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Nov 12, 2012

Designer Questions: Toxic Studio Culture

I regularly get correspondence from designers working in unprofessional environments, asking for advice or sometimes just wanting to vent a little. Too many designers are caught up in these environments, often believing that’s just how it works in a design studio, but they feel something is wrong. One such email caught my attention recently and I’d like to respond in article form, for him and the many who struggle in similar situations. By Andy Rutledge

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Toxic studio culture creates a career-stunting or soul-crushing (or both!) environment for all involved. Here’s an example of one such environment as described by a frustrated designer in an email to me.

Hi Andy,
I’ve been in the industry about 5 years - 4 in-house, and this last year working for a small agency.

This agency kind of exemplifies all the things I’ve heard you describe as bad project management and policy in general. Every design is filtered through a project manager who relays it to a client contact, who gets buy-in from superiors, and then passes that back to the project manager, then that goes to the designers. Being the primary contact, the project manager tends to make wild promises to the client without consulting the team. Additionally, the designers are left out of the initial discussions with clients when new projects start. Moreover, any attempt on the part of designers to talk clients out of bad decisions hits a brick wall because management tends to want to please the clients by letting them have their way on everything, including changes in scope and exclusion of process (discovery, research, etc.).

I don’t wanna sound like I’m whining, and I could go on, but I think you get the picture here. Like I said, I’m new to the agency setting and I had assumed this is just how it works. So, my question is, in your opinion is it worth trying to change a long standing toxic inner culture perpetuated by the owners, or, is it better to start looking for another employer?

Wow. To know that eager and talented designers are caught up in this sort of unprofessional and toxic culture is disheartening for me. Surely, it is far worse than disheartening for those involved, as there is no room for professionalism in such an environment. My friend’s question here is a pressing one!

The Short Answer (tldr)

No. While there’s no reason you can’t give it a shot, short of the place coming under new ownership there’s likely nothing you can do about the situation. You work for merchants whose perspective will not likely accommodate professional ideals. Learn what you can about good and bad (mostly bad) process while you’re there. Those lessons are valuable. But make plans to go elsewhere as soon as you may. Neither you nor anyone else has a professional future there.

Examination

A toxic, merchant-studio culture leads to the sort of dysfunctional studio process described above, and to greatly diminished results. The only ones making deliberate decisions in the project process described here are those who lack any relevant expertise. That sort of situation turns any possibility for quality results on its head.

“…Every design is filtered through a project manager who relays it to a client contact, who gets buy-in from superiors, and then passes that back to the project manager, then that goes to the designers.”

No, those aren’t “designs” that are being relayed; they’re guesses or impotent options, subject to the machinations of subjective preference. What we have here are designers who are insulated from their clients (actually, these are customers), who craft design guesses based on rumor and innuendo, which are then used as objects in a game of Chinese whispers conducted by non designers, who then send inexpert response in the form of rumor and innuendo back to the designer; not likely for consideration, but for execution. What could possibly go wrong and who could it harm?

“…Being the primary contact, the project manager tends to make wild promises to the client without consulting the team.”

Whose team? The “team” isn’t even in the stadium, much less on the field of play. For a successful design project, the one person the client must trust more than any other is the lead designer on her project. And their relationship must be built from direct interaction from the moment the project starts. Yet here it is explained that the project manager is the primary contact.

Perhaps the previous quote referenced above makes it clear that it is the project manager and customer’s absentee superiors who are doing the designing. The designer is merely the technician who renders it in digital form.

“…Additionally, the designers are left out of the initial discussions with clients when new projects start.”

Here, as with many agencies, the effort—deliberate or accidental—to marginalize the rightful experts begins from the start. By keeping the designers out of the most vital portion of the project the agency sends the very clear message to the client customer that the designers are just “pretty makers” (read: those children will be kept from meddling in these adult matters) and that the results will be based on the non-expert, subjective opinions of a coalition of the customer and the project manager.

“…Moreover, any attempt on the part of designers to talk clients out of bad decisions hits a brick wall because management tends to want to please the clients by letting them have their way on everything, including changes in scope and exclusion of process (discovery, research, etc.).”

This is the bargain the agency sold to the customer, so in this they’re merely delivering on a promise. Design expertise stands no chance of impacting such a project or impacting a client’s prospects in whatever endeavor prompted them to contact the agency in the first place. These studio denizens are technicians and merchants, not professionals. There is nothing here for an aspiring design professional and I urge those of you in similar situations to remove yourselves from them as soon as you can.

Yes, there are valuable lessons to be learned in less-than-ideal situations. Learn what you can. Compare your experience to better ones described elsewhere and by others in your industry. But make every effort to end your internment in that contemptible studio and find a more professional environment for your continued development. You might perhaps act as though you career depends on it, for indeed it does.

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