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What if a lot of your past work reflects times when you satisfied the client, but couldn’t sell them on your best ideas? How do you build a portfolio out of choices you wouldn’t have made? Our very own Jeffrey Zeldman answers your toughest career questions.Dear Dr. Web: What do you do when you’re not proud of the work you’ve done for your clients, and don’t want it featured in your portfolio? My Shame
Everybody does some work they’re not proud of. Even Paula Scher and Jony Ive have had the occasional project that didn’t work out as hoped. Dieter Rams may have a thing he worked on that he cringes to think about today. Even Ethan Marcotte has some fixed-width, bandwidth-intensive sites on his resume. When I worked in advertising, creatives at lousy shops took shoddy delight in finding out about dull, bread-and-butter accounts the award-winners occasionally had to work on. We all do it. It’s part of making a living. Sometimes you just need a gig, so you take on a project for which you can deliver competence, but nothing more. Other times, you take on a job with high hopes—only to have those hopes dashed because you couldn’t sell your best idea to the client, or because the business was better served by a dull solution than by the groundbreaking one you hoped to put in your portfolio.
I learned a thing or two about how to gracefully handle less-than-stellar projects from a friend who co-founded one of the leading boutique design consultancies of our age. At one time, this consultancy scooped up every challenging, high-profile strategic gig out there. After they delivered a handful of brilliant strategic bullet points for three-quarters of the client’s budget, my studio would come in—like the guys with brushes who follow the circus elephants—and do all the design, user experience, and front- and back-end coding work for what remained of the budget. Needless to say, I paid attention to how my highly paid strategist friends handled their business. (Rule Number One: don’t hate successful competitors; learn from them.)
At one point my illustrious friends took on a design project helmed by another pal of mine, who was working at the client company. Let’s just say this one didn’t go as well as hoped. For one thing, my friend who was working on the client side redid their code and design work, which is something a client should never, ever, ever, ever do—and should never feel she has to do. The results were not pretty, and did not in any way reflect the client’s fond hopes or the consulting studio’s work or philosophy.
So what did the consultants do when the project went live? Instead of featuring the gig in their portfolio, they had their team leader write about the project in their blog. Rather than the work they had done, he discussed the business challenges the client had faced, and explained their strategic approach to solving those problems. The team leader was extremely complimentary (and rightfully so) about the client’s place in its sphere of business. He spoke warmly of the client’s openness to bold ideas. There was no hint of disappointment, and there was also no dishonesty. My friend wrote about the things that had attracted his team to the gig, and left everyone with a nice, warm, vague feeling. And that’s how you handle a job that doesn’t work out to your satisfaction.
We’ve done the same thing at Happy Cog once or twice, when the work we delivered—although it satisfied the client and did everything it was supposed to do—just wasn’t exciting enough to merit a portfolio showcase. So you write about the business challenges you solved. Or about some innovative coding you did. Or you just share how honored you were to work on behalf of a client who does such wonderful things in the world. (I’m assuming you’re not ashamed of your client, even if you weren’t able to reach new design heights on their project.)
But there’s another part to your question—or, at least, I have a question about your question. It sounds like you’re not just unhappy with one or two projects you’ve worked on. It sounds like you’re unhappy with most of them.
Now, that would be another problem entirely. As a designer, it’s not just your job to create something great. It’s also your job to sell that solution to the client. If you can’t do that, then you need to workshop your persuasion skills, just as you would workshop your CSS skills if they had gotten rusty. A designer must sell. That’s part of the work. A decent designer who can sell will have a better career—and do better work—than a brilliant designer who cannot. There are books out there that can help. Design Is a Job is a great one. A List Apart’s Rachel Andrew writes about the business of web development, and Mike Monteiro’s 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations may help you stop doing things in presentations that unconsciously undercut your work and convince the client not to buy your best ideas.
If deep-seated personality issues prevent you from selling—and you should only come to that conclusion after working at least a year to improve your selling ability—then find a partner who is good at it. They’re probably good at business development, too, and will almost certainly justify the percentage you pay them by improving your professional profile, finding you better clients, and helping you raise your pitifully low rates. (Designers who can’t sell always undercharge for their services. I know. I used to be one.)
Countries and cultures factor in here, as well. There are some places in the world where the designer is always wrong, and the client is a dictator. That is changing everywhere, but change comes slowly in some places, and you may not want to be the evangelist who single-handedly fights to improve the position of all designers in your part of the world. If you live in such a place, consider moving, or find a way to raise your profile so that you can work remotely for a more enlightened class of client.
Regardless of where you live, one important way to build a great portfolio is to work on open source or community-based projects. Side projects like Fonts In Use can build a designer’s reputation when the work she does for clients is less than satisfactory. I have never hired a designer who doesn’t have at least one interesting non-client project to show for herself, and I never will. When all else fails, create a killer blog. I started A List Apart because there was no magazine that approached web design the way I felt it should be approached, and to show what I could do when my first clients weren’t letting me do my best work.
I’ll have more to say about side projects in a future installment of “Ask Dr. Web.”
Have a question about professional development, industry culture, or the state of the web? This is your chance to pick Jeffrey Zeldman’s brain. Send your question to Dr. Web via Twitter (#askdrweb), Facebook, or email.
A couple of big announcements are making the rounds this week, both of them exciting for those of us who make web sites:Google advises progressive enhancement
Second, from Google’s post:Just like modern browsers, our rendering engine might not support all of the technologies a page uses. Make sure your web design adheres to the principles of progressive enhancement as this helps our systems (and a wider range of browsers) see usable content and basic functionality when certain web design features are not yet supported. Pierre Far, Webmaster Trends Analyst
And third: Speed matters. We’ve known for a while that a fast-loading site makes for a better user experience, but with this update it also means Google’s indexing system now explicitly favors faster-loading sites over slower ones.
After initially taunting us with a release date well into the next decade, W3C has published their official recommendation for HTML5, ending years of of often-frustrating, but productive development.
Most of us have been using HTML5 for years already (Jeremy Keith published HTML5 For Web Designers in 2010), so this may seem like a small thing to celebrate. But now we can use elements with full confidence they won’t change, we may see quicker adoption by browser makers of all the exciting things HTML5 brings to the table, and any XHTML holdouts may finally be convinced that HTML5 is good to go.
Let’s get out there.
The first Zeiss lens and Hasselblad 500C camera to visit space will be going up for auction on November 13 via RR Auction in Boston. The unit is a piece of history, having joined Wally Schirra during the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission and, later on, Gordon Cooper during the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission. Read more
Sony has introduced a new line of XQD format version 2 memory cards, the G Series. As with other XQD cards, the G Series promises fast read and write speeds that are able to match the demanding needs of select cameras, such as the Nikon D4 and D4s. In turn, Nikon has announced that the D4s will support Sony's version 2 XQD cards, with improved write speeds and burst capacities. Read more
Ricoh has announced the HD Pentax-DA 16-85mm F3.5-5.6 ED DC WR standard zoom. Covering an equivalent range of 24.5mm to 130mm, this lens uses Pentax's HD coating to cut down on flare and ghosting and offers a weather-resistant construction. It will be available in November for $749.95/£599.99. Read more
We've just added more detail to our Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 First Impressions Review including a summary of our shooting experience. Read our updated preview of Panasonic's latest enthusiast compact and find out how it fares in real-world shooting. Read more
A notebook containing recorded details of plates shot by explorer George Murray Levick during Captain Scott’s final expedition has been found and restored by the Antarctic Heritage Trust of New Zealand. Discovered in melted snow outside the hut that was Scott's base during the British Antarctic Expedition, the notebook is said to contain pencil-written details of 'the dates, subjects and exposure details for the photographs he took during 1911 while at Cape Adare'. Learn more
Mylio, a subscription-based photo organization and storage program, is making a debut at this year's PhotoPlus Expo in New York. Created by MyLO, a Bellevue, Washington-based company, Mylio offers cross-device access to a user's collection of photos, without them having to change their storage structure. We've taken it for a test drive - find out our impressions and find out about the new service. Read more
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with one of the most recognizable names in photography - Anne Geddes. In our interview, recorded in partnership with CreativeLive, DPR's Barney Britton talks with the photographer about how her career started, the transition from film to digital, and her efforts as a global advocate for children. See video
Sony A7S Shooter’s Report Part II: Boost those shadows and peep those pixels! A look at dynamic range and 4K video
Need a 20x superzoom lens for your next video production? Canon’s new 50-1000mm cine zoom has you covered
I am not the sort of person who “airs her dirty laundry in public.” I wouldn’t walk into a mixed group of friends, colleagues, and complete strangers at a party and announce something deeply personal, and so it is with Twitter. For me, Twitter is a place to chat, a replacement for the Telnet Talkers I was so fond of in the 1990s. I share things I think are interesting, I keep up with what people I know are doing, but I see it as a public place.
Recently, I had a Twitter conversation with someone who felt that people who don’t post about their bad days are being disingenuous. As if trying to keep things positive meant living a lie. However, I’m not pretending to be something I am not. It’s just that there is a filter through which I assess what is appropriate to share.
Unlike those Telnet Talkers, Twitter has essentially become a place where I do business. My “personal brand” enables me to sell books and to gain writing and speaking gigs. It’s not all work: I post photos of my cat, participate in events such as the annual mocking of the Eurovision Song Contest, and relate what I saw while out running. All of it is content I would be happy for my clients, my mother, or my daughter to see.
I know many other people have the same filter. Our filters may allow a little more or a little less through, but any of us operating professionally online have to leave things unsaid. If we show ourselves as being vulnerable via Twitter or Facebook, tell other people about the battles we face with our own minds, what might that do to our businesses? What if a potential client or employer finds those tweets? Discrimination due to mental health issues is unlawful, in the UK at least, but you can’t legislate against a potential client deciding not to get in touch with a freelancer who once tweeted about their depression.
Despite living our lives in public, developing our filters without really thinking about them, we are still creating real relationships with each other. Via social media we know a lot of the detail of each others’ day-to-day lives—far more detail than we would know of many of the colleagues we work alongside in an office. I count as true friends some people who I rarely get the chance to interact with outside of what is essentially a public place. If we met in person, maybe they would look into my eyes and see the things I don’t speak of. Perhaps I would see the same in theirs.
There is a saying, often used when people are talking about imposter syndrome:
The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.
While this quote is aimed at reassuring the person struggling with insecurity, there is also a person behind the highlight reel. Know that just as we are sharing our own highlights, so are our friends and colleagues.
When we spend time with people, we learn their usual demeanor and we have visual clues to help us know that something is up. We can take that friend to one side and offer a safe place where they can share their struggles without worrying it will cross over into professional life.
The relationships we form online are no less “real” than those we’ve formed face to face. Perhaps we are still learning how to help one another and how to ask for help in this space. Are those tweets sounding slightly less positive because someone having a bad day, or is there more to it? Are those uncharacteristically snarky responses coming from someone who is finding life really tough right now? Can we learn to look out for each other, as the lines between the real world and online blur? We can take our friends to one side virtually—drop them an email, offer a phone or Skype call to “catch up,” then offer a listening ear.
For Geek Mental Help Week I want us to remember that where professional lives are entwined with personal on Twitter, we probably are seeing only the public side of a person. We’re all still learning how to care for each other in these new communities we are creating. For every one of our friends bravely sharing their story this week, there will be many more who are not in a place where they can do so right now. Let’s be aware that those battles may be deeply hidden, be kind to each other, and look out for subtle signs that someone might need somewhere less public to ask for support.
Ricoh has announced the Theta M15, a second version of its 360-degree camera. The M15 is also capable of 360-degree spherical images, which can be viewed using Ricoh's mobile app or theta360.com. The M15 adds video recording to its portfolio with clips up to three minutes. Learn more