After Tuesday’s conversation on the often touchy requirement of professional relationships in graphic design, I was reminded of an essay from Michael Bierut’s 79 Short Essays on Design. Bierut considers the inevitable relationship of client and designer through anecdotes from heavy-hitters like Tibor Kalman and Milton Glaser, and elegantly explains some faithful insights regarding professional relationships. Bierut draws comparison with the Milgram shock experiments of the 1960’s where subjects willingly shocked victims—in the name of science—due to the experiment head’s persuasion and authority. (It’s really much more complicated than that and I’d urge you to read the essay your self). The idea is that designers often enter the world passionate about their future partnerships with clients, but soon realize they must cater to their client/boss/authority and feel forced to make a crappier logo or uglier ad.

I’ll let Bierut sum it up:

Most of us enter the field of design filled with individual passions and unrealized visions, and learn quickly that the other people know better: first teachers, then bosses, finally even the judges of design competitions and editors of design annuals. We put aside our doubts—non of us want to be prima donnas anyway—and become comfortable professionals in just another service industry. And when we’re roused to our feet by a call to action, second thoughts set it. “That’s easy for him (Tibor, Milton, fill in the blank) to say, but my clients won’t let me do that.” But of course that’s not true. In fact, we don’t know what woudl happen if we tried. We take too much pride in the quality of our “service” to find out. So business as usual remains business as usual.

Who’s in charge here, anyway?

The designer-client relationship can and should be a partnership. It’s time to stop blaming the client when it’s not. Our work can and should serve society. It should serve an audience beyond ourselves, beyond our clients, and beyond the next design annual.

Viva Michael Bierut and design idealism! I highly recommend looking into Bierut’s writing, and our library does carry a copy of his book…hint, hint.