I remember my first real design job, which came in the form of a work study program through my school. I was assigned to the campus career center to do web design.
Leading up to this, I had no experience working with the client or a boss in a design setting. I had plenty of part time jobs in school, but there were a few more twists and turns as I started to learn how that relationship worked between a designer and their client — or in this case a boss.
My boss was a really good manager and fun to work with. However, she had a very bad habit of being very specific and micromanaged a lot of the finer details. I didn’t have the experience to stick up or challenge any of that. I was only a young kid in college that was trying to figure out how these things worked. On top of that, I was the only creative in this department, so I didn’t have anybody that I get advice from on how to handle my situation.
So I ended up being a human Photoshop cursor for a while. It’s super easy to get sucked into this trap, especially if you’re still gaining that experiences as a designer. Clients can be very passionate about the suggestions or ideas they have, and it’s easy to take it as gospel when you’re starting out. It’s where popular things like “make it green” or the famous, “make the logo bigger” happen.
Unfortunately, it starts to trap you in an awful cycle that’s difficult to break out of. It’s tough when it’s a client that traps you in this, and even tougher when it’s a boss.
To be fair, many non-creative people have likely had limited experience working with designers. In numerous cases, I was one of the first few designers they worked with. They didn’t know what to expect or get clear enough direction from me in how to behave during the relationship or project.
What ends up happening, is you start to be treated like anyone else. They might take cues from how they work with their accountant and expect that it works for you — but it doesn’t.
It’s a designer’s job to step a client through the process of a project. A good design process should benefit both parties — which means we do have to listen to feedback. The good and bad kind.
If you’re a freelancer, it’s important to start looking out for the signs of what makes a good or bad client for you. When I would have an initial meeting with a client, I tried to get a feel for how they responded to ideas that weren’t their own. I would be up front about my process, how I worked, and what I expected from them. The goal was to emphasize my expertise and show that I would be “driving the bus,” so to speak.
Depending on the reaction, it was easy to either carry on and pursue the project or stop everything. This is a great point to do that — there’s no contracts, agreements, or mess that you have to dig out of. A simple “Thanks for your time, but I don’t think I’m a good fit for this project” works.
It’s worth noting that many of the clients I ran into that were expecting a designer to be a Human Photoshop Cursor were typically low-budget clients. One of the best ways I found to avoid this altogether was to charge more. When a client has to pay more for design, they tend to value it more and respect your expertise.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us to stick up for what we do. We need to stick up for our process. Don’t be afraid.
To create something that looks great and is effective means you have to stand up for your work. If you don’t, you’ll find that it open the door to your new job title: “Human Photoshop Cursor.”