fitting in non-design friendly workplaces

More and more companies have finally come around to bringing designers into their work force to spurn innovation and extend product lines where none had been before.

Anybody ever had that chilling feeling where you didn’t feel welcome or got the feeling your skills abilities were not appreciated at a workplace that is not used to the design process and working with designers?

Ever had to work next to the accounting group and overheard comments like “we couldn’t go to art school in my family” or when seen sketching had comments directed at them like “oh my daughter’s girl-scout troop colors with color pencils too.” or when your making a sketch mock-up “making paper dolls again?”. Or people stare glossy-eyed when you try to be an advocate for design?

Now with open floorplans, no cubilcles and low partitions if any and any tips for dealing with this kind of attitude when your deep into a zone visualizing or 3D CAD and get these kinds of comments hurled at you?

How about engineers (non-degreed at that) telling you that they were going to go into art or design, but they wanted to “actually make stuff happen.”?

Dude I feel your pain all to well, creatives where I work suffer some serious prejudice. I have a theory and a rant about this whole topic of creativity and design acceptance, but I want to hear what others have to say before I write a novel here.

Thanks for the reply.

Yeah, I’ve gotten a little busting from engineers (“yeah you guys put the racing stripes on machines”) but it was in good nature, and I’ve worked with a bunch at an engineering driven company, but for the most part, I found they really appreciate design, my first boss was a P.E., M.E. and enjoyed working with them and learned A LOT from them.

Most problems come from other professions that are not really into making things and see that stuff as “arts 'n crafts”. I guess as a designer you really have to develop a thick skin, I am finally realizing. I guess you have to just laugh and eat it, stick to your path and not take the bait? It is unfortunate.

Sometimes you just need suck it up. I was in a similar situation last year. Our small group was stuck in the middle of all business people, and they would always give us crap. Just keep doing what you do. Eventually you will design a sexy product that they want, and gain some ground. People thought we were worthless for a long time…until our product was outselling the business side’s product 4 to 1. We are now getting work orders from areas we never spoke with before.

Personally I’ve never had to deal with this in the workplace, admittedly my family gives me some flack (and a few boxes of crayons for kicks). I guess you should be glad that your coworkers feel they can approach you and ‘level’ with you like that, even if it is depreciating humor. Feel free to give it back to them =)

If someone says “oh my daughter’s girl-scout troop colors with color pencils too.”
The appropriate response would be " … and my 5 year old can add, does that make him an accountant?"

If someone says “making paper dolls again?”
The appropriate response would be “… you sure did pick the wrong degree didn’t you?”

If someone says “we couldn’t go to art school in my family”
The appropriate response would be “… I thought you went to college.”

Of course I’m kidding about all of that, but if someone can dish it, they certainly ought to be able to take it. I think a lot of people have a difficult time understanding design because it is an abstract process, maybe you should take some time to explain it to them. Let them know that without well executed designs, thoughtful presentations and good graphics it would make marketing, sales and planning that much harder. It’s easy to mock the things you don’t understand.

I like JohnFM’s tact, if it’s all good natured fun there’s no harm in tossing back a few quips from time to time.

I was going to suggest it may be funny to adopt some designer cliches or identify a specific design archetype to turn into

First week - black turtleneck or sweater (or all white depending on your identified archetype)
Second week - dark rimmed glasses
Third week - designer issue hairstyle of your choosing (fauxhawk, shaved head, etc)
Fourth week - goatee (mustache as option)
Fifth week - French Press or Espresso Maker make their first appearance
and so on

Any step already completed as part of your normal day to day allows you to skip that week to the next step.

On a more serious note, I think just the attitude of our response to such challenges does a great deal to affect other’s opinions. If you are (as in JohnFM’s example) challenge some bad assertions or cause others to reflect on their own
at the same time showing some intelligence and humility it can go a long way. While it can be hard sometimes, it is also often very effective to simply get out of the defensive mind state, maybe, “we weren’t allowed to go to art school” actually has a little bit of regret in it rather than judgement? As mentioned above, a little education on the matter can go a long way.

Thanks all for you quick and thoughtful replys.
IDiot: like your sense of humor and your logo is great!
Love that stat - designers product ideas outselling the business-side’s 4:1, there is A LOT of VALUE in what WE BRING, sometimes this is threatening and invites cheap shots.

Great point. Unless the person you’re dealing with is completely self absorbed, they’ll stop for a second to reconsider what they said. If they keep pushing and start throwing out Larry the Cable Guy references (for example) you’ll never get through, so it would probably be best to avoid them.

Let’s hear it, man… I’d like to hear what your thoughts are and if it has anything to do with living in the Midwest.

I agree we have to use so, so much humility. And humor, let others save face too, sometimes they don’t really mean it or never worked with designers. But there are some that want to just keep coming. When you don’t engage them anymore, they think you are pissed, they get worse and start the he said/she said thing - I have experienced this. B_ll busters want to play ball.

We train, and work hard to cultivate some powerful skills; like being able to put on paper what we see in their heads. I think sometimes this causes some envy. Also the type of focus we need, (or at least I need) to use in doing my job keeps me in a bubble making hard to come back w/quips, thereby becoming more of a target.

Even in workplaces that place a high sensitivity to design, this still happens. There is a sense that designers jobs are all play, and there is truth to that. You heard Bill Buxton talking about the need for serious play to get to the right answers. What they don’t see is that it is hard work, and not a job at all, but a commitment to a way of life. Maybe an accountant can stop thinking about math when he is taking a nature hike on Saturday, but guaranteed a designer will stumble on something to inspire him and get him thinking about “work” which is “play”

So in the past I have taken two approaches, both already identified by my wise dot-comrades, reading the situation is key:

  1. Return the joke:
    bean counter: “in my family we didn’t get to go to art school”
    designer: “hey who unchained you from the desk, those numbers won’t add themselves buddy!”
    everyone laughs, you suggest to get a beer after work, bond formed.

2)Engagement
bean counter: “in my family we didn’t get to go to art school?”
designer: “is that what you what you wanted to do, go to art school?”
serious discussion ensues, you suggest to get a beer after work, bond formed.

The key is to run toward the issue and not away from it

Good advice, face your fears or they will keep coming back. Yeah I read something online about dealing with office politics towards the same line as your advice - basically one must deal with office politics at some level or perish by it. To bad a lot of offices are like high school all over again.

Not to mince this so many ways but a lot of times it is said within earshot, not directly to you. So if you confront them, it’s like your looking for stuff or eavsdropping. Handling this type of stuff takes a lot of skill.

  • Never say YES (quickly) to any non-designer’s work, just because you have short of ID work.
    There will be more chances that you may put on the similar kind of work again & again, as they don’t have designer’s environment.
  • Don’t get too emotional, while working with non-designer heads with regards to projects, but still remember ID work process & outcome.
  • Making differences with attire, lifestyle & work from others that …will help.
  • Highlight your design work output/difference with seniors.
  • Long term presence in Organization will be beneficial, you can only able to make difference only project by project. Only then they can understand importance of ID rather than telling them.
  • Keep sending mail to others about design awareness/design work/award work/ latest developments/successful design process & market impact to seniors & colleagues.
  • Locate friends of design & ……others.
  • Learn their language of discussion/ product association.
  • Give a general ID presentation: what is ID? What is engineering? Stages of ID…to all associated members.
    (Give something basic that you can handle in projects)

Any hard working professional in any field can say exactly the same, in that designers are not unique. I’d like to play off of your statement to point out a realization I had recently about these prejudices, and to do that I will ask everyone a very simple question.

At what point in your life did you begin to cultivate those skills that led you down the path of becoming a designer?

I would guess most people here would say when they were very young doing “creative” things like drawing, making “stuff”, arts and crafts. Basic, fundamental, elementary school level “fun time”, “craft time”, activities. Walk into any Kindergarten classroom and you will see tons of tools available for these kinds of activities. Walk into any 6th grade class, different story.

I’ll come back to that. I recently read “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”, by Gordon MacKenzie, excellent read for any designer, but specifically designers in a corporate setting. Gordon worked at Hallmark, but he also enjoyed sculpture. He would go to elementary schools and give sculpture demonstrations to each grade. He would begin his demonstration by asking for a show of hands from the kids who considered themselves artists, or creative. The first few grade levels would have lots of hands raised, but with each grade higher there would be less and less until he got to the highest grade where a handful would sheepishly raise their hands. Gordon has his own things to say about this, but here’s my reflection…

What happened to all of the artists? Simple, and not to go all cliche, but they conformed to a system. They chose the established rewards that an institution (Institution Definition & Meaning | Dictionary.com) offers over what rewards they could reap by doing things their own way or finding new ways to do things. One of those rewards was that if you accept a curriculum you are more likely to be accepted by peers, so, social rewards. Why did that handful of kids timidly raise their hands? Fear, since art and creativity are not weighed and measured as equally as other subjects their peers view this as an inferior pursuit. To be fair, there’s TONS of pressure on kids to excel in subjects that are perceived to lead to the best careers (money). Kids learn to get good grades to get rewards because they don’t have an income. That also leads kids to believe that if you get good grades then you will get into a good college and get a good job and this is exactly the conformist’s institution of “success”. Also in the spirit of fairness almost all schools have an “art program”, but many of those programs weigh execution (skills) higher than creativity (thought). Those designers that can bang out slick renderings of snoozer ideas, same thing. Any designer worth their ass is going to tell you the process is more important than the rendering. Is it any wonder why kids are pressured out of art classes when the perception is that the commercial byproduct of their education is artwork and not profitable ideas?

Back to Kindergarten. Math, designers like to bring up math and accounting folks as sort of this antithesis of design and creativity. Math is probably fun for about .01% of the global population, and even then that’s probably generous. How many of those kids in Gordon’s class would’ve raised their hand to show they are a mathematician? Like art and design math also starts with fundamental foundation tools that gradually progress; addition/subtraction, multiplication/division, algebra, calculus, trigonometry, proofs, Steven Hawking supermathy stuff. I got to Calculus with Applications (engineering math)when I was 23, but I had to take it twice, that was enough math for me. I understood and respected it’s importance in 4th grade. It becomes more advanced as you follow a math curriculum. Similarly, designers progress from crayons and finger paint, to charcoal and oils, to clay, metal, wood, to Adobe Suite, to research, to 3D illustration/animation, to model making, etc, etc, etc. Designers’ paths also become more advanced and complex, just like any other career path, but few outside of it see that progression and professional growth.

My point, all those young kids that stopped raising their hands tuned out of creative endeavors to pursue the more institutional stuff. The last impressions that they had of artistic creative tools and processes were those from elementary school “arts and crafts”, you know, fun time kid stuff where you played with a box of fuzz balls and tongue depressors. They left that childish stuff behind for other rewards, and that’s a bummer man, because I’d bet some of them could have had very promising creative career paths, but while they might have been very creative their execution skills might have sucked so they thought they actually weren’t creative. So now some of these people are my workplace peers and they have the creative aptitude of a 4th grader. So, that’s my theory on where a lot of this creative prejudice comes from; people’s childhood perceptions of art and creativity, ie. ignorance.

NURB, I’ve thought about whether or not a lot of this perception is more of a Midwest thing and I think it is. The way I prefer to deal with the snide comments, eye-rolling, and ignorance is to confront it directly and have a dialogue. Midwesterners seem very conforming, approval or consensus seeking types so with that you get some passive-aggression, you know, if people disagree with your idea, they won’t give a yay or nay, they just won’t do anything. The engineer that I mentioned in my earlier post does exactly this. We might have a really long meeting and he won’t say a word, be totally expressionless, contribute nothing to the conversation, and then go have a private talk with his boss and proceed to do things his way on the project and the designer’s work gets tossed in the trash. That behavior undermines the whole point of having a team of people with different disciplines working to solve a problem. His boss acknowledges this behavior, but doesn’t take any action on it because that would be “personal”, and they’ve worked together for a really long time. It is entirely political and does a lot of damage because this engineer and his boss see everything through a soda straw. I believe in and promote constructive conflict and critique, people here seem to think that denotes issues and anger, it’s really frustrating.

I would suggest wearing noise canceling headphones…

…some cool shades (preferably rose colored!)

…and get down to business!

thanks y’all.

To ADD: I don’t understand your points, one and three listed below, could you please clarify?

  • Never say YES (quickly) to any non-designer’s work, just because you have short of ID work.
    There will be more chances that you may put on the similar kind of work again & again, as they don’t have designer’s environment.
    DO YOU MEAN DON’T ACCEPT NON-DESIGN WORK BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE A LOT OF ID WORK AT THE MOMEMENT?
  • Making differences with attire, lifestyle & work from others that …will help.
    DO YOU MEAN MAKE YOU APPEARANCE, LIFESTYLE AND WORKSTYLE CONFORM MORE TO THOSE YOU WORK WITH SO AS NOT TO STAND OUT TOO MUCH?

I would stay away from dressing like other people at work. I understand the whole corporate dress thing, but I try to dress business casual. e.g. non-company shirts and different shoes to other people. If you are good at your job and professional you shouldn’t have to dress like a marketing person. I wear simple shoes to work which are made from recycled car tires and hemp. If people question it, I just say that I am trying to buy products which don’t damage the environment. I actually don’t care if they laugh or scoff at me. It takes more energy to care, so I don’t.

I think a lot of this thread is related to self confidence. You need to stop caring about rejection. If people reject you personally or professionally it doesn’t matter. You can’t please everyone all the time. Just try to be polite while retaining your integrity. If you still have problems, ask these people design related questions like “what kind of uv stabiliser do you think we should use for this part?” or “do you think sls would be more cost effective than lom for this part?” They will just look at you with a stupefied expression on their faces.

Then ask them if they have seen your finger paint. Join in the jokes and they will be fun for everyone.

I agree with a lot of the above especially the comments from Yo. Aside from the responses around dressing like a designer and acting like one I would include to flaunt what you do. I to have been in this situation as Mars was not used to having in house design when i started 6 years ago so I made sure that everyone had a clear view of what I was doing. Design is now taken very seriously and our resources have grown

When I took on a project I pinned everything up. Research, mood boards sketches…EVERYTHING. By putting everything up and in everyone’s face it got people engaged and curious about what I was doing. Don’t underestimate the power of what we do. Meaning do not underestimate the curiosity and attraction to Good sketches and great design process.

You have to remember that these people do not think the same way you do. This is something we tend to forget. To make them understand, you have to show them. Like the old saying goes “seeing is believing”. Just like your portfolio when you post your research, trends, sketches,and your renderings, things start to make sense as they can see the progression and thought process. When they just see you cutting up paper and putting marker down theydo not see the value.

Hope this helps.

Thanks you Greenman… for sharing the information with me…

This is especially good advice. I’ve done this even within established ID departments, but whose process got a little lazy. Start putting up some really exciting process and everyone wants to start one upping each other and all of a sudden overall quality goes up.

In non-design environments, as Justin pointed out, I would think this would be especially powerful. No one is going to plot out a spread sheet super large (though I did have a VP who would plot out a budget plan to actual spread sheet at 64" every quarter and put it up in the hallway going to design which was kind of funny). When you put up your work it has two effects, people see just how difficult and unique what we do is and how it adds to the process, and as Justin said, they also are attracted to it and become more engages, excited to see new work and sometimes even talk about it.

I think many of you will find that in time in the profession, consistently doing good design is actually the easiest part. Once you master that part then come the very enormous challenges of advocating,educating, mentoring, shaping vision, and going from good design to great design…

I totally agree with Yo’s points. I might add that all of that has to be done in a “non-ego” sort of way, because when you get really good and fast at what we do, you start to realize how powerful a set of skills it is and it is kind of a rush.

Also effectively fighting negative designer stereotypes is part of the challenge since the term designer is so negatively loaded in US culture, take the latest Moen or Delta Faucet commercial where they show the architect leading a couple through these spacious white offices talking in a pompous voice, pointing out what he did (implying it is so great), seats them down then says, ever more pompously, “What can I do for you.” with the emphasis on the “I”, the couple counters with “Design a house around this.” and they place a faucet on his desk in kind of a way to combat his pomposity. I mean come on, these old stereotypes keep coming up. Architects and designers I know and read about care so much about the client / end-user, we are their champions a lot of times, we take a lot of effort to put ourselves in their position. I mean you could go on and on.