Maybe this is happened to you. You’ve really nailed a project. You skip out of the client’s with a big smile because you’ve done the best work you have ever done. Months down the line, you haven’t heard a thing from the client and your emails are either not returned or they have cool salutations and don’t answer your question of when there might be another project. Either you’ve screwed something up or you’ve done such a stellar job that you’ve angered someone who hands out the freelance work. Believe it or not, it may be the latter. It’s not so odd… believe it or not!
One of my clearest examples was a freelance project for a firm that made postcards for the medical profession. Maybe you’ve received one from your doctor or dentist? You know the ones; balloons shaped like teeth or hearts shaped like teeth that remind you it’s time for a checkup. They look like they haven’t changed since 1972 because… they haven’t!
I was called by the new creative director; a man with forward thinking and cutting-edge vision. So far, so good! He gave me some samples and the simple creative direction of, “do something different!”
That doesn’t happen much these days. Most people would have said, “do something like these or this.”
I attended a meeting with him, the art director/art manager/frightened personality and the staff of designers. Coming into the project a bit late, I eagerly observed the examples the other designers showed as their “different directions.” They were pulling inspiration from the internet and my first impression was they weren’t really doing anything different. They were copying something different from the present line but it was just using ideas from other, existing initiatives. It did give me a bar to surpass.
Sitting in front on my computer, going through the image bank the firm had open license for the images needed, I picked some images that were different… REALLY different. It wasn’t hard to come up with ideas. The creative director said he wanted postcards people would keep long after their dental appointments. Art, they would keep up on their refrigerator with little food-shaped magnets. I thought of what I would keep and what normal people would keep, so I scaled it back a bit… after the first round of “different ideas” were rejected.
Later ideas were enthusiastically accepted by the creative director, but I felt a bit of trepidation from the art director, with whom I was dealing, more often than not. Still I moved forward as I had been doing. If the top person was happy, then so was I.
After designing 30 cards, I was informed I would be limited to 15, and choosing those fell to the creative director. He was happy, I was happy and the art director seemed happy. I was told there would be more a couple of months later. A few months later, my emails were answered with an odd tone that said the project wasn’t ready yet, but I could tell something wasn’t right.
Down the road, the art director told me only one of the pieces was chosen for inclusion in the line. I was deflated and depressed. I apologized for screwing up and not hitting the mark. The client had spent a lot of money on hiring me and got one card out of the deal. If I were the art director, I wouldn’t hire me again.
Months later, I get a call from the creative director. He was leaving the firm and wanted to have lunch. I gladly met him and as I was shaking his hand upon sitting for lunch, I apologized for screwing up.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I was told only one piece made the final cut,” I replied.
“Your stuff made it into every catalog worldwide,” he told me.
After relating the story the art director had told me, he bowed his head in frustration. It seems I had shown up her staff of designers. “More production artists,” he told me.
Not only had I done a good job, but I had done TOO good of a job. Sounds odd? Well, he had also done too good of a job as creative director and was being let go for his trouble. It seems some staffs like the status quo of mediocrity and, as another creative director I know once told me, “they don’t like when the light of creativity illuminates their mediocrity.”
It’s not really a comfort hearing those words. How does one “dumb down” doing a great job?
If you work staff, I don’t have to tell you there is a “favorites” game among managers. Some people, despite their talent level, can do no wrong and some can do no right. When dealing with humans, logic is not a major factor in daily existence. I think Mr. Spock said that. If not, I’m claiming the T-shirt rights to it!
As part of my desire to over-exceed in my job role and out of my love of pop culture, I took it upon myself to be the source of daily emails with links to interesting articles and products that would inspire fellow designers in our daily quest for innovative product development. After good-natured complaints I was sending too many, I decided to create a e-newsletter that would be sent out every Monday morning, spotlighting a dozen or so products, new media advances and art and advertisements that could be used by staff for inspiration. Although it was meant for my department of 60 designers, other departments started asking to be included on my mailing list. Very soon, it was going company-wide to designers, marketing staff, the innovation department, etc. Kudos started coming in from people… as did some complaints.
“This should be owned by the innovation department!” demanded someone who wasn’t even with the innovation department. The head of the innovation department was more than happy having someone else to do the work and enjoyed the e-newsletter as is.
“There’s too much advertising spotlighted,” said a studio manager. When I asked the readers what they wanted to see more/less of in future issues, they wanted more advertising examples.
“Why was there so many Star Wars examples in the last one?” asked the head of a department that didn’t deal with licensed products, as did my department that created products for many licensors, including LucasFilms.
The compliments far outweighed the complaints. Unfortunately, I was drawing attention to myself. While in reality, a higher up might bask in the glow of having a subordinate getting attention from upper management, which would reflect well on the manager for encouraging such engagement and initiative from one of his/her workers, we are humans and jealousy, suspicion and just plain meanness seems to drive emotional decisions even more. It was suggested by someone close to my manager that I stop doing the newsletter. That makes sense! No more inspiration for those who drove product innovation, no more research into trends and new media, no more attention for the department… or me.
Does mediocrity reign in business? Think hard about what you hear in the news. Use logic as to why we have gotten ourselves into the economic problems we now face. Look around your office and coworkers. Are they all the best of the best?
Cheryl R., A well-known creative recruiter says:
Actually in my 30 years in the design field, both as a graphic designer and art director early on, then as a design recruiter, I have never really come across this in the field except that when you mention jealousy or envy. I have seen credit not given where credit is due once in a blue moon when some superiors pass off the ideas or work of their junior staff as their own, a sort of plagiarism with the desire make themselves look good in front of senior management or clients. I think the pride and dedication designers, artists, and production staff takes in their work would not allow them to compromise their standards in their creativity or in utilizing their skilled expertise.
Wallace J., a multimedia producer hits a nail on the head by commenting:
Don’t make the mistake of working for other artists or executives who wish they were.
It’s not just the creative field, of course. Some non-creatives share their insights into this problem in the workplace.
Scott B., a high-ranking U.S. Air Force officer (for security reasons, I won’t mention his area of operations) has an interesting insight:
There is the maxim, “no good deed goes unpunished.” It seems the reward for doing a great (or too good of a) job is often times to have more work slapped on your plate. Unfortunately, it may not always be accompanied by a commensurate salary increase or other tangible benefit. Then the converse (doing a crap job) often results in having less work. I’ll have to caveat that to apply to socialistic systems (e.g., working for the government). In the real world you’d probably get canned. Where’s the justice there?
Jonathan Z., a recent law graduate imparts a quick life-lesson:
I have learned the hard way that doing too good of a job can sometimes get you laid off, because the managers figure that if they can get so much work from one person, they can trim the payroll and so they get rid of you and keep someone with more seniority.
David V., who works in the bio-tech field adds some frightening wit:
The problem with doing too good of a Job, or sometimes being too good is… too bad.
You’re so good at what you do they leave you there and hire people over you because your so good at your position, they hate to replace you.
You make other people in the work group angry because you make them look bad and they need to work harder to keep up with you.
You’re so far ahead of the pack your told you’re not being a team player. You’re told, “we don’t want a star, just a team player.”
When you make a mistake and we all do, its a bigger deal because your at such a higher level you’re set apart as a target and people notice you more.
You work at such a high level it then becomes the standard of what is expected every day and they toss more and more work load your way — you can’t win and soon burn out or get physically sick.
While you’re working so very hard, the work place “politician” is at work on your boss, getting ahead and taking credit for your hard work and talking trash about you.
You work so well you’re told your exceeding your job title so you better stop or you’re going to get fired.
In the world of manufacturing sometimes it’s not how hard you work but when to work.
I was watching TV about a heard of gazelle and how when a gazelle gets out of the herd, its a target for predators. A light went off in my head as I thought, that is how it is at work.
Bernard G., A consultant in Program, project, risk and change management in New Zealand offers insight into one of the biggest problems:
I’ve certainly experienced the pitfalls of too good delivery.
I ran a team that on a couple of occasions, faced with a very difficult but business critical challenge, really stepped up to the mark and exceeded all reasonable expectations, working ridiculously long hours and with exceptional output. The reward? The business decided that this exceptional delivery should be treated as a new level for “everyday” performance, despite the fact it was utterly impossible to maintain such an effort long term and even trying lead to demoralization, poor overall performance, and eventual departure of most of the key members.
Bridget H., a self-professed, “Web Designer, Marketing Consultant, General Keyboard Monkey,” says:
In the past I’ve found that backlash for doing a good job isn’t always about jealousy, sometimes it’s about approach, especially when working in a group environment I find something I need to be aware of is not just doing what’s best for the project, but what’s best for the group. It’s the same when you’re working with clients – for example, what they want and what’s good for them? How do you tell a client that the border they’re set on is hideous? And is it worth it in the long run? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
Hans O., from the Netherlands, adds something that shows we are all the same, all over the world:
It is a well known fact that people don’t like perfect people. It reminds them of their own imperfection. So, doing a job better than other people, does too.
Wanting to do a perfect job? Do it together!
Hans hits an important thought. When working in a group, not only does everyone share in and offer great feedback but it elevates individuals in the group. My favorite initiatives were always done in a group.
Some creatives have other strengths than conceptualizing, so they enjoy working with someone who has great ideas and vision. The person with the vision appreciates someone who has great skills in other areas. Talent doesn’t necessarily hide in a group – it encourages and strengthens the group. As some commented, it makes for a strong “team.”
When I think of why I was personally punished for doing my best, I am struck by what these people have commented upon. Yes, it’s not fair that one should be punished for doing their best and it is reality that people will be jealous and office politics will come into play. On the other hand, I have to put myself in place of the art director and the well being of her team. When I created the postcards for dentists, I was working alone. An interloper, so to speak, and not part of the “team.” I upset the status quo of the team.
When I started the trends e-newsletter for my department, it was just a coworker sending some links and images but when circulation grew company-wide, I was someone in charge and not including the heads of other departments and respecting, in their minds, their needs and authority. If I put myself in the place of these people, I can see their concerns. They wanted to be involved, empowered and have a part of the success. Had I shared, I would still be seen as the innovator and talented individual but I would also be seen as a “team player.”
The lesson I have learned is to be helpful, be a mentor, empower others and be part of the team. I have used the following quote in several articles because it is truly wise and generous. Brian Singer, creative director and founder of Altitude Associates, a San Francisco based creative agency and the creator of The 1000 Journals Project, a global art experiment where journals are passed from hand to hand, was a fellow speaker at the Phoenix Design Week panel on the subject of how Phoenix could grow to become the “Design Capital” and made a statement about a design community and the ability to elevate it to epic proportions;
“The way you get ahead in design…is by lifting up those around you.”
Truer words were never spoken. Elevate others and you will garner respect and gratitude not only from your peers but managers will, at best, also appreciate your efforts. If they are the jealous type or feel threatened by talent beyond their ability, you will, like the gazelle as David imparted, be hidden within the herd.