Design is all we’ve got!

Dear readers: The incomparable Seth Godin has been Before & After’s friend and foil for maybe 20 years now. He has pushed us to keep our art unique, graciously lent his praise to our book covers, and even written a short series of editorials for us, which, like design, are as pertinent today as they were when they were new. I reprint one for you here.


When the tail wags the dog
By Seth Godin

Actually, it doesn’t matter one bit to me whether you’re any good at design.

If you’re reading this magazine, the odds are you are. You’re probably very good. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is whether you can sell design to your clients. What matters is that you’re able to implement the great ideas, instead of settling for the mediocre stuff that clients insist upon.

Have you ever seen an incompetent extension cord? An incorrectly mixed jar of mouthwash? An inferior gallon of gas?

Just about everyone thinks that we need to focus on the stuff we make. Just about everyone is wrong. The stuff we make is fine. We have everything we need, and everything is good enough.

On the other hand, have you ever been in a building where the architect did a bad job? Have you ever decided not to enter a restaurant because the lighting and look didn’t feel fun? Have you ever bypassed a magazine because it looked boring?

It turns out that design has too long been a poor stepsister. Design — (graphic design, product design, space design, interface design) the freelance work that you can get without a degree, that doesn’t pay enough, that has not nearly enough status — is no longer just a nice plus. Design is all we’ve got!

If you want someone to switch from a product they like, the only choice is to make a product they love — and that’s the work of the designer. Designers make things that create emotion. Designers create boxes and ads and brochures and buildings and steering wheels that we love.

So why do designers go last? Why aren’t you invited to chime in before the dies are cast (literally) and the budgets are set? Why doesn’t the board send the CEO to a design seminar at Parsons so she can understand how to make things people will love?

For too long, people who are passionate about design (that would be you, Before & After reader) have accepted their lot. They’ve assumed that they should shave their hours, discount their fees, do their work as journeymen and then move on.

It’s completely acceptable for designers to grumble about lousy clients. We apologize for our work, saying, “Well, it’s the best the client would let me do.” You should be ashamed to say stuff like this. Great design is not a luxury, and a compliant (even enthusiastic) client should not be a rarity.

We now have an obligation to sell our very best work.

No excuses. Go do it.


(Those of you with the Before & After Master Collection have all of Seth’s editorials. This one appears in issue 37, page 7.)

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12 Responses to Design is all we’ve got!

  1. Alexis says:

    Yes, but that’s much easier said than done. I’ve worked with many a stubborn client who insisted I create something ugly, no matter how much I’ve tried to convince them that they are having me go against everything I’ve learned and will ultimately end up with a disastrously boring design. In the end, I didn’t even bother arguing anymore with them and continued to make ugly designs that they loved until I quit.

    • I have been doing this long enough (since my first freelance client in high school 25 years ago) to recognize types of clients. If I meet with someone, it is often clear when they just want me to regurgitate their ideas back to them — when they will only really accept a cleaned-up version of their “sketch.” If I take them on, then I know what I’m in for and just charge them enough to offset my inevitable frustration.

      Likewise, I can tell when someone is open to my ideas and willing to really collaborate. I inevitably charge them less and work harder for them.

  2. Judy Robertson says:


  3. Mike King says:

    Thanks for the inspiration Seth and for reposting this B&A. I’ve often used the excuse that the client didn’t pay enough for my best work. Lately we have eliminated that excuse by bringing the entire team together in the very beginning to brainstorm and get our best ideas out on the table before any sketches are completed. That way we can pick out the best ideas that fit within the budget and still produce great design.

  4. Jimmy W. says:

    What a big pill to swallow. As I read this very inspiring piece by Seth, he brought up some great points about a designer’s passion and love for making good stuff; however, the task still is always an uphill battle when trying to sell our passion to a CEO who has a vision that everyone around her knows is bad but are not willing to say anything. Designers are the first to speak up and say.

  5. I just returned from a trip to Lagos, Portugal — a fabulous destination where good design is evident in every little coffee shop. It was so refreshing!

    In a world where so many people hate their spaces and think a plain box for a building will suffice, it is wonderful to hear an educated and realistic viewpoint of how good design really does impact our lives.


  6. Bob Baiett says:

    I somewhat disagree.

    In my experience, there’s too much emphasis on design for the sake of design. This often results in, for example, nonprofit public service advertising that is AFFECTING (i.e., creating emotion) but not EFFECTIVE (i.e., generating a tangible end result or action).

    An effective end product requires teamwork — input from the people who know the product working closely with the people creating design to sell the product or concept. It’s part of the designer’s job to know how to manage and channel their clients’ input into an end product that both moves people and inspires tangible actions and results.

    • John McWade says:

      Good point.

      The word design essentially means to plan. True design — the kind Seth’s talking about and I believe you are, too — is a team effort that starts at the top and involves everyone — executives, product-development people, engineers, marketers, writers, graphic designers, production people and so on. Result: design is built into the product, not added on. It’s part and parcel of the thing itself. To some degree, it even IS the thing.

      Apple has absolutely mastered this. Apple first plans the look, feel, and function of its products and then engineers to make it all happen. Other companies do the opposite. They engineer something, then ask the designer to make it look cool. One approach is obviously more effective.

      Companies do not understand design. Thing is, designers don’t understand it, either. We willingly come in at the end of the process, create an attractive facade, then at the presentation mayonnaise it up with dollops of “target audience” and “effective results.”

      Seth is saying to not accept this. Graphic design must be involved at the beginning and be given the cred of the other disciplines. This won’t happen overnight or on every project, but it’s an essential goal.

  7. Nate Johnson says:

    I have to agree with Seth’s point. Settling for “what the client wants” is just giving in to the resistance through rationalization. If the client really knew exactly what they wanted, they’d have done it themselves . . .

    Fortunately for us designers, they don’t really know what they want, so they enlist the help of us professionals. Instead of being pushed into creating mediocre designs, we need to push our clients into making an intelligent decision regarding the piece they are commissioning.

    In my personal experience, I have found that it is easier to focus on what the client wants the design to do for their company versus what they want it to look like. This makes any design decisions you make much easier to defend.

  8. Peter Breis says:

    Difficult when the client: decides in your absence; wants to do it by email but has PCs with clapped-out color; won’t let you meet the decision maker, ever; insists that they are paying and they will tell you what to do; won’t give a brief; won’t give a budget; wants to do it by tender; apparently the wife doesn’t like it and she’s not here; doesn’t get why you’ve used that funny foreign text (we didn’t give it to you); and, especially, because Adobe, Microsoft and Apple have all agreed the clients can do it for themselves (just they haven’t the time).

  9. Volker Beckmann says:

    Interesting comments. I’ve been a designer in a small city of 15,000 people working for over 40 years. Mostly with small business or nonprofit organizations as clients.

    When I went to school way back when, we did a lot of theoretical design projects. Then you graduate and get into the real world! Now you deal with budgets, personal biases, management committees, boards, etc. Today everyone is a designer, because the office has MS Word/Publisher and an inkjet printer. (Because you own a fine painter’s brush, does it make you a Picasso?) Why would they pay a professional when what they produce looks great to them? Plus, now you can buy design templates for everything. Sign shops can produce and print everything. Which lowers the value of our professional work.

    Does it look mediocre? Of course! It’s sad today how much money is spent on bad design that no one looks at, much less remembers. Yet many companies are still in business. Go figure!

    Do design schools today teach about salesmanship and effective presentations? I had to learn that on my own. Not much has changed in the designer/small client relationship over the past 40 years. I’m still trying to educate my new clients in the same way.

  10. Gavin Lanata says:

    A good read! I design user interfaces for a software house where an effective and functional design is everything. Even over the last few months I’ve entered many an argument over what ideas I have that will work against what they think just looks good. Though I haven’t been in this business long and I can see now that letting myself be drawn into those arguments wasn’t the best way to go about it. As some have said here, delivering on Seth Godin’s idea is easier said than done. Even though I’m being paid to come up with these ideas, the developers just don’t want to hear them; and how to overcome this is still something I’m working on. I conclude, then, to achieve Seth’s goal requires an understanding I lack at the moment.

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