Commentary / Jon Edwards

When Designers Get Snooty: An Explanation

I am a designer. And, as such, I am pretentious. All designers are. We’re also arrogant. We’re belligerent. We wear black-framed glasses and spike our hair for no other reason than because we’re supposed to. We have a pre-defined sneer for every occasion, and we affix them to our mugs with unabashed pride. We’re ornery, ill-tempered, cantankerous snots with permanently sour attitudes that seep into and corrode everything we do while negatively affecting every person we come into contact with.

And that’s on a good day.

That’s the stereotype that has been glued to the backs of designers, of the graphic sort, specifically. It’s not a totally unfounded one, to be fair, but it’s not entirely accurate either.

Let’s start with an admission. Designers do take their work personally. It’s virtually impossible not to. It’s difficult to set something free after you’ve created it, and then allow outsiders to tear it apart to tell you why the thing that you cherish and cared for from the moment you birthed it is flawed.

I’ll try to describe the emotion to you: Think back to the time when you were a child and proudly displayed a drawing to a parent. The crayon marks on the page were still fresh. You felt proud of your work and were exited to get approval and recognition. Now, imagine that parent pausing for a few moments after reviewing the work before letting out a languished sigh and declaring their dislike for the drawing without being able to tell you why they think you failed. For good measure, that mother or father might then even take it upon themselves to dramatically tear your creation from top to bottom*, letting the now severed halves drift waywardly to the floor with a fluttery crinkle.

“Frankly, I’m underwhelmed. It’s not what I had in mind. You’re going to have to start over.”

That is the career of a graphic designer.

That’s a bit on the theatrical side, sure, but you get the point. It’s hard to put yourself on the chopping block and actually ask someone to pointedly identify your flaws. Because this is something that you created, they really are your flaws. Or, at least, that’s certainly how it feels. It may not be purely expressive in the same way that a painting or an illustration can be, but we designers do own what we create. It’s a part of us.

Look, I’m not trying to excuse the handful of designers who actually are snide and annoying. They do exist, and they are a pain to deal with. A good designer must learn to take criticism and refine their approach in order to suit the needs of the client and of the project. That’s absolutely necessary, as is collaboration with clients and a willingness to learn and change. The most brilliantly talented designer, without these skills, will ultimately fail. There’s no arguing that point.

But what often comes across as conceit is more often concern. Speaking for myself, I can say that I’m less worried about having my feelings hurt and much more focused on what works for the project. I’m interested in what sells and what sticks in the minds of those who see it, read it and use it. That’s something I will fight for and something that any good designer should be concerned about. The challenge is that sometimes clients will confuse that passion for arrogance. Good designers want you, the client, to succeed. We want you to be rock stars. Our job is to make you look good and place the spotlight firmly in your direction. We live for that. That, to us, makes this career better than the rest as far as we’re concerned.

With that in mind, I’m willing to take a hit and have some of the unfortunate stereotypes applied to me, even if they aren’t always entirely accurate. Just know that when a designer grits his or her teeth and cringes when they disagree with you, it’s not because we think we always know better. And it’s not because we’re being stubborn stick-in-the-muds. More often than not, it’s because we genuinely want the work to be the best that it possibly can be. And with all due respect, if we weren’t qualified to make that judgement, you wouldn’t have hired us in the first place.

And just for the record, I actually don’t wear black-framed glasses. I did try a pair once, but I couldn’t pull it off.

*I’ve actually had a client do this.