Responding to the Response

Posted in graphic design, Life Sucks by DCroy on 29 June 2009

Note: I don’t mean for this to look like a point-by-point rebuttal, because that always seems kind of needlessly aggressive to me. But I’m including Mr. Knowles’s text and my reactions together as a convenience so readers don’t have to jump back and forth between posts.

First off, I thought the response was kind of fascinating. Commenter Martin beat me to it, so I can’t claim originality, but I would like to expand on this peek behind the curtain of the design agency process. And I do appreciate Mr. Knowles’s candor, even though I find almost everything he has to say distressing in one way or another (click here if you missed the original post or Jeff Knowles’s complete reply). Okay, here’s the reply to the reply –

As with a lot of design when it gets in the public domain people can only see the tip of the iceberg, and thats all that can be reviewed and commented on, you don’t see the 80/90% of blood sweat and tears and frustration.

This probably isn’t discussed much in design education, but you bring up an interesting point. The nature of design is that the result is of course very public, and only the result is public – nobody knows about Goudy’s life in the way they know about Picasso’s – but that’s the way it works. You talk about the frustrations as though the audience should care – frankly, we shouldn’t. Regardless of how difficult the client is, the viewer isn’t supposed to think of the frustrations; in fact, if we do, the design has failed (i.e. the charge is to communicate, in this case, a movie in the voice of the client; if instead what has been communicated is frustration, the job hasn’t been done).

Michael next informed us, and asked us to research, New Deal and WPA and sent WPA posters he liked, in particular the San Francisco world fair poster (which I think was even after the WPA, its at that point we designed the custom font, seen as he wanted to see stuff that evening, we had 5 hours. Michael liked the font, so we proceeded, next he wanted to see a more compressed version, deadline – one hour to redesign and e-mail new title cards so Michael could view it on screen in the Avid that afternoon.

Michael next informed us, and asked us to research, New Deal and WPA and sent WPA posters he liked, in particular the San Francisco world fair poster (which I think was even after the WPA, its at that point we designed the custom font, seen as he wanted to see stuff that evening, we had 5 hours. Michael liked the font, so we proceeded, next he wanted to see a more compressed version, deadline – one hour to redesign and e-mail new title cards so Michael could view it on screen in the Avid that afternoon.

Definitely an enemy of the public

Definitely an enemy of the public

This is another fascinating peek behind the door of a big time design studio. And another element that isn’t discussed too often: how much control should the client have? What is the balance between doing what the client says he wants, and providing the client with the best possible solution? Think of it this way: suppose Mr. Mann had said, “I just gotta have this in Comic Sans.” Presumably (hopefully) the designer could’ve persuaded him otherwise. The idea that Mr. Mann should know anything about design and lettering just because he is successful in a totally unrelated field is as unrealistic as me assuming I could direct a something as good as “Heat” just because I’m a graphic designer.

This is a tough thing to tell the guy who signs the checks, and we’ve all had our successes and failures. But still. Being a designer is not a matter of doing what the client says they want – they often don’t know what they want, or don’t know why they’re saying what they’re saying they want. Ideally, at this point in the process, design is education and research and lobbying and cajoling (especially when you’re trying to convince a client not to faceplant his bad idea all over every bus and billboard in LA).

The rest of Mr. Knowles’s paragraph is mostly excuses about fast deadlines. My response is, again, that’s the nature of the work. I have personally never had a leisurely deadline. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose – that’s true for all of us – but you can’t blame the deadline.

In terms of the posters, and even the new cover for the original book, we didn’t design them, we saw them at the same time as the rest of the public, they just used what ever bits we had sent for the titles, thus we didn’t apply drop shadows or textures, or use Impact or what ever it is, where they didn’t have the New Deal typeface.

This sort of sums up my take on the whole of this project. It wasn’t mismanaged so much as it wasn’t managed at all. The client wasn’t managed – starting with managing his expectations, managing the deadlines, and managing the concept; and after the design was approved, its implementation wasn’t managed at all either. I know that there are a million variables in any deal, but if you couldn’t have gotten the poster gig, it would’ve made sense to put together a criteria for the posters, etc. To blame the key art people is nearly as bad as blaming the deadlines. If your company is supposed to be leading the design, then you have to lead.

Again, I appreciate Mr. Knowles’s reply, and I think it’s an instructive look inside a design agency and at the sausage making aspects of the whole process. But in the end, none of what was said mitigates the failure of this lettering. I just hope Mann’s production company didn’t pay too much for this thing. They got a bad design, with a bad rationale, and bad advice.

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5 Responses

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  1. alec said, on 30 June 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Sheesh Dave. Not a shred of mercy? I have known and worked with some incredibly talented people, and without exception all of them have produced work that was pure unmitigated garbage.

    I’ve produced a rather large, smelly pile of my own over the years. We’re in the service business. And even if we’re capable of creating a gourmet seven course meal, if the client demands a plate of steaming poo, well ultimately it’s our job to give it to them or walk away.

  2. David Croy said, on 30 June 2009 at 6:28 pm

    No, you’re right, you’re right. I didn’t really mean to be that dark but I sort of petered out on finishing the post.

    But I do think it’s worth noting how projects fail. Like you said, I’ve failed, we’ve all failed. But it’s also good to know that someone as established as Brody can fail on a project as big as this was. Being a big time designer on an A-list project is – somewhat fascinatingly, to me anyway – no guarantee against failure. And I do also think that it wasn’t necessarily a creative failure as much as a management failure. We tend to want to think of design and advertising as primarily creative work, but it’s the whole process – not least the boring time and budget management stuff – that makes or breaks a job.

    So, yeah, didn’t mean to be so super harsh. But I also think it’s okay to call a failure a failure, while respecting the intentions and work that went into it. My own failures, and I’m sure yours, too, started out nobly enough. Sometimes it just doesn’t come together.

  3. Rick Cogley said, on 1 July 2009 at 3:00 am

    I’m not in the design world, but I do manage large projects so this commentary is interesting to me.

    In my opinion, the biggest thing that can go wrong is probably setting and maintaining expectations about what’s happening across the board. You have to be on top of that all the time, and also develop a thick skin against clients telling you how to run things. You need to be telling them how it will work, or don’t accept the job. That’s assuming you do know how to do it.

    I’ve had heated arguments with clients who were red-faced-adamant on a 5000 line (no shit) Gantt chart, which projected tasks 1 year into the future. Yeah, right! You can’t even precisely plan what’s going to happen hour-by-hour toMORROW, much less weeks or months hence. It took effort, but I brought them around to my thinking.

    However, on my first major project, I was lucky to succeed in rolling out the computer systems because I was listening when the client told me I needed a complex Gantt. Wasted a huge amount of time.

    Now I keep stuff like that simple. The whole process, in balance, is most definitely the key.

    These top level designers should know better how to handle their clients, otherwise they’re owned.

    Rick Cogley
    Tokyo

  4. Rick Cogley said, on 1 July 2009 at 3:01 am

    I should say “they’re owned, and they might as well use comic sans”. There. A font reference!

  5. Chipp said, on 16 August 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Ha. Reminds me of my first company– trying to make a mark as a young upstart– and the client (president of the company) asks his secretary, “Darling, come in here and tell me if you like these colors.” Winking at me he adds, “Y’know, she’s REAL GOOD with colors.”

    We all have THOSE clients, and figuring out how to best deal with them often takes more energy (and talent) than creating the design in the first place.


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