(or Climbing Aboard the Corporate Abacus)
Design is, what you might call, “a funny old game“. Designers are full of ideas and influences and bursting to try them out on projects large and small. But what projects are actually suitable for these cutting edge creative endeavours? And which projects are simply the perpetual grinding of the machine to produce the most expected of expected designs?
How you approach each project is absolutely down to the client (or the Manager, or the MD, or whatever controlling entity sits atop the sign-off process). If you’re lucky, you may be a designer working in a large studio where you are given very specific creative briefs where you can go and “fill your boots”. The big decision making bits have been done by account managers and creative directors and the scope of the project has been handed over to the “creatives” with a guiding (but perhaps not suffocating) brief.
Riders of the storm
Alas, most designers are probably working for themselves as freelancers, or struggling along in-house among an art-less mid-size enterprise at that terrifying junction between design, commerce, accounting and bullshit.
In-house is a place that often remains relatively un-described in the design world. It’s an incredibly stable environment (compared to the wider world of design shenanigans), but it allows for very little room for manoeuvre, and worse, you may be working for people that do not understand the design process.
Many years ago I was told by a few veteran, battle scarred designers that you should never work for a company that doesn’t understand (or indeed value) designers or the creative process. At the time, being young and naive, I thought that anyone MUST be able to understand at least a smidgen of how design and creative thinking happens.
My belief was that any intelligent individual would ALWAYS work out how to get the best from a creative team (in which they had obviously invested time and money to put together and have available “on tap”). The person that wanted the design will SURELY have an idea for what they want to achieve? They must have a very general look and feel that they are thinking about? They must be capable of taking all the influences that surround them every day and distil that in to the most basic of briefs; “I want it to look like that, but better”? Designers can at least run with that!
The thing is, I wasn’t accounting for accountants (cough!) and their thought processes and pernicious influence throughout a modern day enterprise.
We are The Dead
There are a LOT of trained “mid-level” accountants these days.
Some of the more adventurous ones have escaped from the leather bound desks in that accountancy firm or finance department to be trusted with the direction of non-finance departments; or perhaps, given a lazy board or bored chairmen, the entire company.
Accountants posses some very powerful weapons in the modern enterprise that usherthem rapidly up the corporate promotion pole: They appear incredibly organised; They are used to presenting figures to men in suits; And they will never knowingly throw your money away. Allegedly. Perhaps. (They are also a lot cheaper than the real gold dust of enterprise; and politics; the trained Lawyers).
They have databases, spreadsheets and 3-5-10 year plans to execute, and they protect and shepherd the business for the owner, shareholders or themselves. Unfortunately what many of these new-age number crunchers do not have is any capacity for creative thought or the ability to appreciate any non-measurable “arty” input into a process. They don’t have any real desire to take creative risks or disrupt their own systems or other markets and businesses.
If a designer is particularly unlucky, you will find that your stable in-house position is in a company that has accountants in EVERY senior position. Given this opportunity they will direct like only accountants can; conservatively, frugally, and without any discernible vision.
And that is the killer.
Sounds like Vision
There is no, erm, accounting for the accountant brain once it moves beyond numbers and pound signs.
In so many cases they just cannot creatively visualise or conceptually imagine the broad look and feel they want for a project. Meetings where you try and pin down some design foundations will only end in obfuscated numbers and confusion. Project designs are only really understood when they are actually fully realised, so the ONLY time you may get some actual guidance is when a project is complete! Unfortunately they may well have thoughts that involve changing the entire project. Timely!
And don’t think that this is the same as setting aside the design and project time to prototype several ideas to near-final designs so you can choose the best possible solution. Nope. This sort of late decision making will STILL be about hitting that same deadline (with a project you thought was nearly finished but has just completely changed!). Chaos and rushed, mangled design thinking ensues. Yuck!
All this means that you will battle constantly to second guess what senior management MIGHT want from a project. You’ll never know when it is right to take creative risks and when you need to stick ABSOLUTELY to the template without ANY variation. Tricky!
And there is more bad news.
Follow the Sums
The accountant brain is contagious and can infect many others that are unfortunate stray to close to its sphere of influence. (watch out for the poor misguided graduates that are too eager to climb aboard the corporate abacus).
Before you know it, senior managers in operations, HR and even marketing will start to sound like accounting robots sent from the planet Book-Keeping to bring sound-but-dull fiscal reasoning to the greater universe of ALL business processes. Their simple goal is to apply acount-think with unthinking gay abandon!
So that’s the story. If you are a young designer, just be aware of the mid-size enterprise and the dangers that lurk from an emancipated accountant brain.