The Dark Side of Design

Lego Darth Vader
Image by Balakov
This is my second article, that I wrote for Yanko Design (YD). As I know some Design Sojourn readers don’t really frequent YD, I have decided to republish and keep a record of the article here. Enjoy, and I’m looking forward to your comments if you have not left any before!
There is something really nasty about the Design Industry; something many know of but never really spoke of. In our ever-competitive society, we always seem to celebrate the winners, and outcast the losers. We often talk about the one that made it to the top and leave no space for second place.
Just like in our Design world it is all about our award winning designs, the big budget projects, and the ones that the client and consumers love. However we never talk about our setbacks, the projects we hate, the ones that failed the engineering tests, and the ones that got away. We never like to talk about this so-called “Dark Side of Design”.
I like to share with you a number of real life scenarios that shows how the world of design can be a pure hellhole. I like to talk about how money seems to overcome morality and sensibility. Facing the “Dark Side of Design” head on is neither easy or fun.
1. You will have to design something you hate
Designing something you hate is something you never really consider when you get out of school. It just does not register. You love design and you love your work so it is not conceivable that you would have to design something you hate. It will happen, so be prepared and bask in the frustration.
2. You will have to work with someone you hate
You will get assigned to that snot nosed designer that can’t design for nuts but can kiss ass like there is no tomorrow. When it happens at work you suddenly realize why your boss is not paying you his salary in addition to yours. Worst he may be your manager.
Not only that, but you might have to work with a client or business partner that treats you like that piece of dirt under his/her shoe. That person may be unreasonable, belittle you, and hate everything you give him. Unfortunately, the only thing you can do is swallow your pride and turn the other cheek.
3. You will have to make a decision between giving consumers what they want or what they need
The majority of design work, sad to say, is all about feeding consumerism. The reality is that your designs are often not necessary, nor what people need. In school they teach you to study your consumer, identify their needs, and design for them. However do you really think that person needs another chair, laptop or mobile phone? I’m sure you can do a great job, but will it be right? What about sustainability? When does that happen or does it ever happen at all? You will suddenly realize there are forces at play that are beyond your control, and you will have to decide if this is the right career path for you.
4. You will not be able to distinguish between night and day
You will work hard. Sure, you thought you worked hard in school to graduate at the top of the class, but you will never work so hard in your life when you are a designer in the trenches. So hard that you cannot tell the difference between night and day. You will do it because you have to. You will do it because you care. Needless to say, you will hate it.
5. You will never have clear brief
In the real world everyone knows what a brief is, but nobody really knows what a brief is. You will have to face the fact that there is no such thing as a clear brief. It is also never the straightforward design process you learned in school. You will hop back and forth through changes so many times you will think you are a trick pony. What is worst, the schedule will not move because of someone elses “briefing” mistake.
6. You will be made responsible for a design that has failed
It is too easy. Product does not sell? Blame the designer. Product cannot be engineered? Blame the designer. Suddenly you will be in everyone’s “cross hairs” and be blamed for everything. Remember though designers make suggestions. The people who pay for the designs are the ones who own the designs, thus responsible for the outcome. This leads me to my next point.
7. You will never own your designs anymore
What was a great solo effort in school, will now becomes everyone’s baby. You will pour your heart and soul into a design to only get it taken from you and passed off to someone else. Your design idea would be lost, modified, “raped” and even killed. Not only that, there will be projects that will have so many people working on it, that nobody owns or wants to own it.
8. You will hate design
One morning you will drag your tired body through multiple all-nighters to present your work to an unappreciative client, and you will tell yourself something along those lines of “I hate design”.
They always say it is “darkest before the dawn” and in design it is.
Many designers quit before reaching this point, I almost did. Some of the popular excuses are likely to be “it’s too hard” or “not enough money for this BS” or even “no one appreciates the effort I put in”. My advice to you is to hang on because it does get better.
Strangely enough this turning point happens around the 5 – 7 year mark, depending on the amount of project hours a designer has clocked. Somehow after that, things just fall into place. It can happen like how it did for me, you wake up one morning and it just “clicked” as you reached that “tipping point”. You now know how to handle that abusive client, your 3D models just work with the engineers, and best of all, your designs start to kick ass and win awards. Trust me, I’ve seen it over and over again, not only with me but with other designers, the 5 year mark seems to be that magical number when your time in the trenches finally pay off.
I like to end this little post on another uplifting note. I cannot understand why people do not talk about their failures. They make great and interesting stories, especially if you can articulate what you learned and how you grew from it. In my humble opinion, this is far more important than always looking to sell your winners. Think about this when you next update your portfolio?

  • Ricardo Freitas

    May 25, 2009 at 10:28 pm Reply

    Greetings and thanks for the great articles i have already read here. Sadly, only now i discover this great site and therefor still have a lot to read.
    About this particular post, although i`m yet to enter this frightening and (it seems) extremely hard world of being a professional* designer. I have already wondered about this subjects and it kind of bothers me quite a bit the perspective of having a job proposal i don`t agree with, both for moral and any other issues as well, even though i can not refuse because bills still have to be paid. How does one deals with such situation? What about feeling exploited and unappreciated with no alternatives but to bear with it as i can?
    But to tell the truth, there is a problem that troubles my mind more than any other:
    Will i even have the chance to hate design? Will i have a chance to prove myself? I`m confident i have the will to endure through these nasty 5-7 years, but i`m not so confident i will have the chance to do it.
    *I use the “professional” as i intent to do it for a living, even though i still think the work i make for school with a fair amount of success is far from being enough for the real world.

  • foci

    April 23, 2009 at 1:59 am Reply

    Great post. The points ring true in one fashion or another. I feel the most important comment is the last. Talking about the failures reveals more about you and your process than showing all of your award winning work.

  • imran

    April 20, 2009 at 4:24 pm Reply

    cool article.

  • Joe Tan

    April 19, 2009 at 12:43 pm Reply

    great post! Can definitely relate to some of the points.

  • Filipe

    April 18, 2009 at 2:26 am Reply

    hey! i will translate this incredible text to my brazilian blog with all the credits, ok?

  • DT

    April 18, 2009 at 1:33 am Reply

    Hello everyone!
    WoW a lot of great comments! I like to leave a general “Thank You!” to all readers who left comments, as I will unlikely get a chance to respond to all your comments, but I will do my best.
    @raj: keep talking and learning from failures, that will help you get to the winners.
    @benek and @jeremy: Whether employed or freelance, a tough customer is a tough customer. Very few freelances have the luxury to dictate who they want to work with.
    @Terri: Your suggestion is a fantastic one. Always keep a positive mind set and you will always see the silver lining in things. No matter how tough there is always something you can learn from it. It is often hard to detach yourself from the situation, and to do that is to often take breaks away from design. Too much design is also no good.
    @Shahar: You are quite right. Sometime it is very hard to tell right from wrong though, in often many cases it gets pretty gray. Then it really comes down to a persons personal belief system and morals. The money may be good, but can you live with yourself?
    @Rogue: Let me have a go with your questions.
    1) Ok, I’ll be honest again as I was with the post. Young designers often have a tendency to overrate themselves and their ideas. I have almost never, perhaps once or twice, encountered a young designer that had an idea that could make him or herself rich. Then again those ideas was still a concept that was developed in sketch or perhaps resolved in CAD model etc. In terms of commercialization or realization it still had a long way to go. Hear about 2% inspiration, 98% perspiration? It applies here. I would often suggest to forget about patents, as it is likely a waste of money. Then again there are exceptions, and the trick is to know which ones.
    2) Most of the time if a product is out in the market or released to the media, it is pretty safe to put it in your portfolio with out the real need to ask. You could if you want to be formal. Most of the time I don t really bother.
    Well to you another company’s trademark on a concept product is an infringement of that company’s trademark. However most of the time though, they often don’t enforce it unless it happens on a large scale or you are making money out of it. But don’t quote me on that.

  • Rogue

    April 17, 2009 at 6:33 pm Reply

    Dear DT,
    This post really struck a chord with me probably due to the point I currently am in my design career which is around that 3 year mark and yes, there is some struggling but I am proud to be able to say that progress is still being made. I love the sincerity in your posts which is exactly why I continue to remain a regular reader.
    In this particular one, you not only strip away the glamor, but you address the not-so-pretty side and go beyond that to empower the reader into seeing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That there are hardships which are often endured but that they can help mold ourselves into better, stronger individuals (and professionals) provided that we not lose faith in ourselves to continue forward, and remain determined enough to not give up. To take each failure as an opportunity to learn something about ourselves so we may improve upon it and in the end, persevere. It certainly helps to hear this coming from others who experienced similar challenges, overcame them and found success.
    I too wish the more experienced creative professionals could openly share their stories – both the good along with the bad, but I am curious to hear what you think stops others from sharing their failures with the younger creative professionals?
    You brought up a wonderful point with number 7 which I don’t recall being mentioned by anyone else before graduating design school – and it has been a lesson I have learned more about recently. It is never easy to let go of something you pour your originality, heart, and soul into which leads me to bring something else up which I think would be great to see you write about which I think could greatly benefit younger designers and it was a subject that was not really discussed in design school:
    1) With an increasing expectation to see a “fuller process” of the projects within our portfolios, how can designers present their work while protecting your own proprietary ideas without having to file patents or use NDAs?
    2) Say a designer has done work for a client and wants to include some of it in their portfolio and perhaps even reference the company/trademark name as a client. How can the designer go about obtaining the client’s permission in a cordial, disarming manner to avoid any misunderstandings or risk having them bring up legalities later down the line. As designers, even in our conceptual work, we often tend reference companies and trademarks to give a sense of reality and branding to the concepts generated. Unfortunately, unless that permission is explicitly given, a client could technically demand that those projects be taken down because they do not permit third parties to use their company brand/trademark. So here is where it needs to be understood that there are 2 different things going on that a designer would need permission for: One is to reference their company/brand/trademark. The second, to leave no ambiguity about what the client is comfortable in letting the designer use within their portfolio.

  • Shahar Klein

    April 17, 2009 at 3:07 pm Reply

    I don’t think that the list is really very different than in any other profession…
    However, let me add some:
    What about morals you don’t agree with?
    Politics that represents the opposite way of thinking?
    Design for the military?
    In Israel, I have a lot of them.One of our last good projects are developing an intensive care device. The money and some of the entrepreneurs come from occupied territories …
    The decision is always between money and morals. Always hard.
    In situations like these I see the side I can live with and ignore what I can’t live with.

  • Terri Lee

    April 17, 2009 at 2:02 am Reply

    This is a great article! It’s true that most don’t talk about the struggles and frustration that comes with the first few jobs after school.
    Honesty is great, but let’s go the next step and talk about the different ways each of us has used to keep perspective and worked through those first years. We’ve all “adapted” new ways to sell our ideas and try just once again to get our design ideas/voice heard. Time is one factor that gives you these skills, but there are plenty of other techniques of communication both interpersonal and communicating design concepts that help make the first 5-7 years less unbearable. What have others tried/learned?
    For me…I kept looking and thinking about design problems I’d like to explore. I learned different ways of presenting ideas without seeming to insult or overtake my manager/principal’s ideas. I started to ask for project objectives and goals (essentially I was looking for that one sentence design brief) The most important thing I keep in mind is the parts about design that I enjoy the most. In every design I hate, I try to find one thing I like… even if it’s a stretch. In the end, we all need something to help maintain sanity. How have others made it work?

  • Rob Jensen

    April 17, 2009 at 12:49 am Reply

    Great post, it’s so true.:)

  • Jeremy Tuber

    April 16, 2009 at 9:59 pm Reply

    Preach on brother D.T.
    You’re right, a lot of freelancers (if they actually survive the first 2-3 years) often burn out around year 5-7. I do agree with one of the other commenters (Benek) that many of these points can be reduced…but most of them aren’t going away and as a freelancer you have to decide if they’re worth it or not.
    I got so ticked off with your point #5 (the revision merry-go-round) that I wrote a book and recorded a CD about it. If you have a moment check out what I recorded here:
    Thanks for posting something that was both honest and quite true for a lot of designers out there.

  • Benek

    April 16, 2009 at 5:05 pm Reply

    The good news is most of these points can be minimized or eliminated if you are a freelancer–which gives you a lot more control of who you work for, what kind of projects you do, and how you do them.

  • Raj

    April 16, 2009 at 12:39 pm Reply

    Dear DT,
    This one is quite insightful, Its gives the readers esp the middle-weight designers a hope. The “Darkest before Dawn”, I would say my few of my design babies are yet to see the daylight. Most of the times, they were killed, inspite of the the laurels from the managements. This definetly gives the “Rays of Hope”.
    Its nice when we hear that few senior designers like you talk about failure, which is often not told and sighted. People are really afraid to say about it.I have preached the theories of failure to fellow designers, I talk about them and get over them. And wake up the next day to see a new beginning.

  • Colin

    April 16, 2009 at 11:52 am Reply

    Every single one of these apply to my job in newspaper advertising.

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