The Case of the Stubborn Art Director

Background

A client came to ReadyAbout with the project of producing a family-type bingo game to be used with a brand new marketing strategy. As we were discussing the project's constraints, he told us of a concern: "This site must not be mistaken for a gambling site or a porn site. Black backgrounds always make me think of that type of site, so whatever you do, don't use a black background.

We had recently hired a new art director on a trial basis. This person came up with a terrifically fun design for the site. It used a black background. We had many similar conversations back and forth that went something like this:

Me:
I see you've chosen to use a black background.
Art Director:
Yes. It really makes the site look professional.
Me:
Our client doesn't want a black background.
Art Director:
I'm the art director. It is my judgment that this design needs a black background.
Me:
But the client specifically told us that he didn't want the site to remind him of a gambling or porn site, and black backgrounds do just that.
Art Director:
No, they don't.
Me:
The client says they do.
Art Director:
They don't.
Me:
But the client is paying us - it's their site, and they get to choose.
Art Director:
I was hired as the art director. I will not compromise my craft.
Me:
Please?
Art Director:
No.
Problem

The first thing to recognize is that in reality, the background color really doesn't matter that much. Sitting in the judges box, I weigh the two arguments. Client gives you money, doesn't want black. Art director gives you guff, wants black. The issue isn't that important to the functioning or usability of the site. Therefore, the client wins.

OK, so I now know how I want the situation to end up -- but how do I get there? I want the art director to yield, but at the same time, I need to show this person that they are not puppets.

What's your solution?

My Solution

I was exasperated. The art director would not budge. We were sitting together at my desk looking at the work, and I picked up the phone and called the client, who I had a pretty good relationship with. Our conversation went something like this:

Me:
Remember that issue about the background color?
Client:
Yes.
Me:
Well, I'm here with my art director -- and he has some serious concerns. I'd like you to hear the concerns directly, so that I don't bias the question or answer any.
Client:
OK.
Me:
Great. Here's Sidney.(The name has been changed.)
Art Director:
Hi, This is Sidney.
Client:
Hi Sidney, what's your concern?
Art Director:
The design I've created relies heavily on a black background to work properly. Changes to the background color might require me to start over again.
Client:
I don't want a black background. It reminds me of gambling and porn sites.
Art Director:
No it doesn't.
Client:
Yes it does.
Art Director:
I'll send you links to sites that clearly illustrate that black does not automatically imply gambling and porno.
Client:
Doesn't matter. I really like the design you have. I want to keep it -- just without a black background
Art Director:
I want to send you the links.
Client:
OK

After this conversation, the art director finally caved and used a dark blue background.

Rationale

This dispute was clearly not about the background color -- it was about control and respect. On the client's side, he sees a very simple equation: I'm paying, I get to choose. Period.

From the art director's side the equation is less simple: I'm new at this job and on a probationary period. I need to show that I can act like an art director, and I don't want to set the example early on that management (who knows nothing about art anyway) can simply change my designs by fiat. I need to feel respected.

Respect is the key issue. By letting the art director make a case directly to the client, the art director feels that he had an opportunity to make the pitch for what he wanted. He was heard, and by extension, respected. By taking the risk of letting the art director make this pitch in a one-on-one conversation, I showed the art director that I trusted him, and that allowed him to capitulate on the issue.


phone: 617-697-7527 — e-mail: ben@dubrovsky.name — ©2007, 2008, 2009 Ben Dubrovsky