Question of the Week #15

To kick of the spring 2013 semester, Al Nelson wants to know, “Is it absolutely necessary to align yourself or believe in the missions and goals of your clients?”

Great question, Al. Let’s see how many ways I can answer it:

1. No, there are no absolutes.

2. Yes, Absolutely.

3. No, but it helps.

Alright, let’s unpack that a little.

First of all, there is usually a question behind the question. Usually that question has to do with pain or fear. My reading of your question, then, is “I have some anxiety that I will face a situation where my values do not align with those of my client, and I’m not sure how to handle that.” Maybe you’re worried that you’ll work for someone who has unethical or amoral clients and you’ll be forced to choose between your beliefs and your bank balance. Or, more subtly, maybe you’re concerned that you won’t be able to do your best work unless you are as passionate about your client’s goals as they are. Certainly in school you’ve been able to select (or, more often, create) projects that revolve around your own personal interests. Fortunately, working life is much more diverse and complicated.

There are firms and designers whose work and ethos revolves around doing work for social causes—causes in which they (presumably) believe. In fact, I wrote a whole book about them. Some, like Dawn Hancock, Emily Pilloton, and Johanna Björk have created practices and organizations centered on the ‘design for good’ model. In these instances the alignment between the designer’s and the client’s mission is tightly aligned. Many others have simply made cause-based work a part of their practice. For these designers, cause-based work is likely to be creatively, socially or politically fulfilling, even though it may not reap the same financial rewards as other, more commercial work. Depending on the studio or the designer, these types of projects may account for anywhere from 10% to 50% of their overall project load. In my studio, for example, we aim to have about 30% of our work fall into this category.

But ‘design for good‘ is, in a way, the low-hanging answer to your question. There are plenty of clients whose work is mission-driven, but not necessarily cause based. Take for instance for-profit education. A couple of years ago we worked on a rebranding project for a company that offers personal coaching solutions, mostly to for-profit educational institutions. They were a privately held company that described themselves as mission-driven, meaning they made decisions and measured success by how effectively they fulfilled their on their promise to enrich the college experience of students and maintain high retention levels at the colleges they attend. At the end of the day, however, they were also a growth-oriented company that relied on sales to generate revenue. Our job, then, was to help position them in a way that would help them expand their then-small client base. Our success, therefore would be measure by our ability to help double their client roster. (In case you’re wondering, the quadrupled it).

Now, am I passionate about coaching? No. At least, not in the same way their coaches are. Do I wake up every morning wondering how I can help colleges lower their attrition rates? Not most days. But what I am passionate about is communication. What I do wake up every morning thinking about is how design can be the mediator between people and ideas. These things get me excited. So while I may not have the same passion for a particular client’s business as they do, I always have a genuine interest in the problem, and an absolute investment in a successful outcome. That’s where I find alignment with our client’s goals.

You’ll find as you start working, that you usually work for people, not companies. By this I mean that there’s always someone with whom you’re working within a company—someone who’s success depends a little bit (or sometimes a lot or entirely) on how well you do your job for them. It may be hard to get behind, say Nike’s goals and visions, but the marketing director you’re working with has a vision and a goal within the context of her job. Oftentimes that’s a much easier vision with which to align yourself.

The point, then, is that there is almost always a way in to a project. There is almost always something you can get excited about, be it the vision, the mission, the person or problem. Yes, there are times when you’re beliefs, politics, ethics or morals must take priority over a paycheck; in my experience however, these instances much rare than most students seem to imagine.