One of the few perks of being an art director is that I get to train designers. Often I get interns and designers who are dab hands at InDesign and Photoshop, but lack crucial skills that aren’t always taught in design classes. Namely, how to work with other designers, clients, and an art director. It’s wonderful that you can design mind-blowing work, but if you can’t get along with your studio, you’re doomed. This is a hard lesson for some. Luckily, that’s why the gods invented art directors: to school the uppity.

Crispin Porter + Bogosky, as with so many other things, beat me to this great idea. Their employee handbook has a list of things they’d like you not to do. I expanded on their list for my designers, and now I’m passing this wisdom on to you.

Please don’t:

Throw sand. It’s a guideline from preschool, but it’s amazingly applicable to the creative workplace. Just because creatives need to spend time in a playful child headspace is no excuse to be childish.

Be selfish. There’s enough to go around for everyone. Really. Don’t hoard your ideas. Don’t hoard your time. Ever notice that the successful creative folk who’ve made their passion a career, all give freely of their knowledge?

Disparage others. Putting down other people isn’t productive in any environment. In an office, it gets destructive at the same speed rumors travel: faster than light. Deal with your insecurity by doing your own best work and letting it speak for itself. Or, just whip out the pica pole and start measuring.

Talk shit. Probably the last time you loved everyone you worked with, it was as you were draining your last margarita at the company holiday party. Unless you’re the founder of a small startup, you don’t get the luxury of choosing everyone you work with. So just like with your family, go talk to the person who’s getting on your last nerve and resolve the issue like grownups.

Okay, maybe not just like with your family. The police are busy enough.

Duck responsibility. Creative people have an unfortunate reputation for being flaky and forgetting things like deadlines. I know of course that you would never flake out on anyone, least of all your coworkers or clients… but I’m talking to the other people. And by the way, you still owe me $40.

Also, don’t blame others for your mistakes. Mistakes happen in this industry — it’s part of the job. But if you keep making the same mistake, or worse, keep blaming others for the mistakes you make, you’ll find yourself out of work and with a bad rep.

Play the busy card. If you’re employed, you’re busy. Hell, even the unemployed manage to keep busy looking for work. There are very few professions where you are so crucial and busy that if you take time to help a colleague, people die. Hint: take a look at your business card — if it doesn’t say ‘surgeon,’ or any other profession where death is a consequence of screwing up, you’re not one of those insanely busy people.

Complaining that you’re busy while at work gives the impression that you can’t manage your time efficiently. Stop running around trying to gain martyr points, and sit down and do your work.

Leave others hanging. When suppliers, vendors, or coworkers are depending on you to get something done, or worse, can’t do their jobs until you’ve done yours, don’t stall. Don’t flake. Get the damn thing done. If nothing else, it’s in your best interest to get it off your plate and onto theirs.

If you’ve been in design for longer than a month, you most likely know what it feels like to be the person in the middle: when the client’s drug their feet reviewing your copy, the printer needs 10 working days to print your piece, and you’re beginning to feel that impending sense of doom in your stomach as you realize that the only way your deadline’s going to be met is if you neither go to the bathroom nor eat for the next 36 hours, and forget about sleeping. if you remember that feeling, and vow to never induce it in anyone else, you’ll be in good shape.

Make excuses. There’s a difference between explaining what went wrong and being accountable for your mistakes, and making excuses. People will generally cut you some slack with the first couple of excuses, but if it’s a habit of yours, you’ll lose your credibility. Above all else, tell the truth when you’re explaining how you dropped the ball. I’d much rather hear someone say, ‘I just completely spaced doing that; I’ll have it finished by this afternoon,’ than ‘Oh, it’ll be ready for you to look at this afternoon.’

Disappear. As tempting as it is to ignore emails and phone calls from clients when a project isn’t going as well as you’d hoped, don’t do it. You generate so much ill-will that you ruin your credibility with not just that client, but anyone that client’s talking to.

I once worked with a designer who was a part-time employee, which usually isn’t a problem; part-timers have set hours that they’re in, and they meet with clients and return phone calls then. Except that we never knew when she’d be coming into the office, which made fielding her clients’ phone calls exercises in tact and discretion, as we tried to cover for her. Some weeks, we never saw her at all. No one knew what exactly her set schedule was, including our boss, who was too conflict-averse to confront her. As you might imagine, clients rapidly began to complain and ask to be assigned another designer, and she got put on gradually less important projects… until she found herself out of a job. If you’re disappearing, your coworkers will have to pick up your slack, your clients will lose respect for you, and you’ll soon find yourself out of work.

Make promises you don’t keep. This should be a no-brainer, but it’s very hard to do. The natural urge to promise your clients that you’ll not only meet their deadlines ahead of time, but have a fabulous concept, is hard to resist. But life has a way of getting in the way and throwing up roadblocks you didn’t expect. And since irony is the operating principle of the universe, your computer will wait to die until you have a tight deadline to meet.

This is one I fought for a long time — my built-in estimator for projects took a while to recalibrate and adjust to adding in all the minutiae of being a manager, on top of being a designer. I tended to estimate how long a job will take me if nothing else happens… not how long it’ll take if I had to drop everything to sort out a human resources issue, go to six meetings I didn’t plan on, or my boss’ boss completely overhauled my day’s priorities. This resulted in taking work home and sleepless nights far more often than I was comfortable with.

“Under-promise and over-deliver,” should be your guiding rule, here. Pretend you’re Scotty on the Enterprise — and pad your time estimates. It’ll take a bit of time to learn how to do this without sounding wildly noncommittal. Don’t be afraid to ask for time to check your schedule, when a client’s pressing you for a deadline in a meeting.

Say it can’t be done. If you’re continually shooting down ideas, you need a different line of work. As a creative, your job is to generate ideas, think outside the box, and in general, come up with solutions to design problems. Try to save ‘It can’t be done,’ for instances where it’s genuinely physically impossible — e.g., a 13-page brochure. (And if you come up with a way for a sheet of paper to have only one physical side, let me know.) If this is a talent you just don’t have, then go hit Men’s Wearhouse, buy yourself a suit, and join the other suits over in accounts payable.


I’ve never cut anyone loose for a lack of technical skill; after all, it’s next to impossible to know everything about both print and web design. Design’s a field fraught with peril, and mistakes are deceptively easy to make. (There’s a reason printing has a patron demon: Titivillus.) Instead, the people I’ve let go have all done one or more of the things on this list. Avoid those 11 things, and you’ll be well on your way to being someone who stands out in a creative office.

Val Trullinger is an artist and art director whose work can be found at Pantagruel. She blogs regularly here. Thanks so much for the excellent advice, Val!

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