How to Work With a Manager That Doesn’t Understand Graphic Design

How to Work With a Manager That Doesn't Understand Graphic Design

Can you make it pop? Can you make our logo bigger? Could you bold everything?

If you’re a designer that works for non-creatives then you have probably heard these infamous lines before. When you put a non-designer in charge of giving feedback or final approval on a creative piece, things can often go wrong. The designer has good design sense in mind, whereas the manager often cares about maximizing how in-your-face the sales pitch is. With the growing popularity of creative teams and of combining the creative and analytical sides of marketing, this is becoming less of an issue. But designers working for smaller companies and specific clients may run into this issue.

In this blog, we’re going to teach you how to explain the importance of good design to managers. And not only about the examples given above. We’ll also cover how to explain why design is important in the first place, and why the job of a good designer is incredibly important! Cover photo by Direct Media.

Understand Why Managers Do This

man in jacket yelling into phone
Is this you, or is this your boss?

Before being able to explain design to a managers that just doesn’t seem to get it, it’s important to understand why managers and clients give the kind of feedback that makes designers cringe.

One of the main reasons is a very understandable one. They want to have a piece of themselves in the final product. It feels good to point to a finished design and say “I suggested this part right here!”. These are often referred to as “thumbprint” clients, for obvious reasons. Managers also tend to feel like they need to say something about a design, even if that suggestion isn’t necessary or even helpful. It comes with the territory of being in charge of people – if you’re just accepting the work your employees do, then how do you justify your job? It’s a bit of a fallacy, and is more psychological than anything, but it’s a real problem that managers face and pass down to their entire department.

Another common situation is that your manager will go behind your back and create a design themselves. You as a designer will not only feel betrayed but also may notice that the design was done poorly or outside of brand guidelines. This often is not because your manager hates you – it’s because they know you will be working on larger projects that demand more time and skill, and they don’t want to waste your time with quick graphics. Even if the logic is flawed, these moments are not the end off the world. Some situations just don’t require a high-effort design, and a lack of design skill won’t be noticed by the intended audience.

Be Able to Articulate Why You Made a Decision

Whether you know it deep down or not, every design decision you make has a reason behind it. If you want your manager to accept your designs and not override your designs, you need to be able to defend your choices. Many designers would rather avoid conflict, but this is your area of expertise! It’s yours to defend. You know the value of white space better than your manager, so explain the concept of white space and why it’s important. If your manager understands why you made a certain choice, they’ll be more willing to accept it, both now and in the future. A lack of ability to explain yourself can show a lack of confidence, and a manager who wants to control your designs will jump on any sign of weakness in this regard.

There are many ways to nicely assert your experience here. Remind your manager or client that they hired you because you are the expert, so ultimately you know what designs work and don’t work. Show confidence in what you’ve created! “My nephew can do this for cheaper, I don’t need to pay your ridiculous rates” is also a common intimidation tool used by bad clients. If this comes up, you need to remind them that creative work is worth paying for. If they’re still not convinced, then you can always suggest giving you and their nephew the same project and then seeing which one turns out best. This display of confidence will often shut down these clients, but there’s always the chance they will feel insulted and will fire you – so tread carefully!

Use Business Terms, Not Design Terms

graphic design educational books stacked on table
Maybe your boss needs to put down the startup hustle books and start reading these.

Your non-designer manager doesn’t care that it’s called a drop shadow, or that the colors are complementary. When it comes to talking with your manager about your design, treat it like going to the mechanic for your car. You don’t want to hear about car parts and the internal workings of your engine, and frankly, you don’t need to. You just want your car to run without worry. That’s why you hired the mechanic! The same is true of your design skills. Your manager wants the business to run, much like you want your car to run. So instead of being technical, you should use business terms to explain why you made certain design choices. Make sure that you understand the purpose of your design and what it’s meant to do. It often doesn’t need to be the best-designed thing in the world, as long as it accomplishes the business goals. In addition to that, you’ll be on the same page if both parties are talking business. If you’re stuck speaking in design terms, then it’s like talking in a completely different language.

Inversely, if the client is willing it can be beneficial to explain things in design terms and make sure your boss can understand your language. Your design may already accomplish the proper goals, but you can only explain it after explaining design language.

Understand the End User

Designers are concerned with overall looks as well as usability, while managers want results and sales. You can combine these priorities to get the best results! You can explain your design as you imagine the end user interacting with it. If your manager wants to fit the entire text of the company’s history on a pamphlet, you can explain to them that most end users will never read all of that, and they are more likely to miss the important information on the pamphlet. Consider the design from the user’s perspective. Of the two of you, the designer is more likely to consider the user experience, so you are uniquely positioned here.

Learn to Say No

person with hand in front of their face
The buck stops here.

When you first start a job, you may feel inclined to say yes to everything. After all, you want to make a good impression, and if you’re desperate for a good job, you’ll do everything you can to succeed. But it is especially important in the design world to know when to tell your manager “no.” If your manager doesn’t understand design, then it’s up to you to help them understand what is possible. If they expect you to create a logo in under an hour, don’t tell them you can do it! Because the next time they ask for a design, they’ll think it will only take an hour. Set an expectation that good design takes time and it’s not as simple and straightforward as typing numbers into a spreadsheet. Be honest about how long something will take, or about your skills. If you’re asked to do something that you’re not fully comfortable with, there is nothing wrong with saying “I haven’t done that before, but if you give me some extra time on this project then I can learn it.” If your manager blows off that explanation, then you may have deeper problems to address with them. But more than likely, they will appreciate your honesty and willingness to give it a shot.

Budget for Expectations

When you can’t do anything about the issues your manager causes, there is a coping mechanism to help deal with the stress. Set a number in your head of how many issues your manager causes you per project. This can include how many changes they ask for, how many times they belittle your design, etc. Then go into each project assuming that there will be that many issues. This is your new standard. You’ll be emotionally prepared as well as able to structure the project around these roadblocks.

This works really well for clients as well, if you have several. If one client is twice as stressful as another, for the same amount of work, then you should try to charge that client twice as much. As a professional, you shouldn’t work for people who cause you to pull your hair out every day. If you must work for these people, at least make sure that you’re fairly compensated for your suffering. Keep track of how long projects take with each new client, and give higher quotes for future projects if necessary. If the client doesn’t take you up on the quote, then you’ll both have won!

One funny way that designers deal budget for the thumbprint clients we mentioned earlier is putting an obvious design flaw in their first drafts, so that the client can find an issue that you had already planned on removing. Doing this may compromise your design integrity, but on a psychological level it may make dealing with troublesome clients a bit easier.

Don’t Get Defensive

captain america shield in display case
Not even Cap’s shield can protect you from a bad client.

When explaining your design to your manager or client, don’t get defensive. At the end of the day, you’re not challenging them. You are both on the same side working toward the same goals. If you can’t come to an agreement, then it’s best just to side with your boss. Just make sure to keep a good record of email and messaging exchanges so if anyone tries to send blame your way, you can remind everyone of who actually asked for a specific change. For the most part, you’ll be able to wipe your hands clean of the project afterwards. Obviously, you want your client or company to succeed. But sometimes you just need to let it go and let your manager have their way. Losing favor with your manager is only going to hurt you in the long run, so it’s important to choose your battles carefully.

Separate Yourself From Your Design

As much as you probably love design, you should practice separating yourself from your work. It’s great to be proud of your work, but sometimes the client wants something different than what your vision is. You are not defined by your work. At the end of the day, what you’re doing is a job. The staff at an Italian restaurant may give you a weird look when you order the cheeseburger, but in the end they’ll be happy that they had a customer purchase something. Even if it’s not what they wanted you to order, they still made money. You work in a capitalistic world, and in tough times it can wise to remember this. Do bad design if that’s what your client wants, and just rake in your paycheck. And if good design is more important than getting paid, fire that client.

On a similar note, try not to take criticisms or bad suggestions as personal attacks. Again, you are not your designs. Every person has a different taste, and taste is often just an opinion. If your client just doesn’t like your style, that is not your fault.

Final Words

Not every manager is bad, regardless of whether they are creative or non-creative. Hopefully the horror stories are the minority and most designers and other creatives have positive experiences with their managers and clients. There are plenty of ways to deal with this negative experience. The most important thing is finding a balance of making enough money and having enough sanity at the end of the day.

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