A few months back I overheard a colleague boldly claim to her department head, “I used to do graphic design.”
“Hmm,” I thought, “I don’t remember her ever mentioning this, nor have I ever seen her design something.” I wondered, what exactly did she mean by saying, “do graphic design.” Did she design one of those “lemonade for ten cents” signs when she was five-years-old? Was she responsible for designing and launching an online/print corporate campaign, or does her talent and experience exist somewhere in the middle?
While there are always exceptions to the norm, in my experience, “I used to,” or “I’ve done graphic design” typically means something along the lines of:
- I’ve never seriously studied design (Note: you can study seriously w/o going to a formal institution).
- I can’t articulate what is or isn’t good design, but I have strong opinions.
- I was never hired to do design (at least not by people who weren’t family or friends).
- I’ve never worked with industry-standard software.
- I don’t know industry-standard best practices.
- No one has seriously critiqued my work.
- The success of my design projects was not based on effectiveness, creativity, or aesthetics, but merely that I’d completed the project (without adding an expense to the organization, or charging a friend or family member).
- I once worked in a small organization with limited resources, and I volunteered to design a flyer in Microsoft Publisher. We printed it out on the office printer.
However, in spite of all of these handicaps, this person still feels she or he is a designer. She or he is delusional.
How to become an instant graphic designer – the math formula.
Low or no design project expectations + no one else in the company to do the design project + no strict time frame + Microsoft Publisher + the project’s results will not be measured/scrutinized = instant graphic designer.
You might be a redneck*…I mean; you might be a graphic designer, if:
You are hired specifically to create designs, if you are reviewed/evaluated on the creativity and effectiveness of your designs, if your design projects are under deadlines, if you know design best practices and you don’t consider Microsoft Publisher, Powerpoint or Word as design software, you might be a designer.
Getting hit with the reality stick. My colleague was not a designer
Going back to the “designer” colleague that I mentioned – because she didn’t have enough work of her own to do**, she figured she would “help out” by taking a crack at creating a few flyers for her department. So, while her department head was on vacation, she dusted off Microsoft Publisher ’97 and blew off most of her work week trying to create something creative.
When the department head came back, she called me in her office and explained the situation. By the pained look on her face, I could tell she was struggling with what the “designer” had created. She explained that the employee just did this on her own, which she wasn’t thrilled with, but she didn’t want to hurt the employee’s feelings. She showed me what the “designer” came up with, and asked for my advice on what to do.
Trying to be as politically correct as possible (and not throw up on the flyer that this gal created) I explained to the department head that if we’re looking to establish a consistent, credible brand for the company, we can’t have multiple designers working on collateral materials (of course I use the word “designers” in this sentence pretty loosely).
Furthermore, it’s essential that projects are designed with best design practices, and with industry-preferred design software. Sorry, MS Publisher does not qualify for industry-preferred design software. Think about how this will play out for a moment; let’s say this gal designs four flyers in Publisher. A month later, I (not she) am called on to make fixes or update these pieces of crap. Instead of being able to make the change quickly and easily (because I know best design practices and I am not using design software that comes free in a cereal box) I now have to try to figure out what the heck she did in Publisher. To carry this example further, let’s say that while in Publisher I notice that she has several images that are 72dpi, they are RGB and are copyrighted. Furthermore, there are missing fonts and the damn project is sized incorrectly. I am screwed, aren’t I?
Bottom line: it takes a hell of a lot more than to be able to slap clip art and fonts on a page to be a designer. Furthermore, this colleague was not, is not, and, I will never be a designer. Truth be told, I liked this colleague. What’s more, I can relate to her: I too started out in the same circumstances (low expectations, Microsoft Publisher, no one else in the company to do the work). The difference between the two of us is that when I discovered a passion for design, I left my current job (which wasn’t a design position) and I invested 15 years of study and field work to become a designer. She drums up the “designer” moniker when she gets bored with her job and wants something “fun” to do.
All jokes and harsh realties aside, dealing with a back-seat colleague that fancies her/himself as a designer can be a nightmare. If you find yourself in this situation, avoid treating it flippantly. Gently informing a colleague that her/his talents will not be needed for creative projects is never an easy thing to do. The following tips will help you safely navigate the situation:
- Don’t ridicule their work.
- Avoid giving any impression that you are threatened. Handle the matter even-handedly and professionally, even if you’re absolutely furious.
- Go up the chain of command. Offer a gentle, sincere account of what’s going on. Ask superiors if you report to this person.
- Point out that this person might not know best practices when it comes to design. Since you’ll be the one having to support the artwork, you should be the one creating it
- Indicate that there needs to be a cohesive look (a cohesive band provides credibility, whereas a brand that looks more like a ransom note looks amateurish and cheap). When you begin to add designers to the mix, the brand cohesiveness plummets.
- Avoid hinting that they can design, or that you want their help. I know this may sound harsh, but the last thing you want is a backseat designer for the next three years at your job. Avoid patronizing these people by offering, “Well I’ll do most of the design, but every once in a while I’ll let you jump in.”
- Last, and most important, remember to treat people the way you would ask to be treated. This person is probably not trying to upstage you or cause any problems, so treat them gently. In many cases, back-seat designers are only trying to help. Be honest, be fair, but be as gentle as you can.
* - nah, not trying to put anyone down, “You might be a redneck” is a phrase a lot of people recognize.
** - this is rubbish. She wants to “play” designer instead of doing her own job. Everyone likes “playing” designer when there are no time constraints, no one is going to be critical of their work, and results will not be measured.