Bonnie Siegler | Dear Bonnie

Dear Bonnie: Cringing in Charleston

Editor's Note: Dear Bonnie is our truth-telling advice column from Bonnie Siegler. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do, and invite our readers to submit their questions directly to:[email protected]

Dear Bonnie,

A client recently asked me to design the album art for this cool up and coming band. I would be thrilled, but I cannot STAND the music. Literally stick-my-fingers-in-my-ears-and-make-it-stop hate. Should I still do the job? And if so, how should I approach the design process?

Cringing in Charleston

Dear Charlie,

Your question gets to the heart of the conundrum that is graphic design. We represent the needs of both art and commerce, which means we serve many masters. We combine our aesthetic principles and pleasures with the needs, desires and tastes of our clients.

If you are just starting out in your career, I would suggest you do any work that you can get your hands on. You need to engage with problem solving at every level right now: this means you will love things, hate things, fight about things, change your mind about things, and basically learn about how the world works. A client is a client is a client. 

However, if you are further in your career, I would advise against taking this on. You would be officially “responsible" for telling the world what's great about this band/product/service. You would have to understand it, distill it to its essence, and then find a way to communicate your discoveries both visually and editorially. Since you HATE it, that would be very difficult to do honestly and compellingly. Personally, as an experienced designer, I would find the ethical part of this situation a bit troubling.

Massimo Vignelli once said, “It is better to starve than have a bad client,” but that doesn’t mean you have to love every client or be a huge fan of what they do. That being the case, “stick my fingers in my ears and make it stop” is perhaps a bridge too far. For me it would almost be the equivalent of doing work for a political party I really disagreed with. I simply couldn't do it. Your feelings about the music likely aren't as morally fraught as my disapproval of a political party, but it would still be difficult to create great work in response to something you can't stand.

If you didn't loathe the band — but merely disliked them — it might be worth a try. It could even be kind of a fun challenge. I would begin by finding a way to understand, if not like, the music. Listen to it repeatedly. Study the musicians, their influences and their lyrics. Even if you would never listen to the music for fun, you'll probably be able to latch onto and respond to some aspect of it. Then talk to your client about what they are thinking and see if you can find some common ground.

One of the many things I love about what we do is that we can help our clients see their company, work, or brand in a new light. Remember: you are not selling a product to the general public. You are selling a new way for a specific audience to see the world and that, my friend, is a wonderful thing.

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