In-house Issues: Professionalism Undone or The Danger Of Broken Windows

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.

5 thoughts on “In-house Issues: Professionalism Undone or The Danger Of Broken Windows

  1. m@

    Love it. Love it. Love it.

    This is the first post/article on this subject I remember reading in a long time.

    Even minute typos tend to get under my skin. While I’ve learned to let go a bit (from an observer’s standpoint), attention to detail is key in creating polished work.

    Additionally, it’s a sign of respect not only for yourself and for your work, but for your clients.

  2. Marci

    Great post. I agree completely. No need to apologize for raising the bar and keeping it there.

    May I recommend the following book on the subject, The Tipping Point: How little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell.

  3. Jason Graham

    Excellent article. I totally agree.

    This may be a little off topic, but I have had to hire for part-time designer positions and you wouldn’t believe some of the applicants. Some have showed up in flip-flops and shorts, some with no portfolio, and some had the ignorance to say they wanted the job only because it’s closer to where they’re building a new home. Really? I think it speaks to that lack of polish and respect that is so common now. When I’m applying for a job, I’m going to dress up, I’m bringing my best work, and I’m trying to show what the employer has to gain from hiring “me.” They don’t owe me an interview or a job. It’s up to me to show them that they want to interview me and then give me the job. I guess I may be getting old too.

  4. andy

    I often find myself ranting like an old timer about these very issues (and i’m only 27) but with the onset of online communities and online interaction these kind of “bad manners” will only get worse. I’ve stopped keeping track of recent college grads and current students who mumble when they talk and dont look you in the eye during a conversation. And dont even get me started on texting while in meetings or in the middle of a one on one conversation. I’ve started to just stop talking and stare at them waiting for them to finish there text, then resume annoyed.

    The bright side: for those of us who recognize and practice professionalism hopefully that gives us a little jump on the competition.

  5. Trish

    Nothing says “I don’t care” like the lack of punctuation and/or capital letters at the beginning of a sentence. I recently received an e-mail from a photographer with incomplete sentences and not a single capitalized letter in sight. It made me wonder if he even bothers to focus the camera before taking a shot.