“The 25-year-old coder was giving suggestions on what typeface to use. The problem – he was also the client.”
Said a renowned London-based designer over lunch during my last trip to London, before the pandemic. Some background – he had just concluded a rebranding of a tech giant which posted a USD900mil revenue that same year. He’s also a multi-award winner, including the black pencil from D&AD. His CV includes ex-president of D&AD, DesignWeek Hall-of-Fame, and 3 best-selling books in design and branding. He could probably write a book about typography and branding in his sleep.
Yet he had had to politely deal with a client who was giving him instructions on selecting fonts.
“In his world, his knowledge of fonts are Lato, Roboto, Nunito, etc.” aka fonts by Google, a brand which happened to be a competitor to this client operating in the same space.
All designers would have an equivalent story to tell.
Paula Scher famously doodled the Citi logo in a few seconds, but then took months and months to get it approved. I suppose the line “we need to see more options” would have been familiar in the many board meetings.
A few seconds? Paula’s answer -“It’s seconds done in 34 years.”
Malcolm Gladwell famously stated that one needs 10000 hours of practice to achieve proficiency in anything – if one commits 3 hours a day, this would roughly take 9 years. How many hours in 34 years?
I started my design career in 1994. That gives me 28 years of practice, to the extent that some skills and knowledge have probably become some form of muscle memory for me.
Why are certain design decisions taken? To be entirely honest, most of the time I just know, and I don’t think too hard. Designers who work closely with me know this – it perhaps takes a few seconds to solve a design problem. As simple as “move that to the right corner”. Or “change it to #b6b6b6”. Or “change the headline to Profoundly Simple.” Or my infamous line which had scarred many junior designers: “it’s not aligned properly”.
“But how do you know?”
This is where it gets tricky. Because “move that to the right corner” is derived from many years of practice, and hence, leading to a 1-sec solution to a design problem which might have been troubling another designer for a week.
But to exactly explain “why” is difficult. Explaining to designers is still possible – there’s still a common language that we can establish such as design principles. Now try explaining this to people outside of the design clique, aka the client.
Recently I told my partner one of the biggest reasons why I never wanted to stay in the design business is the absurdity of some situations.
The best part of my job is working with clients who are determined to solve strategic problems – how would the audience process the information; how would they react to the communications; how can we give them a better experience? They challenge me to rethink many of my decisions. It is intellectually stimulating and rewarding; it makes an enriching experience to work with such people.
But occasionally there will be clients (usually assigned to handle components of a bigger project) who lose sight of the end goal and start inserting themselves as co-creators in the process. It gets messy. “Can you try an option which is justified?” “Move this to the left, move that to the right, and show me?” “This section, can we please use a handwriting font?” “Can we reduce the black and make the lines thinner?” The usual reason for all these requests? It will “look better”. “Nicer”. “More aesthetic”. “More impact”. “More elegant”. “More balanced”.
I have two choices here. The first is to get into a lengthy explanation about why moving to the left and moving to the right won’t work; or about why the handwriting font (or Nunito or Poppins) won’t work; or why thinner lines will not work as an icon on a mobile screen.
The second choice? Keep quiet, and get the second option and third option out, and hopefully, the client will be dissuaded and will drop the idea. However, sometimes, it backfires spectacularly. Aesthetics is a subjective issue, and it is too easy to fall in love with one’s own masterpiece. “Don’t you think the justified text looks so much nicer?”
“You should fight for your design.” say many.
I have easily clocked more than 57000 hours in doing what I do, enough to know it will take too many hours to justify a decision which came from my muscle memory; whereas swapping left and right positions, or replacing a headline font with a DaFont freebie the client loves takes a few seconds.
I have learned to choose my battles – it’s okay to lose some scuffles as long as I win the war. Focus on the bigger picture and let the small things slide. After all, there’s no definitive guide to determine what is “nicer”.
Kyle Cooper once told me about his experience presenting Mission Impossible titles. Apparently, a famous actor whose name starts with T refused to approve it as he was upset about his name not appearing in red. “If the only thing needed is to change his name from blue to red; if T wants it, T gets it.”
The same principles here – the war is won, it’s ok to lose the small battle – T gets red. Why let the designer’s ego get in the way of the bigger picture?
I am fortunate to say most of my clients are not T. They don’t insist on red colour or God-forbid, Comic Sans as headlines.
Although, occasionally, along comes a client who insists on options and non-negotiable feedback.
That’s when I say, I’m getting too old for this shit.
Many years ago, I was working on a project which involved marketing launches in several countries. The regional marketing director called to check the status of the work. She was pleasantly surprised that all countries had been sorted out except for one. Why not that one?
“Because they still want to change the colour, and tweak the layout”.
“Gosh, why did I pay you so much money? Why are my people trying to design? How does it matter whether it is pink or red?”, the client said.
She made a call and within a few minutes, everything was a go-ahead.
I almost cried.