Design Drama

documenting the delicate dance of design

Graphic Design Horror Stories – Part 1 January 11, 2010

There’s a new blog in town – check it, if you haven’t already. In a recent post, the author, posed the question to designers to cite their worst working experiences. I’ve had my share of crazy clients in over ten years as a designer – or at least entertaining stories. But, a little over a year ago a project entered my life, and nothing else has quite compared to that experience since. Now that time has passed, the trauma is not so fresh, and I can actually laugh about it now – and share it with the internet.

The Worst Client I Ever Had…

About 14 months ago, shortly before Christmas 2008 vacation, a project found me.

The Client: A musician, specifically a songwriter that had one mediocre “hit”, needed a new CD package for his latest recording. (It’s probably a very loose term to call his one song that made it a “hit” — the song’s title was altered and then recorded by one of the largest jam bands of all time (1970’s?) – but anytime I’ve asked someone if they’ve heard of this guy, I get blank stares.)

The way this landed in my lap? Basically, a friend enlisted my help, with the blessing of the musician. As I am a master of editorial layout, text formatting, type treatments, etc., my friend considered me to be much more up to the task than herself — her specialization lies more on the business side of things (manufacturing, etc) and she brought me on to complete the design work. She had already put in about 2 months gathering quotes on the specific nature of what the artist wanted to put together in terms of a very specialized package for the music. The time had come for the design to be put together. This is when I stepped into the cow pile.

What said musician wanted was this: Remember those old school albums where the cardboard encased the record, and slid into another sleeve? He wanted a similar thing, but in shrunken down CD size format. Inside the album was to be a 4/4 (color, on boths sides, for the layman), 9 panel insert (18 panels total), which would fold out to be a poster. The original concept for the poster was photography of the album recording sessions with all the text (lyrics, liner note, whatnot) interspersed around the photography, in varying sizes colors and types of fonts. The musician had also cited examples of other album design he liked. The one that sticks out is Brian Wilson’s “That Lucky Old Sun” — really colorful, bright, happy, lots going on.

In other words, I was going to really get to unleash some creativity here, right?

The first red flag came in viewing the photographs of the sessions. Word to the wise: if you ever have photos come across your desk of a musician’s child and/or dog wearing headphones in a recording session, run the other way. (FAST! — I mean, GIDDYUP!) Not only was I bombarded with this ridiculousness, but the photographs themselves looked like they’d been taken with a disposable camera bought at the Circle K (no color correction, cropping, etc) by a drunken crackhead. Also, there were about 200 photos to sort through. Oh, and each person that played on a specific song was to have their photograph placed beside said song in the final design. In a few cases there was only one photo of that musician, so that photo would be repeated about five times because the musician played on five songs. (Lovely).

The second red flag was we had to deal with the musician’s wife (half his age, at least) as he was supposedly still in session in the studio, (couldn’t be bothered with the design of his own album!) while she was at their home – in the mountains – in another state – with a lackluster internet signal. Of course, this was much more than he had (Apparently recording studios in Texas have not been outfitted with the internet – so he said).

Third red flag – we were the 3rd set of designers to take on this album design.

Despite, the photography drama, I dove in head first into the design of the project and was really excited about it. And what I came up with for the design was some of the better work I’d done in a long time, photography non-withstanding. The first proof was sent to his wife – who forwarded the files to him.

Everyone has played the game “telephone” as a kid. One person tells another person a story. That person tells the next person, etc. and at some point the story ends up being, far and wide, a totally different tale than originally told. That’s how the design instructions played out in this scenario. The musician would tell his wife what he wanted – his likes and dislikes. Then she’d sit on that information for a day and then both to call/email and would disseminate the info again to us. And it was always all wrong.

At this point, the instructions somehow morphed into this conversation:

Wife: “We want it to look like The Beatles “White Album”
Us: (silence) “ummmm, right. Ummmm, ok. Ummm, (silence) it’s white”
Wife: “yes, we know”
Us: (!?!?!?!?!?!?!)

Long story short, the wife related to us that she had no idea a whole other designer (me) was brought in on this project (I had sat in on every single telephone call as well as carried on countless email conversations with her regarding the design of the project). The musician and his wife decided to kill the project, but I ended up getting paid for my work anyway, as I insist on the payment ahead of time. (yay me!)

My friend that brought the project to me and I had cocktails last month and the project came up in conversation. We scoured the internet for the final result. We came up with nothing. No surprise there.

(I googled him again, as I wrote this post. His website is currently down – as it’s “under construction” – I can only imagine his internet presence being handled by the 723rd web designer… all the while trying to communicate thru the wife again… from some lone, internetless studio in TX)


The temperature — it’s getting hot March 24, 2008

I’ve had my ear to the ground recently and have heard many graphic designers express frustration with the current state of our industry.

One thing I read today, in particular, was a blog by a graphic/web designer whose job is headed south and posted an entry venting feelings of under-appreciation and lack of talent from her superiors.

The truth is, this is all part of the life of a designer. There is always going to be under-appreciation for artists… history shows Pope Julius gave Michaelangelo crap the whole time he was working on his (PJ’s) tomb and other projects. As well, there is always someone either in the next cubicle or a big agency to compete with – and the competing designer might not be as talented or as educated – but might have a bigger budget — meanwhile, artists and designers can’t get bogged down in that melodrama – the thing to do, I have found, is to trudge on… because that next great design idea that can be brought to fruition is just around the next sketch book page. Also, like Michaelangelo and Pope Julius, there’s always going to be a person an artist/designer will have to take crap from because that individual signs the check — (these people often think of themselves as a born designer, and the graphic designer is merely a conduit/computer jockey there to click the mouse to make a vision come true.)*

It’s not just graphic designers expressing disdain for these occupational hazards — I have a friend; he’s a super-talented landscape architect in a major American city. He and I shared a laugh on the phone not long ago. He was venting to me about how he’s overworked and his designs are undervalued by his client. My friend described said client as “he thinks just because he watches HGTV that he automatically has the skills to design a landscape plan” — I laughed. I shouldn’t have. But I backed it up with “Well, thank God nobody wants to do a reality show with graphic designers because the public would be bored stiff and it would be canceled after one episode, if it ever made it to air!” — he laughed then, because he knows it’s the truth.

There is a mystique about graphic designers — that we’re all making money hand over fist while sitting in our bathrobes sipping martinis while tangled up in our iPod wires. That’s not reality. The tech bubble burst a few years ago. And… well… I don’t like martinis. The majority of designers I know are the ones that shop from the thrift store or sale rack exclusively, drive cars that are at least five years old, and don’t have cable tv. The one thing we do splurge on is technology – because that’s a write off.

My truth is, and I can only speak for myself, that I got into design for one reason and one reason only. I love art. I love design. I love creating something from nothing. And the bottom line in this business is, if that love is not at the core of a graphic designer’s heart, then he/she won’t be in this business for the long haul. Because there is a lot of bad that goes with the good… but when the good rolls around, it’s a very satisfying experience. I call it “creative crack” — it’s like a drug that I want more of. So, basically, I guess you can say I’m chasing a high… and most designers I know would agree, that’s the reason we are playing this game.

*And I will admit some superiors do have design talent, but it’s frustrating to be treated like an idiot when we designers have spent years in design/art school – and get zero respect for the time spent.