From humbling experiences to clients from hell, designers have seen it all.
We asked some of our designer friends to share stories from their pasts.
I suggest reading till the end!
Mine is a humbling story about how I learned the value of user testing and that a clever idea is not the same as a good idea.
I gave a presentation 12 or 13 years ago at a design conference where I had intended to introduce an innovative CSS technique I developed for assisting low vision users.
I prepped for weeks to make my unveiling to an international audience of my peers while—at the same time—the innovation I was going to reveal was undergoing field testing. I was so certain of my invention, I never thought for a moment that field testing would reveal anything other than success. I was so naive.
It bombed. Instead of making things easier for users, it made everything more complicated. The worst part, I didn’t learn this until the day before I flew to Washington to present it to the public. I didn’t back out though. Rather than give a pitch about a clever solution to an accessibility problem, I told the story of the journey that led to such an important and humbling education.
You can trust your gut for inspiration, but never let it fool you that you’re right.
It could have been humiliating for me had I backed out of the conference, but I made a choice to pivot from dwelling on failure to focusing on perseverance and the pursuit of knowledge. A huge life lesson.
During a client call, I was reviewing a landing page design where we included a grouping of their product logos.
While walking thru the page, I referred to this section as the ‘logo quilt’. Immediately, one of the client’s design leads pipes in and interrupts the review with, “You mean logo farm”.
I laughed and said, “Yeah sometimes it’s also referred to as a logo quilt.”And then corrected me again and aggressively insisted that it is only referred to as “LOGO FARM”. It went silent. My creative director mutes the phone and says, “Let’s refer to it as a “logo GRAVEYARD next time.”
We unmuted the phone and proceed to carry on with the review – both parties pretended that none of that nonsense had just transpired.
Passive aggressiveness behavior like this is so common in the design world. We all need to remember that terminology varies regionally, globally…terminology variances are especially noticeable if you’ve worked with numerous products and markets. Everyone has their own lingo.
It was the spring of 2009 and my now ex-husband had been unemployed for almost four months and I was only working 20 hours a week for, maybe $18/hour. We were struggling to pay our mortgage (our home nearly in foreclosure), the housing market had crashed and our home we purchased for $145,000 a mere 2 1/2 years before, was now worth about $25,000.
I had a 5-year-old and a nearly 1-year-old and was desperate to either find a job, an additional part-time job and/or add clients to my struggling freelance design business. So, I looked to Craigslist in search of work. Craigslist was definitely not a great place to find quality work, but there was tons of it and being that the idea of “freelance” design was starting to catch on, you could use Craigslist search functionality to find a job almost anywhere.
I started searching in Michigan to no avail because with the onslaught of the housing market crash, Michigan was a wasteland of unemployed designers. Not to mention, most ads for jobs in lots of cities always extolled the value of “exposure” over paying you actual money. Or, they wanted someone who could code and design and pay you $10/hour.
Anyway, I started looking in larger markets and made my way to some Las Vegas listings. One ad, in particular, caught my eye. They wanted folks to design a logo for a business and if they chose your logo, there would be the promise of future work. This tactic was also common and a HUGE taboo thing in the design world (still is) called: Spec work or work done without the promise of payment but not without the possibility of your s*** getting stolen and used anyway.
I messaged the person about the job and told them that I thought that throwing me $100 for a logo design was fairer than making me any potentially false promises and that if they picked me, I wouldn’t let them down. A gentleman emailed me back and I could tell I’d won him over. He agreed to my terms and we settled on the idea that the $100 could be applied to future work in the form of a discount.
I designed the logo, some ugly monstrosity with a bull (yes a bull) and some size gradiated squares that trailed off into the ether in a sort of wave-like pattern. He loved it and we began our working relationship. We communicated mainly through Facebook messenger or over the phone. Whenever he called me it sounded as if he was in a huge warehouse and I could hear other people having their own conversations.
At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what type of work he did but as he explained more and more, it was clear that it was an odd sort of business. At first, he described it as “guerrilla marketing” and that he sold different types of phone cards that either disguised your phone number or some other shady things. But, later it seemed it was going to morph into a “men’s” magazine ala Playboy, but geared towards more of an urban market.
Once he dropped that bomb, I started receiving nude images of women (all clearly of legal age) that he wanted me to take and make silhouettes out of for yet another logo. I wasn’t sure how to deal with this but my husband was aware of everything and we needed the money so I continued to work with him. He paid me what I wanted and was paying me when he promised. He had been my best client up to that point.
One night after I’d expected one of his payments to arrive (but hadn’t) for work I’d done, a payment that would pay my $1500 mortgage payment, I was very upset. At this point, I truly needed that money and I called him upset and I could tell he felt terrible. Within a couple of days, I received the check, but it was pulled from the bank account of a person’s name I didn’t recognize. I had a moral dilemma. Do I cash it anyway? Is this check real or will it bounce? If I cash it and it’s from someone whose identity was stolen, am I then liable and could be prosecuted in a lawsuit? I was freaking out.
I called my cousin, a secret service agent involved in the investigation of money laundering at the time, and asked if he could take a look at the check and let me know if it was ok for me to cash it. He responded the next day and indicated that he ran routing info and other things from the check and there was nothing that indicated it came from a stolen identity and that it was just fine to cash it. I cashed it and it cleared just like normal.
I worked for him pretty regularly for approximately 9 months on various design projects mostly related to the urban “men’s” magazine but also helping another employee of his with any needs for events she was setting up where girls did promotional sales at bars and other events (think Red Bull promo girls). *Then towards the spring of 2010, he just sort of dropped off the radar. This is common for a lot of clients, but he was different, we spoke all the time.
*I should say that around this time I’d gotten into an argument with a family member over something political and decided to close my Facebook account. I told my client that he would just have to reach me via phone calls and he freaked out. Literally freaked out and asked me to at least create a new Facebook account so that he could message me there. I wasn’t thrilled but I did it to make things easier for him. But, it was odd.
It was going on a week of no contact with him and one day I get a call from Britney, the girl who coordinated the events who would connect with me if she needed any digital promo materials. She was like “Have you heard from Rob? He hasn’t called me in over a week and I need him to get me some things for this week’s events and I’m starting to think something is wrong.” I reassured her that he was probably just busy but that if I heard from him, I’d tell him to contact her immediately.
Later in the evening Britney emailed me to say that she had reached out to a couple of women whose names we had only seen in emails (Rob never emailed either of us, if we got an email it was from one of these women) and that based on her conversations with them, she thought something was up.
The next morning she called me to say/warn me that I should expect a call today from Rob and that something fishy was definitely going on. Basically, she’d gotten so suspicious that she started researching everyone involved and was stumbling on some pretty crazy s***, which lead her to contact a guy who was a guard at an Indiana State prison.
Yes, effing prison!
A little later, my husband and I are home with our 1-year-old and the phone rings. He looks at the caller ID and says “it’s Rob!” I shake my head to say I don’t want to talk to him but he just pushes the phone at my face and after a few seconds of hesitation I say hello. He relays to me some story of having gotten into an accident in California and sitting on the side of the road, apparently unconscious in his car, for a couple of days until he was found and taken to a hospital where he was in a coma for a few more days. All total bull**** and completely unbelievable. He then asked me if I was still on board with the work he needed and I told him no, that I was done. I immediately called Britney and told her what he said and she corroborated that he had said the same thing to her, but after speaking to the prison guard, she knew for a fact that it was all just a big lie.
We found out that Rob was in prison. Not like “had been” in prison, but was IN in prison. And, not just for a small stint, but FOR LIFE. He was a bad dude who had done A LOT of bad things but the final straw was he tried to kidnap and rape a woman in a mall parking lot early one morning by knifepoint and in the process of getting caught, attacked police officers.
I was in total shock. I called the guard myself and he assured me that the Rob he had in his prison was the same Rob I had done business with for the last year. He said he had voice recordings I could listen to if I wanted confirmation. He also indicated that prisoners often have phones either given to them by other guards or they can even be thrown over prison walls into the yard. Rob had also been busted previously for running a business out of his cell before. I didn’t want to listen, I knew what he was saying was true and I just wanted the whole thing to go away. There was a long time where I was worried that he had my address, my name, he knew my Facebook, we’d connected on LinkedIn (we’ve since disconnected) and the guard even set me up in their system that would alert me when Rob had a parole hearing so that I’d know when he was out of the prison, at the hearing and when he was back in the prison. Every once in a while I’ll get an email and it always shakes me up and reminds me of the crazy year I had. The moral of the story, if you look for work on Craigslist, you must face the consequences.