parts of South-Asia alcohol is forbidden, and, even families that do drink might be put off sending their children to a university with a ‘drinking culture’. In other words: There’s a slight chance that this image may be misinterpreted by a small fraction of our audience and we don’t have the testicles to print it – even if it accurately represents one of the great benefits of the university.

Bend over, here it comes again

Fear is common in clients and designers love to moan about it. (Behind their clients’ backs, of course. Saying it to their faces would require courage.) Whether it’s manifested by the all too familiar make my logo bigger itch or design by committee syndrome, fear ultimately leads to bad design and, in turn, grumpy designers who do poor jobs. But what the hell are we doing about it?

Most of us just sit there and take it. BOHICA, someone once said to me in the context of discussing difficult clients and bosses. Bend Over, Here It Comes Again. Doesn’t sit right, does it? Sexual undertones aside, BOHICA paints a picture of cowardly drones who accept whatever’s coming, without a hint of resistance or discussion. Is that what a designer is? Of course not. So why do we do it?

The ironic truth is we do it for the same reasons our clients want to make their logos bigger: we’re scared. Just as our clients are afraid of losing their customers we’re afraid of losing our clients so, in turn, we keep quiet about what’s on our minds. A vicious circle to say the least.

To change this we need courage. Courage to speak up for our design decisions, to show our personalities, to be honest, different and true to ourselves. It’s no use complaining about a client’s lack of chutzpah as long as your own mission statement says “Whatever you say, boss.”

We need to lead by example.

Show your personality

Here’s an idea for an item of self promotion: take a picture of yourself naked, except for socks and a black redaction bar covering your abnormally long (and obviously fake) penis. Now send it to the people you want to work with and watch the clients come running through the door. That’s pretty much what Stefan Sagmeister did, and it was so successful he convinced Jessica Walsh and the rest of their staff to redo it 19 years later.

Sure, you say, but Stefan Sagmeister can do things like that because he’s a legend. Not true. Well, he is a legend, but that’s because he does things like that – not the other way around. So what’s stopping the rest of us from exposing us to the world? Fear is what. Fear of putting potential clients off, fear of looking silly, fear of offending people.

At Primate we don’t generally take our trousers off in front of our clients, but at the very least we try not to censor ourselves too much. We’re honest about who we are and we speak our mind on our blog. Sure, some people may be offended by the occasional swearword and not everyone will agree with our opinions or like our sense of humour. But the ones that do connect with us in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we hid behind corporate censorship – and those are the clients we want (you know who you are).

Here’s the thing. Companies are made up from people, and people tend to hire other people, not companies. Sure, if you show your personality (we all have one) in a professional environment some people may dislike you, but if you don’t, no one will like you either. And that would be worse.

Change your situation

Well, I’d like to show a bit more courage but it’s not my decision, I hear you say. My creative director won’t show clients my courageous ideas, you moan. My MD doesn’t care about creativity; our social media manager censors my company blog posts; I’m not allowed to speak my mind at design meetings. Etcetera.

Newsflash: you can change this. Speak to your management. Tell them you’re frustrated, do your research and convince them courage pays off. If that doesn’t work, find a more daring employer – or start up on your own.

Almost three years ago I quit my steady job, married my best friend, spent half of all my money travelling around India and the other half setting up Primate. Now, in the grand scheme of things I’m not a particularly brave man. In fact, if Edward Snowden is a brave chihuahua barking at the den of Fenrir, I’m that little chihuahua’s turd on the sidewalk.

But I’ve never been happier.

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Author: Espen Brunborg

Espen can easily ruin a great conversation with questions about chimneys.

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