Dirty little secret

Clients may pull the purse strings, but they should still let designers use their personal intuition, as that is how they find job satisfaction, says Adrian Shaughnessy

There’s a dark secret that all designers carry around within themselves. I should point out that many designers deny the existence of this secret. Others acknowledge its presence, but seek to eradicate it from themselves as if it were a virus. So, what is this dark secret that dare not speak its name? To put it as bluntly as possible, designers design to please themselves.

The architect hero of Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead gives an extreme expression of this view when he says, ‘I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.’ This notion is intellectually unpalatable to a great many designers (not to mention their clients). For those who see the role of the designer as that of an anonymous professional with only the concerns of the client and the end user in mind, the idea that designers are secretly pleasing themselves is anathema.

Yet designers choose to become designers because they discover – usually at an early age – that they have an aptitude and an appetite for creating visual statements. Designers are drawn to colours, shapes and images that mean something to them. No two designers are drawn to the same combinations of colours, shapes and images, which is why design is as rich and varied as it is. But we each develop a personal aesthetic vocabulary that allows us to give visual expression to ideas, messages and products.

This aesthetic vocabulary is the reason that compelling design gets produced in the first place, but it is also the cause of most of the conflict between designers and clients. Clients want rational and effective solutions, and designers want to supply these, but they want to do it using their own aesthetic codes. Problems arise when clients demand that designers go against their personal codes. Some designers deal with this by adopting a purely pragmatic approach and bowing to the demands of their clients. Others fight for what they believe in, and this leads to conflict.

Designers bleating because they’ve been asked to change a colour is hardly the image of a mature design profession that we’d want to promote. I’m not saying that clients can’t ask designers to change things, nor am I saying that designers are always right. I’m not even saying that there isn’t a place for research and strategic thinking in the design process. What I am saying is that we should recognise that design, unlike dentistry or plumbing, is not an exact science. No matter how much we want to push design as a rational, problem-solving discipline, it will always involve an element of personal expression. It is, in fact, a messy business that requires intuition and inner conviction. And we only have intuition and inner conviction when we have a set of aesthetic beliefs.

I’ve spent a lot of time telling students and young designers that, when asked why they have done something, they should never reply, ‘I’ve done it because I like it.’ Clients want research-based evidential reasoning. They get suspicious when they think designers are pleasing themselves. And yet we all create design statements that we like. We really wouldn’t want a designer to design something that he or she disliked, since it would almost certainly be poor design. Doing something because we like it is an essential part of good design – it’s just a shame we have to be secretive about it.

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Rob Diego November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    So a UPS driver should not want to be a driver because he likes to drive a truck and stay in shape, he should want to be a UPS driver because he wants to see the looks on peoples’ faces when he delivers a package on time. I would wonder about the quality of the work a designer creates who did not do it because he/she enjoyed doing it.

  • Valda Redfern November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This article hints at a conflict of interests between designer and client. But when Howard Roarks says “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build,” he is not being self-indulgent. He is stating his intention to trade his best effort for the best fee he can negotiate with his clients. He refuses to pander to clients who prefer rubbish to good design, but he provides superlative value to those who do hire him.

  • Post a comment

Latest articles