One of the hardest things to do as a designer is work on projects that are misguided, unrealistic or otherwise you just don't believe in. And sadly for many of us, it is part of the job. For the lucky folks, they can refuse. But for most of us who are rank-and-file workers, or just scraping by, there isn't that option.
So how do you deal with these types of projects?
There are a few different types of projects I am referring to. The first one is the startup or small business venture that you know is just not going to make it. They might have big dreams but unrealistic expectations. Or they could just have a really bad business idea and are looking to you to work your magic on it.
If someone puts a pile (small pile) of money in front of you and wants a website built for a company you know won’t be around this time next year… do you do it? If you have the choice, you probably refuse, but when you don’t, how do you approach the project?
Most of us are proud of the work that we do and also feel a certain responsibility for the welfare of the projects we work on. We don’t want to be painting a mural on the side of the Titanic. If your boss puts you on a project building a website for a doomed client, are you going to let them crash and burn? Do you jump in and do what you can to save it, or do you give your honest opinion and try to get them to change?
A lot of it comes down to how you feel about the client and how attached you become. If you do decide to let them crash and burn, does it reflect on you as a designer? One approach is to try and make the client happy. Let them live in ignorance. It may end up with a bad relationship down the road but is it your responsibility as an employee?
If you work on a website for two months and it is gone in a year, did you fail as a designer? We at least like to believe that good design leads to business success. We can point to many examples of businesses with excellent design that also have great financial success. But can your work keep a business from failing and is it worth the effort?
Most of use at least try. We either try to tell the client how we feel, or we try to give business suggestions, disguised as design advice. The first option is the hardest to do, especially if you are working for a company and don’t want to convince the client not to spend money with you.
The second type of project is one that gets passed down internally in an organization to your boss from someone further up the chain. So you are removed from the client. You know the project is a bad idea but have no way of saying so. You have to make something that resembles what the client asked for.
If I had a choice of the lesser of two evils I’d take this project any day. Hopefully, the project isn’t something your company is relying on to stay in business. Most times these are dumb projects passed down from upper management who are barking out orders about things they don’t understand. Usually, knee-jerk reactions from something they heard or some data they were presented with. “X billion people on Facebook?!?! We need to tap that. Get our adult diaper brand on there ASAP!!!”
These are the types of projects to have some fun with. If you have to, come up with a concept that fits what was asked for but do it quickly and spend the rest of your time coming up with something creative. If you don’t get a lot of opportunities in your job to come up with anything original, now is the time to go for it. Come up with a separate version and a nice pitch to sell it with.
The hardest part about these types of projects is finding the motivation. We all have a fear of failure and when you go into a project with the chips stacked against you, it isn’t fun. But what you have to realize is that this is our job as designers, what we live for. We are problem solvers. We don’t just make things pretty, we make things sell. If a target market doesn’t want a product we put a new spin on it, brand it differently and hopefully they bite the second time around.
These are the types of projects that you want to put the most effort into because you stand the gain the most both personally as a designer and professionally.
I’ve always thought that the absolutely most boring design job you ever could get would be working for a company like Apple. The brand is set, no problems to solve, no ability to be creative or deviate from the path. They know who they are, have spent millions developing the brand, so all you get to be is a pixel pusher.
Struggling companies make for design challenges and design challenges are what you should live for. You want to work with companies who don’t know how to market themselves, who have untested products and probably won’t make it. Because if they do make it, your contribution will be the determining factor. And as designers that fulfillment is what we need to stay motived and growing in this field.
Doing safe work will not keep you motivated. Even fun projects will get old. The excitement and challenge comes from working on bad projects. You might not get a portfolio piece or win an award but you get to solve real problems. Big design problems are what failing and fledgling companies have. Big design problems are what you want to look for.
I know it can be hard. You probably have to put in a ton of extra work and there will be added pressure but the hard things in life are the ones that are the most meaningful.
I don’t want you to go out and try to rescue every failing business you can find but when you can or have to… don’t take a backseat or hide from challenging projects. Take them on and do your best work with what is given, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll produce something you can be truly proud of.