Just say, ‘No, sorry’

In among the tap-dancing dogs, vomit-drinking students, and body-piercing exhibitionists on YouTube, you’ll find a little clip of Robert De Niro recording a voice-over for a promo trail flagging a feature on the Fox channel in the US.

Nearly 500 000 people have watched this 30-second clip to date, and it’s easy to see why – it’s funny, sharp and shows De Niro at his tetchiest best. But it is of such immeasurable significance to anyone who works in the creative community that I feel a deep-rooted responsibility to bring it to everyone’s attention. If designers, copywriters and illustrators need a patron saint, let me recommend De Niro.

As the star of some of the best films ever made – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Godfather II – De Niro’s place in the artistic firmament is secure. He is a great actor – so good, in fact, that his reputation can remain untarnished despite slightly too many duff movies in recent years. But it is not as an actor that I nominate De Niro for adoption as the patron saint of design and related trades. All you have to do is watch the clip (search for How to Piss Off Robert De Niro In 30 Seconds Or Less), and you will see exactly what I mean. This is what he says De Niro: ‘When we created Tribeca, we wanted to capture all the emotion, all the energy, and all the power of a movie. See for yourself – Tuesday on Fox. [Pause] Do another?’

Voice off camera: ‘Can you try one, just generally more energetic?’

De Niro: ‘I’m sorry, that is energetic. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

Voice off camera: ‘Tuesday on Fox.’

De Niro: ‘No. Sorry. I’m not selling cars, OK?’

I’ve often dreamt of responding like this to some interfering client. I’ve said ‘no’ to clients many times, but I’ve usually done it with so much diplomacy that it never sounded like ‘no’, and usually failed anyway. But how great would it be to just say ‘no’ to some fatuous request, and how great to do it with the style and panache of De Niro?

More mature and sensible creative people than me will say, ‘Hang on, we’re a service, and if our clients want it green, we make it green.’

But I’m not talking about the times we are asked to change creative work by smart and attuned clients. I have a long-standing rule that if a client – or anyone, for that matter – suggests a change that is an improvement, I make it, even if I feel narked about missing it in the first place.

No, what I’m talking about here are those irritating changes (‘make the type bigger!’) that are only requested because of some herd-like, imitative instinct in clients that reacts against anything that looks new or unfamiliar.

It is the nature of the craft of visual communication that everyone is an expert and has an opinion – therefore there aren’t many clients who are shy about suggesting changes. In the digital age, clients know that changes can be made in an instant by the twitch of a mouse. But what clients usually fail to understand is that even small changes can have serious implications. Moving a line of text can unbalance a layout; making type bigger can wreck a well-considered hierarchy of information.

I know we have to be grown-up about this, but every now and then, I’d like to do a De Niro and say, ‘Sorry, you don’t know what you’re talking about’.

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