Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Don Draper Privilege

The late, great Lou Dorfsman once said, "there's no such thing as boring design projects, just boring designers." Don Draper underscored this sentiment in the last season of Mad Men when he said, "a lot of creatives will tell you clients get in the way of good work...that's never been my experience" — a not-so-subtle jab at creatives who find their best intentions at the mercy of The Client — and a not-so-subtle pat on his own back. It's as if these two men—both of whom were creative directors in the '60s (albeit deceased and fictional, respectively)—believe that if a client undermines the direction, process or concept you've presented, it wasn't a strong enough idea to begin with. Surely no client could ever resist the genius of Don Draper! (No, really.)

But in design today, these cut-and-dry notions become much more complex. What Dorfsman was innocently trying to say, of course, was that every project a designer is given should be approached with a sense of freshness and importance, no matter how mundane it may seem. He worked his way up to become Creative Director and Vice President at CBS, no doubt in some part due to this enthusiasm for his work, and I heartily commend that attitude. But like many things that have changed between then and now, a positive approach or great presentation is often not what creates fantastic outcomes, or even excellent and efficient processes. The design industry has grown since then — for one thing, '60s art departments were not subject to the veto power of marketing teams. More significantly, clients and all those other people we answer to are much more aware of the design process — in that any marketing associate may feel comfortable making the statement, "make this change so I can see what it would look like" because they believe that changes, by way of them being instant and digital, are easy to make. Designers who must adhere to these whims are then forced to go against another great piece of design advice: never show them an outcome you don't want them to choose. Further, marketers often tend to address form over conceptual continuity, so the process gets reduced to their aesthetic preferences. When this happens, the client will almost always win.

Without the proper internal structure to prevent this kind of back-stepping — i.e., a good creative director who funnels creative "feedback" through himself or another designer before offloading it to the project's designer, work suffers. And designers eventually stop fighting for better work.

I remember in the first years of Speak Up, a lot of the site's community grew from frustration with Design Observer; many designers finding D.O. too self-referential, too elitist, too New York, and without regard to the "realities" of the design industry as a whole. And I could see where they were coming from — and in fact for awhile was a pretty active commenter on Speak Up — while also cherishing the ideals Design Observer set forth. It reminded me of something our department chair in art school said once, when asked by a student why we weren't given assignments to design brochures. He said, "you'll have plenty of time to design brochures when you're working; at the very least let's try to aim higher than that." And that seems to be what Design Observer offers us: the aspiration to think more and design less, and politely not being the place to vent about crappy clients or slashed budgets.

We are not all Michael Bierut or Paula Scher. But it doesn't mean we don't aspire to work like them, in an environment like theirs, where energy is spent on good thinking and fruitful collaboration, rather than arguing for the role of design to begin with. That can be exhausting, and it certainly doesn't promote creative growth. And who wants to stick it out long enough to be in charge at a place where one's work is constantly undermined?

Draper, Dorfsman and other creative directors have the privilege of thinking and growing. We look to people in their positions to defend the roles of the designers 'beneath' them too – even those who don't work for them. But what else can we do? My friend Tait started an excellent community for those just starting out, called Junior, which among other things helps unite lost-soul graduates by articulating and demystifying the creative process. This happens often via interviews with, and advice by, creative directors — easing the transition between school and work.

For everyone in the middle, staying creative and articulate means constant self-education and examination. It means not getting mired in office politics, and it means being open to criticism of one's work. It also means putting yourself out there, with the assumption that the more you do this, the more you will get back. It is a bolder position to take when you don't have the authority of a Creative Director, but at least it's the path that will lead you to it.

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