How to work with difficult designer?

I have a dilemma and was hoping for advice from others. I’m from the US, but I studied abroad and landed a job after graduation. I’m really happy with the job, with one small downside.

I work with another (much more experienced) designer, and he’s not the easiest person to work with… He said himself that he’s been working alone for so long that he’s not used to working with other designers.

  • First off, he doesn’t sketch (mainly he works in CAD). That in itself isn’t the problem, but rather that he’s not very forthcoming/open/talkative with his ideas. I heard from others in my office (including our boss, who pulled me into his office) that he is not the easiest person to work with, and that he is protective of his “area” (the design department).

  • I’ve tried to take initiative and ask, “how would you like to work together on X project?”, but he answers with “I don’t know” and goes back to working on his computer on other projects. I started with some sketches in the and waited/hoped for him to bring up a time to discuss the project… but after waiting awhile, I went ahead and showed him my ideation sketches as a springboard for discussion, and his reaction was very defensive, almost as though “You started working on it??”

  • On another project I was supposed to “assist” him as the lead designer. I tried to be proactive and show some ideation sketches and a rough prototype/mock up, which he did use, but I felt slighted that he didn’t ask me for further help. And I don’t exactly feel comfortable giving unsolicited opinions on his work. In hindsight I should have been more assertive and outright asked if there was anything he needed help with on the design, or offered suggestions of brainstorming or discussing the concepts.

Some days I feel depressed that it’s not like the collaborative design studios that I’ve interned at. I think he’s a bit jaded from having worked so long, with a “Just get it done and over with!” attitude, and I wonder “But what about the quality??” I still feel like there’s more that I can try to do before talking to my boss about it again. I feel like I should try harder to resolve it on my own rather than involving management. I know need to be more assertive because I’ve gotten so used to holding my tongue trying to observe how things work in our office/in this country before speaking. Being from an “outside culture” and not knowing the language fluently makes me hesitant and cautious about committing a faux pas, or stepping on toes of those more senior than me.

Ideas?? Advice?? Quitting my job isn’t really an option and besides that I really love my job!

Sounds awful and Modern Mas wonders why you love that job. What part of the story is Modern Man missing or what part remains untold?

Based on what you’ve described, Modern Man’s sense of the situation is that the company you work for likely has an apathetic, dysfunctional culture that lacks appreciation or value of design and the robust design process needed to do it very well which is why this company has, apparently for many years, relied upon a (one) bad and jaded lead/senior designer with control issues who has probably never lead anyone other than himself. This person sounds like someone who lost his way years ago but found himself lodged in this situation and has chosen to go along by quietly hiding off in a corner closet office. While he probably hates his job he can’t envision any possible alternatives beyond what he knows, beyond him own nose, beyond his shallow, inflexible, infirm process, beyond his middling to poor work results and beyond hold onto his job by keeping a low profile.

If you can’t quit then you have two options:

  1. Go along to get along and likely end up as a miserable career castaway much like him.

  2. Carefully and methodically educate, lobby, nudge and cojole the company or it’s culture toward positively changing in how it views and appreciates the value of good design and what it could mean to the success of the company. Ultimately, this process will mean the senior/lead designer will have to be removed from the picture somehow. He’s the least likely one in that situation to change for the better.

[ Deleted ]

How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

That’s a classic.


Another good one:

Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Building a Successful Personal Brand on the Business Battlefield by David D’Alessandro

That’s a good read. Another one is: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials).

If this is a known issue in the workplace it is really up to your boss to do something about it or let it linger. The longer the person goes without corrective action, the more difficult it is for them to not only change their behavior but their perception in the workplace. Perception often lingers behind change by quite a bit. If the person doesn’t know they need to change, it will be impossible for them to change. Informing that person should come from their direct manager or from some close confidantes (ie, not you new guy).

For your part, as hard as it might be, I would focus on building relationships with others at the company and on being a model of collaborative behavior. You can try engaging this person with multiple different tactics, but it is important to remember that when this person does not respond well, it is the fault of this person and not you. In the long run, you will have the larger decision of figuring out if you want to work for an organization that allows behavior like this to sour the work place.

I worked with a guy like that who was impossible. We were in different departments, but he had been at the company for 20+ years and I perhaps 2, when I suggested in a meeting something looked a bit outdated and most others agreed. Upon which he shouted “well then he can do it himself” and stormed out of the room. Except he did not use “he” but a wrong name referring to me in third person. It felt strange, the culture at this company is very open - I wouldn’t have thought twice about calling out the CEO himself the same way. But the others assured me it was nothing to get hang up on. From this point on I was the go to guy on this type of work, and the other dude did mostly production work (GD) for client requests. Fast forward a couple years to the layoffs. Guess who’s still employed?

I am not saying this is the best way to solve the problem. But if you don’t actually HAVE to work together, then just ignore him, do good work and be cooperative, and the better projects will land on your desk instead of his.

This, and exactly this, it will give your other colleagues a basis for comparison between you and Grumpy Cat Designer.

We had a guy just like this, a design engineer that promoted himself as an ID. He was the golden child in the 80’s because our company was so engineering focused, and he had backing from the owners, but times change…and he quickly found himself having to collaborate with designers and marketing folks and didn’t want to play ball. This went on for far longer than it should and his manager enabled it; in doing so he damaged his own integrity for not fixing the problem or firing the guy. Eventually his boss went on partial retirement, the owner passed away, and he was passed over for his boss’ job so he left for another company. Nobody could get through to this guy and his manager apparently defended his passive aggressive behavior, which can be a real challenge for managers to address as it is hard to nail down.

You can bring it up to your boss again, but you’d be better off letting your colleagues sing your praises to him.

I agree here. As we say many times on this board, you are in control of your career and your path. There are always going to be difficult people. When I was hired, I had a CAD/prototyping guy that was a major pain in the ass thinking I was coming in to take his job. He had been here for 20 years and was set in his ways. I had no desire to do what he did, nor did I ever try too, but when he saw me do rough mock-ups as part of the design process, he thought that was his turf and I was stepping on it. I just continued on with my work, built up design and design process. He is now gone with a sour reputation, I now manage ID and design is thriving. Did it suck in the process, yes, but management saw where the value was and EVENTUALLY did something about it.

The bottom line is you have to remember that this is a business and right or wrong, designs need to go out the door. If a firm or corporation is used to doing something a certain way they will continue to do that until they are shown better results. In your co-workers case, he/she has shown a way of working that has delivered results. They may not be the best results, but they are results. You now have the opportunity to show better results than what has been done in the past. He/She obviously sees your talent, understands your capabilities and is threatened by this. You need to ignore that and only focus on showing quality results that changes the current bar. By doing this you will have more important people on your side like upper management. Remember, you were hired for a reason. Someone obviously sees a need for a change.

hope this helps,

J