Lessons learned and observations gleaned, over time…
Time flies when you’re having fun. I’ve been immersed in visual communication design (aka graphic design, and before that commercial art) for 40 years. I’ve lived, learned, taught or practiced in over 60 countries, and I’ve been privileged to collaborate with designer colleagues and professional design associations on every continent, all-the-while observing the cross-cultural patterns and “similarities and differences” of how our profession is practiced around the globe.
Drawing on hindsight (and more than a little hard-learned, first-hand experience) I’m happy to share some bits of advice on how to “stand the test of time.” Here are some thoughts that I hope can help make the difference between your own success and failure.
Work with vision, and foster faith Vision is the ability to look ahead, beyond what is, to what could be. Critical as the apex for strategy, vision is also crucial to successful teamwork. Simply put, vision provides inspiration, motivation and guidance through shared articulation of a desired goal or outcome. Jonathan Swift put it well back in the 15th century, “Vision… the art of seeing things invisible.”
Faith helps conquer fear, and belief takes you further than doubt—just as honey attracts more bees than vinegar. Fostering faith within an organization builds collective backbone and perseverance to survive tough challenges. A great Chinese truism drives home the intrinsic role of faith in forging courage and commitment: “Cross a chasm with a single leap.”
Never sell out
Define your values (a worthwhile group exercise!), create a solid platform for ethical practice, and then pursue defined goals with passion and vigour. Make sure your actions reflect how you wish to be seen in terms of corporate integrity, respect for others and sustainable stewardship. Have the courage to say “No” to work that is not a good fit. In our design office, every staff member has veto power. If even one of our team feels that a prospective client’s entity, product or service is not something that she or he could proudly endorse, or feels that working with such a client or project would conflict with our own core values, we politely decline the opportunity. Working with clients you admire and respect is more gratifying, and it also greatly reduces stressful corrosion and the chance of suffering from burnout.
Build the best team possible
Teams work best with good leadership, common goals, shared values, mutual respect and genuine empowerment of individuals. This holds just as true for teams of five as for teams of 50. A fertile and supportive environment is important, as is the absence of weak links. When hiring, look for individuals with integrity, solid core values, staying power and demonstrated mannerisms that are consistent with their beliefs. The ability to “play well with others” is important in a studio or collaborative team setting. Of course analytical dexterity, creativity, literacy (lingual, cultural, and visual), talent, technical prowess and high standards of quality are also important—but I’ve learned that these latter traits are in much greater supply than the former.
Put people first
Seriously. Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Yes, that’s an old-school maxim, and it’s also expressed in every major belief system on earth (traceable as far back as the Torah, 1300 BC, and to Confucianism, 500 BC). But, its inherent truth is nassailable and well worth observing. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke—there’s good reason that it’s called the Golden Rule.
When Canada was hit with a bad recession in the early 1990s, many design companies folded, while others cut lots of staff. We decided rather than lay off any of our people, the business owners would stop drawing a salary, and employees would share the pain for a period of time by working fewer days and taking a commensurate reduction in pay. In addition, I poured personal savings and RRSPs into the business, allowing us to buy computers (until that time we produced graphics using traditional paste-up processes). With very little client work coming in, our staff had ample time to learn digital production. When the economy recovered a year later and business was again flowing, our studio had the advantage of a loyal, energetic and well-trained team of people.
And remember, clients are people too. Here’s a case in point for designers—listen actively with open eyes (e.g. read between the lines), and think beyond the client’s brief. Learn to truly serve your client’s needs by anticipating and serving the real needs of your client’s clients. I promise you, you won’t regret it, nor will your client. You will help make them a success, and that will reflect well on you.
Favour relationships over transactions
A valuable lesson I’ve learned from working with First Nations clients here in Canada, and with others in Asia and Africa, is the importance of developing deeper relationships with clients and vendors alike. In contrast, and at the risk of painting with a big brush, I’d say that the majority of business in North America and Europe pivots around transactions (e.g. you issue a purchase order, I do the work).
Without question, relationships bear both more and better quality fruit over time, resulting in greater efficiencies and fewer learning curves, and also offering greater win/win rewards for all involved. Investing in trusted, long-lasting relationships has certainly paid off for us at Circle; it’s not unusual for us to work with the same client for several decades.
A stitch in time saves nine
Be prepared. Be proactive. As Benjamin Franklin’s old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Do your homework before the assignment. Think ahead. Find out the facts first. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Finish what you start. Follow through, and then follow up.
Put things in writing
It still amazes me how many people don’t take notes in meetings, don’t summarize conversations, or don’t jot down thoughts when they strike. Keeping written records gives you a real edge, makes you more accurate in your work, and helps you be—and appear to be—more competent and confident.
Use a written contract. Spell out exactly what you are providing to whom, when, where, how and why, and for what price. State the exact terms and conditions of engagement, and allow for fair contingencies that respect both your client and yourself if something should go off the tracks. There are a lot of shysters in business, and nothing scares them off faster than the prospect of signing a solid contract before work begins, making for an excellent acid test.
Need is the father of thought
Since those early days when our species began walking upright, dreamers and designers have given shape to the tools, environments, communications and experiences that define human existence. Thanks to the technological leaps of the past few generations, we now have the uncanny ability to see the impact that design has on our shrinking planet—this spurs us to learn from our foibles and to course-correct as necessary.
Stay curious and stay inspired. Learn something new every single day. Join networks and collaborate with peers. Broaden your horizons and exercise whole-brain thinking. Question everything. And then question the answers.
This article appeared in the January/February issue of Designedge Canada, written by Robert L. Peters, a former president of Icograda, and the principal of Circle, a design consultancy he co-founded in Winnipeg in 1976.