I received the following email from a freelance illustrator contacting me for work:
click on image to enlarge
Now, I know I’m an old timer and the standards for proper social etiquette have changed since I was a young freelancer hungry for work in the eighties, but I’m not sure that the above email cuts it even by today’s lowered norms. If this is how the illustrator writes an email to a potential client on whom he’s trying to make a good impression, how does he talk to his friends? In monosyllabic grunts? By the way, the attached samples were so small that I couldn’t see them.
This lack of professionalism isn’t just restricted to young freelancers; it’s endemic in the in-house world as well among all levels of practicing designers. Emails are certainly where lax amateurish behavior is the most obvious, but it also shows up in how designers dress, present ideas, and collaborate. I’m not saying that we should all come to work in dress uniforms with spit shined boots but there are lines that, once crossed, can lead to more serious unprofessional performance.
There was a theory forwarded in the 1980s to explain the rise in crime in urban areas. Called “The Broken Window Theory”, it basically postulated that the decline of certain neighborhoods was initially triggered by small, seemingly innocuous, events. The example used was that an untended broken window in an abandoned building signaled to those living in the neighborhood that: A. No one cared about them and B. There was no one in charge and it was acceptable to act disrespectfully towards their environment and others. The theory went on to propose that this mindset then initiated a domino effect with more serious situations presenting themselves. Before long, trash would be piling up around the building, vagrants would be squatting in doorways and drug dealers would be plying their trade on the neighborhood corners. When police departments implemented tactics to nip the downward spiral at its earliest stage they found that urban deterioration was stalled and crime stats went down.
The same consequences may occur when designers adopt seemingly innocuous unprofessional behaviors. Lowered expectations regarding grammar, dress and interpersonal etiquette could, and does, lead to more serious unprofessional work practices. In the resulting more amateurish environment, less care is taken in the craft of design. Improperly kerned type, prepped files and proofed copy begin to show up on projects. A lack of respect for fellow designers and clients rears its head in the guise of poor file handoffs and sloppily communicated direction.
I know this can happen because I’ve seen it first-hand and spoken with numerous design leads who have related similar experiences. The challenge, of course, is to allow for casualness and the playful creative vibe it generates without accidentally promoting a mindset of sloppiness and disrespect.
The following are behaviors that should be addressed to avoid the slide into unprofessionalism:
Some of the little things:
- Sloppily written emails
- Casual dress for important meetings
- Late arrivals for work and meetings
- Speaking in incomplete sentences
Some of the bigger things:
- Missed meetings
- Missed deadlines
- Improperly prepped files
- Uncompleted revisions
- Unanswered voicemails and emails
My apologies for sounding like a teacher admonishing his students, but in a culture that increasingly seems to be lowering the performance bar, making it all to easy for designers to buy into that mindset, it’s especially important for the in-house community not to lose ground in its attempts to gain credibility with the greater design and business communities and, most importantly, not lose respect for itself.