It’s an interesting time to be a graphic designer. Even as art school fees soar, people seem undeterred, and design schools are surely producing more budding designers than can be employed—at least immediately. The U.S. Department of Labor states that employment of graphic designers is projected to grow 4% from 2016 to 2026, “slower than the average for all occupations. Graphic designers are expected to face strong competition for available positions.”
Of course, there’s the simple argument that if you’re a good designer, you’ll be fine. But it stands to reason that it’s a tricky time for the industry. As such, for designers working freelance and in smaller agencies in particular, there can be a temptation to say “yes” to everything, and everyone—even if there’s a niggling feeling that a person might be a difficult or undesirable client. After all, we’ve all thought at one time or another, “What if no one ever asks me to do any work again?”
And yet recently, designers have been more vocal about choosing to be choosy about who they work with. For many, a client’s personality and a company’s moral values matter as much as a good brief and a high rate, but being able to turn down a project based on those things is a privileged position. “I was fearful that opportunities would pass me by if I said no to the circumstances surrounding them,” interactive art director and graphic designer Sabrina Hall has told us before.
Our interest in the decision designers face when evaluating potential clients based on personality and principles was piqued recently when the new L.A.-based studio Nice People got in touch, claiming to have been founded as a “rebellion against the horrible bosses we’ve had in the past” and working in a way that’s more flexible than the 9-5 model. Founder and creative director Amber Asay explains that their foundational philosophy is as much about making good, thoughtful creative work as it is about wellbeing. “Creatives work and thrive better in spaces where they can chose to work from home or the office as they please,” she says.
Asay’s initial email missive—and perhaps, to an extent, her agency branding—was very clear about the fact that Nice People is a woman-led company. And it’s obvious that moving away from 9-5 hours toward flexible work times is a big boon for women with kids. It’s also, according to Asay, a push against the “boys club” mentality she found in agencies she worked in. “I worked in two advertising firms that were both owned by men, and where the creative directors were men, and all the creatives were men,” she says. “The only other women were secretaries, project managers, or account managers, and it felt like my male counterparts were getting more opportunities than me.”
So far, so feminist. But while Nice People is doing noble work in trying to make women designers’ working lives better, I felt a little jaded when that one of its clients is Poosh, Kourtney Kardashian’s online “modern guide to living your best life.” I’ve nothing against Kourtney, but to me, articles with headlines like “The Key to Looking Younger;” “Does Having MORE SEX Really Make You LOOK YOUNGER?;” and what appears to be a piece trying to sell a $15 mug that “Kourt Uses Every Day” aren’t exactly furthering the feminist cause.
Nothing is entirely, 100% “good,” or perhaps 100% “bad” either, and “goodness” is subjective.
Sadly, Assay isn’t allowed to discuss Poosh without checking with the client first, but she does acknowledge the grey area in working with “nice people” and making work that does, well, “nice things.” “We work in the fashion industry and beauty industry, and sometimes it’s hard to navigate that space—there can be wrongs and rights in that industry in and of itself,” she says. “We’re not perfect, and we’re trying to navigate that, but our goal is to work with clients that make things that people can benefit from, and which isn’t harmful to people.”
Danny Miller, co-founder of London-based agency Human After All, also faces tough decisions on how “nice” his clients are, or how much good they’re ostensibly doing in the world. The agency works under the mantra “We clarify the complex to create positive change,” and its reputation widely hinges on its work with non-profit organizations such as Greenpeace or Girl Effect. As such, it sits squarely in the middle of a continuum that runs from social impact agencies that solely work with non profit and NGO organization, and those who solely exist in the corporate sphere. The team is formed of colleagues who previously worked together at studio The Church of London (TCO), which designs and publishes film magazine Little White Lies. “It wasn’t too deliberate—we aren’t ‘good people’ necessarily— but we decided to try our very best to work with clients who were doing good in the world,” says Miller about forming the new agency.
Obviously, “doing good” isn’t always as simple as it might seem. Nothing is entirely, 100% “good,” or perhaps 100% “bad” either, and “goodness” is of course subjective. This makes navigating who to work with and who to avoid tricky. Human After All’s first client, for instance, was the World Economic Forum, a not-for-profit foundation that includes in its mission statement that “Moral and intellectual integrity is at the heart of everything it does.” It’s also the body behind the annual Davos meeting in Switzerland, which invites certain guests, while uninvited companies can opt to pay 27,000 Swiss francs [around $26,772 USD] per person to attend. “One of the first things people say is ‘Davos is a bad place,’ and that those conversations are undesirable,” says Miller. “But when you get under their skin and see how well-intentioned everything they do is… they get shit done, make things happen, and bring people together.”
Another major client of Human After All is Facebook, a brand whose ethics have been called into questions on several fronts in recent years. “You couldn’t find a more complicated brand to work with,” says Miller. “They’re changing the world in many contentious ways, but we’re working with people who want to use the platform for good, and Facebook’s business model is very much aligned with that of small businesses.” The projects the agency has worked on with Facebook over the last five years have centered around its economic impact and its desire to “bring communities together in useful ways,” as Miller puts it”, such as with its (somewhat ickily-named) She Means Business program for female entrepreneurs.
It’s clear in talking to him that Miller closely considers the clients the agency takes on, and he’s upfront about the complexity of the task. This effort toward transparency is echoed in the design world as a whole, which seems more preoccupied than ever with the ethics of its work, and those of clients. It’s something that online magazine Timesheets, published by time tracking platform Toggl, had front of mind in putting together its new issue, which focuses on London-based creatives that work to create social impact. Among those profiled are gal-dem founder Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, spoken word poet and psychologist Sanah Ahsan, and drag star Virgin Xtravaganzah. Timesheets editor Andrea Kelemen says that the common thread running through all the interviewees in the new issue was a struggle with working with clients while retaining both an artistic vision and moral principles.
The design of the issue uses a wall motif, hinting at political issues like Brexit, while an annotated street-footage video references the idea of surveillance in the modern age. Keleman’s aims for the issue were to “show how we should approach everything with a critical mindset and be more informed.”
“There are things happening in the world that shouldn’t be, and that’s partly because of the internet,” he continues. “People are polarized, extremist ideas are spreading, and everyone siloed in their filter bubbles. Sometimes the way people cope with the amount of information out there is to look for things they think are ‘true,’ and on the internet, people can almost always find justification of their views. The internet makes people feel connected when in fact they’re further isolating themselves. You have to be very careful in generating content.”
Reading the issue, what’s most striking about the interviews is that almost all of the subjects abandoned working for other people to go freelance in order to do both what they wanted to do and what they felt they needed to do in terms of social good. To Kelemen, this suggests that if a creative holds certain values they want to pursue, “it’s really hard to find a place that will be good enough or open enough to work on projects that can make a difference within the system we have currently.”
For those freelancers working within the current design and tech system, it can be tricky to weigh potential projects against the money necessary to sustain a business, pay rent, and live. This is something Meg Lewis, founder of one-woman creative studio Darn Good, has long been vocal about. When she first went freelance, she was still finding herself working with people that to her seemed to obviously dislike their own workplaces, and in turn, “didn’t trust the design process or understand and respect the impact of design.”
This led her to make the conscious decision to push her own identity as a person as much as her portfolio, with the hope that clients would come to her because they liked her personality. The first step towards this was “branding” herself, as she puts it; more or less aligning her personal visual identity, the way she talks about herself, and even the sort of things she discusses on social media with who she really is. “Branding myself to show my personality means clients are excited about who I am, which allows for a very exciting, transparent relationship on a personal and professional level,” she says.
This sort of stance serves a dual purpose for a designer: not only does it mean that you’re working with people you like, and that you believe are totally sound, but it’s a savvy business move, too. “Everyone has their own unique traits, and you can capitalize on that,” says Lewis. “It’s terrifying and you feel vulnerable, but once you position yourself as someone providing something totally unique, you have no competition.” The process of working out what her “personal brand” is (Lewis, like most of us, finds that term “quite gross”) has encompassed everything from her trademark thick-rimmed black glasses to the videos she posts of herself dancing about to actively chattering with people on Twitter and promoting the design work she’s most proud of.
“It’s become a bit of a cliché but one of our core things is ‘don’t be a dick.’”
For those designers who can’t or don’t want to leave their current roles in more traditional agencies or studios, there are still of course ways to strive toward working only with clients who are both in-line with your ethical and moral standpoint, and also just decent people. Many studios have a certain series of questions they ask internally when making a decision on a potential client. Some are obvious, concrete considerations such as availability, timeline, and budget, while others are more nebulous. If he finds himself at a client lunch, Miller says he always observes how they treat the waiting staff (a good rubric for judging a person in any situation, really). “You can spot a bully a mile off,” he says. “It’s become a bit of a cliché, but one of our core things is ‘don’t be a dick.’” Other red flags for Human After All would be people who are “terrible communicators.”
For Asay, the vetting process is based on similar criteria: getting a feel of how understanding, or hostile, the working environment of a potential client is; as well as scrutinizing as much as possible how trusting they’ll be of the design process. “Designers have so much to bring to the table when they’re treated well—they’re more willing to bring passion to the project.” Among the warning signs for a less-than-ideal client for Nice People are those who, in the early stages, are already trying to change the contract or proposal multiple times.
While these measures ensure a great working relationship for the designer, they don’t ensure that the client is working towards being “nice” in a broader, ethical sense. Just as you can’t always judge a person’s values immediately, neither can you judge a potential client—but you can do as much research as possible. “We’re not saying ‘we are nice people’, but it’s a call to action to say ‘let’s all work together to bring about success,’” says Asay.
“Designers have so much to bring to the table when they’re treated well—they’re more willing to bring passion to the project.”
Miller and I discuss the tricky nature of “good” clients: until recently, for instance, a charity like Oxfam would have seemed to be inherently good, but the breaking of various scandals such as the Haiti sexual exploitation make nothing simple. Any organization is almost impossible to discuss in absolutes. “The main consideration for us is, is that core of what this company does good?,” says Miller.
For Lewis, the decision comes down to one simple factor: “My purpose is to make the world a happier place, and everything I do in my work and personal life tries to fulfill that. My clients have to fulfill that too—whether that’s through trying to make themselves better, being kind to the world, or figuring out what they’re doing wrong.”