Hovering Art Direction

Q: How do you handle a boss at an ad agency who isn’t a designer but tries to design for you? He stood over my shoulder today and just told me what to do, what colors to use, and where to put what. Thing is, I thought it looked awful.

How do I deal with this without getting fired or starting a conflict? I want my work to be good, and I don’t want to be offended when I’m treated as a button pusher, not a designer.

A: There’s a game my brothers and I used to play when we were kids, and if you had siblings you’re probably familiar with it. One kid grabs the other kid’s hand and repeatedly slaps him in the head with his own hand, all the while saying, “Why you hitting yourself? Why you hitting yourself?” Yes, it’s ridiculous. Because you’re not doing the slapping, the other person is.

So tell me, when your boss is designing for you, when he’s forcing you to make these things that look awful, how hard is he holding your hand?

Look, you want me to tell you how to fix this without starting a conflict, offending anyone, or getting fired. I’m not going to lie to you. Any of those things could happen. Part of the job.

And yes, we all agree the guy (yes, it’s a guy) hovering over your shoulder telling you what to do is a douchebag. You’ll meet more like him. Your career depends on learning how to deal with them.

If you want to be a designer, you’re going to have to define what you need to do your job. You’re hoping other people start treating you the way you want to be treated. That’s not going to happen. You need to tell them. Only a designer knows what a designer needs. Set your boundaries. Remind people that they hired you for a job, and that you expect to be allowed to perform it. Then tell them what you need to do that job right.

So tell this guy, “With all due respect, you’re doing the job you hired me to do. I’d like the opportunity to earn my salary by doing it. If you’re not happy with the results please let me know.” Adjust for your own syntax, of course.

Two things can happen: They will give you the room you need to do your job, or they will fire you. If they fire you, you go find a job where you can be a designer, because that place wasn’t it.

If you’re serious about a design career, you need to be able to defend your space. You won’t win every battle, but it’s easier to recover from losing a job than losing your self-respect.

About Dear Design Student

A weekly series where I answer students’ questions about being a designer. Send me your questions.