Ten Tips for Corporate Graphic Designers

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Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.–William Feather

I learned the hard way how to keep my head above water in corporate America as a graphic artist. I’ve worked as a graphic designer and production artist in marketing/communications departments for banks, ad agencies, a dot com company, a major newspaper and even a candy company known for their infinite selection of jelly beans. (Ever try skunk flavored jelly beans?)

I’ll share just a few hard-learned lessons for your corporate survival tool kit. Hopefully, it will save you from having one of those Friday afternoon “meetings” where you have five minutes to say goodbye, gather all of your things (unless they say they’ll send them to you) and find yourself gently escorted outside.

Some items on this list may seem like no-brainers, but like any good recipe, all of the ingredients are essential.

1. Never say “I can’t“. Ever. You will be seen as incompetent, lazy or insubordinate. No matter what the request, no matter how unrealistic, impossible or absurd (I.e., “The client needs three comps first thing tomorrow. The writer hasn’t written anything, but Al in sales says to just pull from the last campaign about horses and change it to Norwegian gypsies.) Smile and say, “Wow, sounds fun! Got it!” Don’t panic. In 10-15 minutes, they’ll tell you to drop everything and work on a more pressing project.

2. Pick your battles. Sure, you want to stand for artistic integrity, design principles and just plain common sense. But when you have 5 managers hovering over you saying, “The type’s too small!” and you want to scream, “Are you blind?”, just nod your head in concerned agreement and make it bigger. After the 100th review and subsequent revisions this issue will be resolved.

3. Don’t take anything personally. This is the hardest survival tool to master and even the most seasoned designer has difficulty practicing it. Every designer has probably heard, “My 5-year-old could do better than that!” or something equivalent. It stings, but don’t cry about it. The person who said it probably sat on the beer bong too long the night before.

4. Never display signs of boredom or discontent. No matter how boring, exasperating, ridiculous, inane, trite, or unchallenging an assignment always act as if the project is something bordering on exciting, fascinating, if not just downright genius. This shows the powers that be that you’re a team player and get what the company’s about. Companies love their brand and even though you don’t get their mission statement, learn it, memorize it, live it for those eight hours. For those eight hours you’re one of them. Once outside you can go back to being the moody iconoclast with eclectic tastes.

5. There’s God, country and the CEO (it should go without saying, not necessarily in that order). When he or she (unlikely) enters the room, meeting, kitchen, hallway, elevator assume the role of starstruck fan. They may say, “Hey, how ya doin’!” But don’t be fooled. He/she doesn’t want to know how you’re doing, they just want you to display the appropriate mix of fear and awe that their position commands. A nervously stuttered, “I’m great!” is all that’s expected. Unless you’re the cute receptionist, intern or up and coming financial or sales guru who can banter endlessly, know your place. See youself as a pawn in a long line of pawns. Imagine anything else and you’re the sassy upstart who they’ll need to keep their eye on.

6. Take copious notes. Always bring a notepad (electronic or otherwise) to any meeting. Even if it’s a five minute huddle. When the manager speaks note it, then look back up as if eagerly awaiting the next “gem.”

7. Assume a passive role at meetings. Yes, you’re filled with 1,000 ideas to improve efficiency, or 1,000 questions about a project, but now’s not the time. Let the managers have their meeting. Don’t make odd faces, gestures or noises when they talk about schedules and deadlines. Jot down one pressing question just in case they call you out in front of everybody. Make sure it’s a mundane, yet upbeat question where you already know the answer so there are no surprises like, “Do we get to work with Jeff?”

8. If they have a company t-shirt or hat wear it. Even if it’s the ugliest piece of clothing you’ve ever seen and you’d rather die than wear it, wear it. Wear it at least once, more if you can bear. If you can only stand to wear it that one time, take a picture of yourself in it and make it your desktop wallpaper. They love stuff like that. You might even hear, “You’re so creative!”

9. Don’t ask too many or too few questions. This is a tough one. I wish I could help you here, but I’ve never mastered this one. I can only tell you this: Ask too many questions and you seem forgetful or incompetent. Ask too few and you are perceived as uninterested. You’re on your own here. May the force be with you.

10. Don’t expect praise or “thank you.” You may receive praise and recognition after the completion of a difficult project and everyone’s celebrating it’s release. Giddiness and release are in the air. “Great job, great job, great job,” is bandied about. You’ll hear a lot of “thanks for all your hard work.” It’s a joyous time. But the party atmosphere doesn’t last long. Expect to walk in the next morning to a new project and you’re back to square one.

There are more rules, of course, but these are the the ten commandments. Refer to them often. Whether you’re the young, bright new star they brought in for fresh ideas or the old geezer looking for a paycheck these same rules apply. Try to master one of them and do your best with the rest. Good luck and Godspeed.

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