How I Took Back Ownership as a Creative

When is it OK to fight back over your work?

This whole article can be boiled down to one sentence:

Get attached and arm yourself with the evidence to defend that attachment

As a creative, you must be attached to your work. Your goal is not only to inspire, but to push the limits, educate your audience, and elevate the conversation. If you can’t bond with what you’ve created, how can you explain or defend it?

In the absence of attachment, people will chip away at what you’ve built; changes will become arbitrary, and you will lose sight of what you set out to create. However, there is a crucial lesson here–to form a healthy attachment: you must be open minded.

When I am confident that I’m right and firmly attached to my work, I try to prove myself wrong–this is the best way to form an educated opinion. It opens me up to uncertainty and forces me to face issues that are far more complex than I may have anticipated.

I have found it’s far easier to prove someone else wrong than to prove myself wrong–it takes work, but through this process I gain knowledge, empathy, and depth. I’ve established the basis for my attachment.

Stop sacrificing and stand your ground

Once you’re attached, you need to arm yourself for criticisms with the weapons of reason. I know, instinctively, which aesthetic will appeal to different groups of people, but the client doesn’t.

It’s my job to explain it to them.

Realize that client objections and suggestions (as unwanted as they may be) often stem from a lack of understanding or ignorance toward the delicate balance of form vs function.

By sacrificing your direction and giving in to misguided suggestions, you essentially concede to being the expert! If that’s the case, then why are you there?

Learn when to collaborate and when to be assertive

This applies not only to clients, but our fellow creatives. I often work as part of a team, sometimes as the leader, sometimes as a junior member; and each time I have had experiences with great collaboration as well as obligations to be assertive.

If everyone is assertive, information is lost, and nothing gets accomplished; too many opinions, and the end result is disjointed. The creative process is not an assembly line–it involves feedback and ownership from multiple angles.

Whether with coworkers, peers, or customers, there is a time for both collaboration and assertiveness, and the definite answer for when either is necessary is: it depends. As long as roles are clear and their is a common goal, you will find harmony between ownership and collaboration.

Know when you’re right and when you’re wrong

You’re going to be wrong.

Your work isn’t going to be perfect. Pretending like it is might be the quickest way to lose ownership as a creative. You can be confident in your decisions, and explain why a certain choice works better for the client, but you can’t assume your way is the only way.

By entering a review with your mind made up that you are right and they are wrong, you force your client into making an easy decision: either they can pay more money to deal with you, or they can take what they have already and go somewhere else. Either way, you’ve just lost ownership as a creative. Not ownership of the design, but ownership of your own creativity.

It’s okay to tell a client they are wrong; it’s okay to tell a client they are not a good fit

People want to be designers; humans love to create.

Clients understand that they are paying you to do a job they cannot; but as I’ve always seen, their human nature gets the better of them and they want to be involved, they want input, they want to feel like they’re creating what you’ve done.

Oftentimes I’ve realized that half my job is walking clients back from that ledge. Like some kind of slow, delicate dance I bring them back to reality. I need to help them realize that their input does not help, that their changes are not appealing, that their ideas are… well, bad, all without actually saying any of that.

Because once a client falls off that cliff, and takes control of the design, there is no coming back, and say hello to endless revisions and a finished product with which you’re not happy.


Jonathan Speh is an award-winning designer and Art Director at Idea Booth, a creative think tank specializing in disruptive ideas.

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