Selling out?

Had a conversation recently with a fellow design about “selling out”.

What are your thoughts about what projects to take which to reject? How do you balance business vs. personal convictions vs. morals or other concerns?

I know Yo has said that he “wouldn’t do a project he isn’t proud to show his mom” (MD, please let me know if I’ve misquoted you). I also have a fairly high standard and typically don’t take on projects that I don’t feel I can contribute something positive in which the end goal is achievable (even beyond my involvement). Not to mention I wouldn’t take projects I wouldn’t want to include in my portfolio…yet there are always bills to pay…

How do you look at projects, particularly freelance ones in which there may be a delicate line between making some money and doing something you don’t believe in 100%?

I’m not talking so much about designing guns or landmines, but moreso about designing products where the business goal may be flawed and there is little chance of success or cases where the brief may be misguided.

In my own practice, I have quite a bit of freedom and probably reject 80% of proposals for work I receive, but would like to see how the greater design community and others may handle it. I’m sure we all at some time get a project that is good $ but maybe a losing bet in terms of long term brand strategy.


There were some years when any thing would have helped keep the lights on, but in the end, you have to live with yourself. To quote Kenny Rodgers, “You have to know when to holdem’ and when to fold 'em.”

I have a very hard time taking money from someone who won’t benefit from my assistance.

That is what “silent projects” are for, I guess.
I think it is important to protect the integrity of the studio and be conscious about the clients associated with the business. Not always easy and I have seen great young studios work with the wrong people just to end up with a weak project that in the long run did more harm than good.

However, of course bills have to be paid and especially in the beginning, when one can not afford to be picky, some projects have to be taken on that maybe are not that fancy.
For that purpose I have two businesses. One freelance studio on my own where I have more freedom and then a limited company with two partners, where we are very picky with client selection.

I would say personally that I draw the line when moral and ethical issues enter the picture.

Its very good to see, that there is some common ground in business ethics.

Some time ago I did realise, that one of our products was used in a military
application, that it was not intended for in the first place.

I only earned the “raised eybrow” from my older peers, when I pointed out,
that we might better stop selling it to this customer. That was seen as “picky”.
And I am still frustrated about that case.
Truely, a competitor would be gladly able to fill that gap, but I just don’t want
that customers business on our market report.


I’m really really fussy now, ok I do quite a bit of bread-n-butter mass market stuff that R and Yo would probably not do, but I enjoy it in a no-brainer sort of way, especially my partner, he loves coding as well, so when he has lots of tracing and speccing to do he’s as happy as Larry!

I won’t take on a project if I think the business model is flawed, if the client can’t string a sentence together, if I think they’ve got no chance or for ethical reasons that I don’t feel comfortable with. I cancelled a contract recently because the client was just plain rude, I just thought ‘I can’t continue to work with this person.’

I’ve seen a project I turned down (because I thought it was wasteful and unethical) go on to be a big success and make people a fortune.

I only work with one business start up at a time, the last one has just launched and I’m not doing any at the moment. I’m not sure I want to do this type of work anymore, it is fraught with problems - I’m asking myself do I really need this?

Having said that the business start -ups I have done that have launched have been great, so maybe my pickiness has paid off.

But I really, really, respect my regular trade clients, though and have worked with one buyer at three different companies now!

I know I’m lucky, I don’t have a mortgage to pay, but I’m really not money oriented at all, never had been, just not interested. If I was I’d have started my own line by now. I now think ‘I know too much’ in order to want to do it, but lets see eh, I might change my mind, I’ve the rest of my life to decide to do it.

I’ve seen ‘not being picky’ backfire - I know a designer who took a job on that I would never have done, client was very litigous (you just know this when they produce legal document after legal document and there is this clause and that clause and it seems more important to them than the actual work). He is now suing said designer as the work they did is not selling. It never had a chance no matter who was going to design it, design is only a small part of the picture. I wouldn’t have taken him on in the first place. Alarm bells would’ve rung at the contract stage, for me.

Haven’t always been like this though, you learn the hard way, there’s one or two jobs I worked on in the past. Particular one springs to mind - client (who wouldn’t listen to my advice) terminated my contract then went on to ‘try again’ with another, much bigger design firm, guess what, it still hasn’t worked as their idea is flawed. If I knew then what I know now etc…

I err on the side of caution every time. If it was only my business I was risking then I might do it, but when it’s someone elses as well, then no.

Very early on I did a small amount of work on a very ethically questionable…medical? device. This client was extremely averse to testing their products’ claims or establishing performance metrics (beyond part tolerances). Needless to say, I was thrilled when I found out the FDA had seized all of this company’s goods due to fraudulent claims of their products’ efficacy.

The medical field is rife with questionable ethics. It should be pretty simple. You make a claim, e.g., your widget lowers cholesteral. The FDA requires you to prove your widget 1. Doesn’t harm a person (safety) and 2. Lowers cholesteral (efficacy).

The problem is that safety is gray because of side effects and efficacy is absolute, it is not relative. I have a problem with the efficacy part. New drugs & devices only have to prove their claim, they do not need to be better than a previous drug or device. “New and improved” is only a marketing campaign, not something that is regulated. Pharma is the only industry I know that spends the money on pull marketing campaigns because they get their money back even though their product isn’t better. It is only more expensive.

Granted my business with pharma could only be the occasional packaging design, but I won’t do those anymore.

The device side is similar with a category called physician-preferred items. I stay away from those too.

I think problems in medical tend to stem from a few things. First, for large corps like JNJ with established QA processes that more or less mirror ISO 13485, and who implement the new FDA HF regs, there are simply a lot of things going on at the same time - so in situations like JNJ has faced in the past couple years with the numerous recalls related to McNeil, DePuy, and some Puerto Rican operations - I think it’s less a case of malicious intent or deliberate oversight than it is maybe negligence due to their org chart being very complicated. I think in startups, you have people that either are married to an idea because they had it (and as such are willing to overlook just about anything), or you have opportunists (like the guys I had to deal with) that want to fool people and cash in on a trend before they’re found out. The whole business of not having to prove a new product is an improvement is a double edged sword, in the sense that it opens up alternative technological paths - think about the first digital cameras and how weak they were compared to film - that may ultimately lead to better outcomes, but in the short term lag their more well established counterparts.


I am to allow a drug or device based on it may or may not be better in the future? Why is selling an unproven promise different from selling snake oil?

Intent. Snake oil intends to deceive. The FDA doesn’t grant approval if your device doesn’t work and you can’t produce documentation of how decisions were made. A lot of work is done to increase efficacy, and a lot of work is done to protect/create IP. If the product/drug satisfies its claims and is safe, those claims may not include being more efficacious than a prior product if its intent is just to maintain a patented revenue stream. If the product is substantively similar to a “predicate” product, you can get on the faster 510(k) approval path, which is I think what happened with DePuy’s hip resurfacing technology. The double edged sword comment refers to the idea that the first generation of a new technology may in fact be worse than what it replaces, but that it may have more potential to be better after a few years. That doesn’t mean the new tech is harmful, it just means a nascent technology has all the shortcomings that come with being new. That may include being less efficacious than an existing alternative. Doesn’t mean anyone is lying, though.

How does one quantify intent?

Currently, a producer of an inferior product is not required to market it as such. With your life in their hands, you are willing to accept their intent is good enough to accept an inferior product?

This is exactly where the market is opaque. This is exactly where evidense of efficacy is covered and marketing takes over.

Personally, when a person’s well being and quality of life is at stake, I think there is no difference between the promises of intent versus the promises of snake oil. Neither have the data to back their claim.

That could be a flaw in the FDA system. I don’t know. The system has to be open enough that new technologies can be profitably introduced, barring a massive shift in how the medical industry operates. It isn’t perfect. As a designer, you know whether the team you are working with is ethical or not. I have spent two years working on a product that will never make it to market because after many iterations of the pharmaceutical component, it still causes harm. It’s a great product and the need is real, but it won’t and shouldn’t get through FDA. The company I worked with early on flew under the radar until the FDA found them and shut them down. The point is for the most part I think FDA does its job. Keep in mind, too, that it is usually in a company’s competitive interest to be more rather than less efficacious.

Overall, I think it’s all in your outlook on what you do… whether you believe you are being true to yourself. I also feel like traditional product design might be a little different than footwear, where you are investing yourself in a more fashion product, but maybe it’s not.

For example - say a company wants to pay me to take their engineer created box and quickly do something a little nicer with it. Even if it’s seriously reduced in scope and would never be a wow product, it’d still be a dramatic improvement over what they would have done without me - that is where I’d get some satisfaction. I don’t consider that a sell out move, even though it’ll never be a portfolio piece and I wouldn’t do it over a project with more freedom if I could afford it. (Usually that kind of thing is to help out a friendly client or raise extra money).

I do consider it selling out when you have a client, or director, that just wants you to illustrate, design, or product their ideas exactly as they want, giving you little or no creative freedom. You’d essentially be someone else’s hands. The selling out part would be just accepting that situation because of money or stability, thought you know you could produce better more original work elsewhere.

I’ve heard it said that product designers going into (product development) management or non-design (but design related) jobs is a selling out as well. I think it comes down to whether you’re doing role because if fuels your passion or whether you’re sacrificing your passion for something you could live without. In that sense, maybe if your passion was design and is now your family & kids, so you took a higher paying less satisfying job - that would not be selling out…

I do consider it selling out when you have a client, or director, that just wants you to illustrate, design, or product their ideas exactly as they want, giving you little or no creative freedom. You’d essentially be someone else’s hands. The selling out part would be just accepting that situation because of money or stability, thought you know you could produce better more original work elsewhere.

That is exactly why I hate the term “designer.” In a lot of peoples’ eyes it means some kind of production artist rather than problem solver.

My wife’s an engineer and in her world, ‘designer’ means you’re the lacky technician that does all the grunt cad work. That’s really the official name for them… designer indeed!

I’m shocked anyone could see the PD management positions, in which you determine project strategy, make decisions, allocate resources, make decisions, and um, make decisions - as selling out.

The case where I heard ‘selling out’ leveled at someone was referring to a consultant designer going to a management position on one of the client’s so-so products. He wasn’t designing anymore, outsourcing the design work and managing the team. Was it right to call it that? I think it depends on him and if the job was satisfying to him.

… . . . .

Ok, so back to my original intent for the post, all FDA stuff aside.

How do you view “selling out” as defined by not making “wow”, designs that are not portfolio worthy or stuff you’d want to show your mom or a co-worker? Stuff with a logoed character slapped on a product and called done? Landfill me-too products to be sold at walmart? Just another X? I’m not trying to demean anyones bread and butter, and to each their own, but how do you define what is to you as worthy and what barriers would you not cross. Or if so, at what price?

Again, ethics and morals somewhat aside in terms of ecologically friendliness, weapons of mass destruction, etc…