Trust Your Designer

In 1986 Steve Jobs hired one of America’s premiere graphic artists to create a logo for his NeXT Educational Computer Company. The relationship that was to develop has since become something of a legend in the story of modern advertising and design. 30 years later, the story still speaks to the creative potential that is realized when a client trusts in the ability of their designer to develop meaningful solutions.

As the story goes Jobs asks Paul Rand, designer of some of America’s most iconic brands including ABC, IBM, and UPS, to develop a range of options for him to choose from for the new company. Rand’s response:

“No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people.’”

It’s hard to imagine this conversation today where creative decisions are rarely left to the designer who was hired to make them. No doubt, many have come to view design as a mere service industry devoid of its own voice in client relationships. Another icon of American advertising and design, Tibor Kalman, famously laid out this lament in his 1998 manifesto entitled Fuck Committees:

“Magazine editors have lost their editorial independence, and work for committees of publishers (who work for committees of advertisers)… Film studios put films in front of focus groups to determine whether an ending will please target audiences. All cars look the same. Architectural decisions are made by accountants. Ads are stupid. Theatre is dead.”

Surely this reality has only worsened over the 18 years since Tibor’s infamous rant. This is what makes the story of Jobs and Rand so exceptional. It is a rare one. So are visionary leaders and ideas, but maybe the conditions have to be just right. Imagine for a moment some of the proposals that almost never were because of misguided artistic oversight:

  • The Eiffel tower was bitterly opposed by the Parisian arts community when the design was unveiled in 1887 and was almost scrapped.
  • The Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin narrowly survived the public outcry that labeled it “a black gash of shame.”
  • Now widely considered the best advertising campaign of the 20th century, Volkswagen’s “think small” ads where almost rejected outright by a fidgety artistic director.

History provides countless examples of why design does not work by consensus. There are going to be hurt feelings, anger, love and everything in between. However, those are the very things good design is meant to activate. They are the indicators of having created something unique and meaningful. Ultimately, something nobody hates is also something nobody will love—something nobody will even notice.

I say all of that to say this: trust your designer. Give them the space to challenge expectations. Afford them the creative freedom that’s prerequisite for bold ideas. Remember that they are trying to speak to your audience and not necessarily to you. This is what they are paid to do and they believe in it.

As creative professionals we also have a responsibility to defend our role in the creative process. Equally, we need our clients to understand the value of that role. It should be no secret that the most groundbreaking advertising and design does not result from the desire to meet our client’s expectations. Without exception, it comes from challenging them.

This was the story of Jobs and Rand, and a single logo design that embodied to the fullest a relationship between designer and client as it should be. Some years later, when asked if Rand was the first person he had approached, Jobs responded:

“He was the only one we approached.”