How to do great design work without being an asshole

We speak to designer Paul Woods, author of a new book offering creative people advice on how to get on with colleagues, avoid hostile work situations and not be an “egomanical asshole”.

Design Week: What inspired you to write this book? Was it personal experience?

Paul Woods: I have been incredibly lucky in my career to have worked at places such as design consultancy Edenspiekermann and digital studio Huge, which manage to produce great work while still being awesome to staff. But unfortunately there are many, many others in the industry who haven’t been so lucky at the places they’ve worked — long hours and bad culture is still part and parcel of working in the creative industries.

The initial idea for this book was sparked after a debate with one of these people who had had bad experiences, around whether it was necessary to work long hours to produce great creative work. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the information contained in the book — it’s simply a collection of common sense morsels that I’ve picked up along the way. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves that common sense doesn’t always prevail.

DW: Do you think creative fields like design attract “assholes”?

PW: In truth, a lot of asshole-behaviour in the industry is entirely unintentional and comes down to the relentless nature of the creative personality wanting to make great work. To a creative person, the need to make things is more addictive than crack cocaine — when an idea takes hold, we can rarely stop ourselves, or the team around us, from doing all it takes to see it through. As team leaders we need to constantly remind ourselves that it is our job to protect creative people — especially juniors — from themselves, and from burning out.

DW: Have you ever found yourself falling into the trap of acting like an “asshole”?

PW: Of course. I have made just about every mistake I’ve warned against in the book, especially early in my career when all I cared about was making great work. In fact, a lot of the cartoons and anecdotes about egomaniacs in the book are actually self-referential. But the experience of working with Erik Spiekermann, co-founder at Edenspiekermann (who has written the foreword for the book), and later the team at Huge showed me that great work is not synonymous with being an asshole. Being nice is good for business — fact.

DW: What is the biggest social faux-pa when it comes to being a designer?

PW: Micromanaging people is the biggest one. You hired a smart person (or people) to do something you cannot, so trust them to do their jobs. Whether you are a client with control issues or a hovering art director, you will never get the best out of people if you micromanage them. They need space to make mistakes, learn from them and above all, develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the work they are doing.

DW: What does this book hope to teach people?

PW: Whether you’re a picture of modern purity, or a soulless creature who just cares about a quick buck, the fact is that being nice means better work and a more profitable business. Every creative field runs on one currency: people. And in today’s world, where designers have more employment choices than ever, keeping them happy is paramount. If your best people are not happy, they will leave. And when they do, your clients will not be far behind.

DW: How did you structure the book, and what is your favourite chapter?

PW: From the start it was clear that unlike a typical “business for design” book, the format needed to be geared specifically towards creatives. Keeping the format highly visual, interactive and, most importantly, fun, was key. Instead of a text-heavy “turn-paper” that would bore the arses off creatives, the book’s contents are presented in illustrated formats such as flowcharts, cartoons and exercises.

My favorite chapter in the book is on the topic of meetings. I firmly believe that 99% of meetings in creative studios are a waste of time, and it drives me fucking crazy.

DW: What crucial tips can you offer designers on being a good person to work with?

PW: Don’t waste people’s time with unnecessary meetings. Read the brief three times and always ask questions. And for Christ’s sake, please take notes.

Paul Woods is a US-based graphic designer working in Los Angeles, who has worked with clients including Google, Red Bull, Bosch and Faraday Future. He is also the founder of satirical design news website, Adloids.

How to do Great Work without Being an Asshole by Paul Woods is published on 11 March 2019 by Laurence King, and costs £12.99. For more information, head here.

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  • Ms Smith March 7, 2019 at 9:16 am

    I have a colleague that started a year ago, he’s an egomanical arsehole and it’s done wonders for him…he now gets all the best work, credit for my work and has created a clique so only a few people know whats going on in the office. It’s taught me, being nice and team spirited does not get you to the top. Being a women doesn’t help much either.

    • Karan March 14, 2019 at 1:44 pm

      It won’t last and you’re right but don’t let that stop you.

  • Ms S March 14, 2019 at 1:33 am

    It surprises me how many bad people get ahead. I used to believe if you’re treating others with respect, not afraid to speak up and ask for opportunity, take ownership of your work, step up and take risks and show your willingness to work hard, offer support, and put in ridiculously long hours and take details and your role seriously, AND do good design, others will see your value and respect you—you’ll get ahead in your career. This is assuming widespread rationality and strength of character—which isn’t the reality. Mostly, we are at the mercy of whatever personality happens to have more power than ourselves. Weak, fearful managers who have no clue how to treat/manage people or lack back bone to do right by their reports for fear of their own bosses and futures are everywhere. Their lack of integrity and willingness to backstab to ensure their asses are covered is offensive and can quickly erode company culture and cause the best talent to go elsewhere. The root problem though, is toxic upper management. A bad shortsighted manager at the top will enforce the worst sort of culture that will trickle down to eventually hurt everyone. But if these bad mangers get results, they are tolerated and rewarded. That’s truly all that ever matters–profitability and appeasing clients, with little thought to fairness and treating employees with respect. It’s a messed up situation.

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