What kind of work won’t you do? Surely you’ve asked yourself this question before. It is not a matter of qualification. It’s easy — or perhaps I should say easier — to know what sort of work one cannot do by way of simply not knowing how to do it. Not that hubris doesn’t often blur those lines, either. One should learn to extend the boundaries of cannot to include should not try because, though a modicum of success may be possible, a much greater success is quite likely if you step aside and let the professionals handle it. You know, on the scale of D.I.Y. to say, I dunno, self-surgery. When the time came, for example, to do some remodeling of my house, it was only momentarily — and, truly, I mean secondarily, as the thought barely lasted a second before my inner self laughed heartily — that I, with my remaining I can make that art-school conceit, considered doing it myself. Had I not, my current status would have been: writing this from the persistent pile of sawdust… I am a designer, not a carpenter. I know what I do, and what I don’t; what is worth my time, and what isn’t. Most of the time.
The question is, what kind of work won’t you do? Is there a kind of design you shouldn’t do? A client you shouldn’t serve? A context that isn’t right? Probably, on all counts. But how do you figure that out? Can you, without enough experience making the wrong choices? I’m not entirely sure. But what I can offer is a system — a fit filter — I’ve come upon after twelve years of slowly narrowing my scope and focusing on the things I do best.
The first layer of the filter is positioning. What is your position in the market? This concept works for individuals trying to figure out how best to position themselves professionally within a team or larger organization, freelancers trying to differentiate themselves on the basis of expertise, not geography or price, and, of course, businesses, trying to do the same. What do you do, and for whom? That’s positioning. The narrower the positioning — or, the greater the specialization — the easier it is to discover and meet demand. The problem is, most creative professionals resist narrowing their positioning because of, well, FOMO. They either fear that focusing too closely on one thing will leave opportunity unharvested and them starving, or that they’ll miss out on the excitement of trying new things on a regular basis. The first fear is easily abated by reminding you that positioning is worthless if it’s tone-deaf to demand. So yeah, if you’re specialization is in handmade dollhouse furniture, you might have to keep your day job at the precinct. (That’s a reference to The Wire people. Anyone?) The second fear, too, is no biggie. Remember, positioning is both what you do and who buys. A narrow positioning doesn’t rule out being multidisciplinary, provided you do focus on a particular kind of customer. From a business strategy perspective, positioning is a tool for staying fed and fed well. But in and of itself, it doesn’t buy happiness.
Happiness might just be a matter of adding in a few more qualifications. Especially when it comes to your clients. So my second fit filter layer is culture. They may want you — they may need you — but do you want them? Seriously, do you want to be around them a lot? Will you connect with them? Will you learn from them? Will you enjoy being with them? Liking your clients is certainly not a requirement. Nor is liking your boss. To the contrary, you should be able to do what you do for someone you don’t like. You may not have the luxury of thinking of it any other way; it may, in fact, be your duty. After all, for many lawyers, that’s like the Honest Trailers version of their job description: defending unlikeable people. Or, for that matter, plenty of police officers in plenty of situations: protecting unlikeable people from other unlikeable people. But, to the degree you have the choice, cultural fit is something to take seriously.
Several years ago, a certain
Tea Party crazy conservative pundit who shall remain nameless expressed interest in working with my firm. His media operation had grown to include four different online properties, and the organization needed unification. We certainly had the technological capability and design expertise to help. But our immediate question was, do we want to? There are many contexts in which we could apply our expertise though would almost certainly chose not to, like, say, the military, big pharma, tobacco, or pornography. Politics had never come up before, and frankly, it’s not easily ruled out, at least not monolithically. We might just throw our hat in the ring for an opportunity to work on something political that aligned with our values. But, without question, this particular opportunity did not. Though our staff includes people all over the spectrum of political opinion, enough of us would have had a hard time stomaching this particular pundit’s every word that saying no seemed a no-brainer. Working for this client would not have been worth the accompanying grief.
Except we didn’t have the guts to simply say that at first. First, we tried pricing them out. Turns out our huge number was pocket change. We could have guessed that, but damn, apparently it pays well to be a horrible, racist, homophobic loudmouth with a bit of media savvy. So then we tried schedule. Our typical slots were for more confined projects, and it would take a fairly long roadmap to accomplish what they wanted. No problem, they said, we want to get started and do it right. Crap. They weren’t getting the hint. Mostly because we weren’t really giving it. So then we tried something closer to the true “no.” We went with something along the lines of, “Well, your people are on the west coast and we’re on the east coast, and your operation works on the 24-7 news cycle and we kind of stick to the 9-to-5, so we just don’t think we have the right cultural alignment to get this done effectively.” And that’s all true. We hadn’t worked with a news media organization before, and we’d already seen evidence that these guys were likely to call at any hour of the day and expect an answer. So on this matter, they said they understood, and they were willing to find a way to make this work. At this point, both Mark and I wondered why, exactly, they wanted to work with us. You’d think we would have been flattered to be the choice, no question, regardless of who it was that was choosing. But the further down this road we went, the clearer it was that it isn’t enough to be chosen. You also have to chose.
As it turns out, fate chose for us. After our last conversation, where our prospect had expressed interest in finding a way forward, the calls stopped. We wondered why, but were pretty OK with the idea of this one just going away. Our answer came by way of a news report: our conservative pundit prospect had died suddenly. My first thought was, wow, what a mess this would have been had we said yes at the beginning. We’d have been deep into work at this point, and the financial implications of the death of our client mid-project would have been complicated and uncomfortable for everyone. I honestly felt relief having avoided all of that. But I also felt regret. For having not been clear in the first place — as death has a way of splashing ice-cold clarity over any simmering confusion — but also for having lost sight of the fact that we work for people, no matter how massive and detestable the machinery that assemble around them. People, complicated and vulnerable. Having greater empathy and respect for our prospect and the people who worked for him wouldn’t have changed the fact that he wasn’t the right client for us, but it would have changed how we go to “no.” We’ve held on to that clarity since.
There have been plenty of prospect stories just like that one, albeit less dramatic. Many opportunities have come along that have stretched the definition of what we do and what we believe we can do well. Ready money has the power to redefine many things. But in hindsight, empowered by the data yielded by those engagements to which we said “yes” — some because we sincerely believed the stretch was worthy and some because we simply rolled the dice — it’s become clear to me that stretches spend. Every time we’ve said yes to an opportunity where the objective was right, but the client wrong, we’ve spent every penny and more, even when those engagements were priced substantially higher than the same work for other clients. Pricing may be positioning, but so is who pays. And that’s another layer in the fit filter: how badly do you need it? It doesn’t matter if you’re asking that question for yourself, your team, or your entire organization. It all comes down to mouths to feed. The only difference is the number. Plenty of yeses have been said because they needed to be said. What matters is the sobriety of your yes. Are you clear about what your yes buys you and what it costs you? And more importantly, is your yes finite, or is it a watershed moment, past which you will be powerless to stop saying it?
Here’s a final thought, and it’s to do with the most elusive and ephemeral layer in the fit filter. Something in between the empathy and respect for the people for and with whom we might work, and the pragmatism of reducing it all down to mouths to feed. I’m constantly observing a tension in designers and design organizations between a proud resistance to “corporate” work and a craving for a certain validation that sometimes comes from having that recognizable logo among your list of clients. I observed it in the final semester at art school, when so many formerly punk artists found validation in being recruited by mega corporations that make washing machines and handbags. Facing the unknowns of life outside the school walls, where independence and principles and even rebellion were given a four-year sanctuary, being chosen by outsiders who had their own offers of safety, whether by way of prestige or pay, was simply intoxicating. Corporate seduction has it’s own Stockholm syndrome and it continues long past recruitment. So therein is the tension. Some designers and design organizations proudly resist it. Others succumb. The resistant judge the “corporate shills,” and the corporate think, “well isn’t that quaint.” I get both sides. I’ll admit that it bugs me when an agency lands a big, corporate client and then feels the need to constantly gush in public about how much they love them. There’s just something a little unbelievable about a hipster design intellectual suddenly expressing their deep love for a brand they almost certainly would have pooh-pooed had they not been happily pocketing that brand’s money. But, on the other hand, having an impact on any organization — provided that organization and the people it comprises are not evil — should be something sincerely invigorating. Yes, it’s wonderful to have an impact on that little company in your own neighborhood, or that David in a market of Goliaths. But everyone is someone’s neighbor; every business is local to somewhere. And so it’s possible to feel good about the work you may do for a megabrand when you focus on the impact it could have on every individual that will keep their job because that company does well, both within and outside its walls. That’s the final fit filter’s layer, the one that can balance out misfits on any other level: impact. Can you have a meaningful impact on your client’s business and can you feel good about that? If that’s what the design or agency is gushing about, and not, say, factory food itself, I can get behind that.
So after all that — after passing through the fit filter’s layers of positioning, culture, need, and impact — is there any work you won’t do? If so, write it down. Make a promise to yourself and those who work with or for you that you will keep and preserve that filter. The absence of it is a lightning rod for stress and discontent; it makes the work you shouldn’t do the work you get. But a working filter means focusing on the work you will do, doing it well, and being fed and sleeping well while you do it. Of course, this particular filter isn’t the only possible one. I’d like to hear how you think about this, and how your filters work. Hit reply and let’s talk.
Required Reading: If you read only one thing this week, may it be Hearts, then Charts, a survey of the role of customer experience in the modern organization, and a framework for organizations that are serious about the experience of being their customer, written by the ever-serious-and-sophisticated Ian Fitzpatrick, Chief Strategy Officer at Almighty. You may remember that, back in June, I urged you to share your insights on customer service with Ian in a survey he put together. I imagine the data he gleaned there was invaluable to this latest report.
On Screen: A couple of things this week. First, if you grew up in the 1980s and were at all interested in technology as a kid — or, say, ever watched 3-2-1 Contact or The Electric Company or played Oregon Trail — then Computer Show is for you. It’s a web short with only two ~10-minute episodes so far, so you can catch up right now if you like. It’s a show about technology made as if it was stuck in 1983 — low-fi computer graphics, synths, and bad hair galore — except for its squarely contemporary guests. Anachronistic hilarity ensues!
Second, Rick and Morty. I may have mentioned this brilliant, wonderful show already. But if not, this is a brilliant, wonderful show. Made by Dan Harmon — of Community fame — Rick and Morty is a 30-minute, cartoon sci-fi show that is able to do anything it wants because if the story needs to go to a Jurassic Park-like themepark inside the body of a drunken hobo or a world taken over by cybernetic dogs or a planet on which every alternate dimension version of you goes to hobnob with its Transdimensional Council, it only has to draw it. And that freedom, plus the razor-sharp writing Harmon brought to the reputable seasons of Community, makes it one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. Season 1 of Rick and Morty — which has a 100% episode success rate, if you ask me — is available on Hulu+, and I believe Season 2 will get there soon, as it’s already aired on Adult Swim. If you want a little taste of this show, check out when Rick and Morty crashed The Simpsons couch gag.
Recent Tabs: …is really just a list of my heroes this week. First, Ash Huang, for updating her piece, A Woman Who Happens to Tech and telling it like it is. Second, Maciej Ceglowski, for telling the big data people that they’re full of it and then ending his talk by flatly inviting them to “enjoy the rest of your big data conference.” Next, my friend Eric Karjaluoto, fresh off of launching Office Hours — where you can get ten minutes of advice from friendly designers all over the globe (myself included) — is developing a podcast about designers and money and is looking for people to talk to. So if you have opinions about the financial models of design work, like, say, whether funded companies or independent service companies foster better design environments, hit reply and I’ll connect you with Eric. Or, just find him at Office Hours. Also, Jasia Reichardt, for recognizing the importance of technology in art way back in 1968, when she curated Cybernetic Serendipity. The Eater, for featuring this story, a rare example of good, good, good, good: a good story about a good thing happening, with good writing and good design. And, in like fashion, The Intercept_, which obtained a cachet of secret documents detailing the inner workings of the U.S. military’s drone assassination program and made them public in their own example of bar-setting journalism meets bar-setting web design. And finally, Alexis Madrigal and the Fusion team, for finally creating a technology and futurism event — the Real Future Fair — at which the majority of speakers will be women. It can be done. It is not affirmative action; it’s a representation of reality.