I can remember the sick-to-my-stomach feeling I had that day. I hung up the phone and felt a tear run down my cheek. We had been fired by our new client - our biggest project to date. And I was the only one to blame.
It wasn't being fired that was so devastating. I mean, sure, on the surface that's what initially hurt. It wasn't even the fact that it would have accounted for up to 25 per cent of our sales that year; though, yes, the loss of that financial commitment would take some adjustment.
It was because I thought I could do it all. Because I didn't ask for help. Because I knew it was time to hang up my graphic design uniform.
I had wanted to be a graphic designer before I ever took a single class. I've always loved art, I'm a decent photographer, I even kicked off my career by creating my high school softball team's shirts with the amazing Type Twister software (insert outline, drop shadow and glow here).
Fast-forward through college and my first couple of jobs, and I came out the other side knowing that I wanted to design for projects that mattered to me. And so, I started my own studio.
As an entrepreneur, I played every role. Creative director, designer, project manager, new business lead, bookkeeper, web developer, photographer, and on and on. Struggling to keep up, I hired my first designer. He helped share the design load, which freed up more of my time so I could better manage our clients.
Getting a big head
As we got bigger, so did the client names, making it even harder for me to let go of all those job titles. My hard work seemed to be paying off, though.
Our clients were continuing to refer us more and more business, and I was sitting in some pretty big conference rooms, talking to some really important people. Frankly, I was starting to get a big head.
And so I reached a tipping point. Our longest standing, highest paying client had passed our name to one of its collaborators for a very large project. Actually, it was the largest project we'd ever been given. There was no bidding process; no pitch presentation. I simply wrote a proposal and we were in business.
With the added pressure of knowing we needed to look especially good because of where the referral came from, I decided it would be best for me to handle this one on my own. I made sure all the rest of the projects I'd been working on were taken care of, put my head down and began brainstorming.
I put every ounce of effort I had into making the design concepts the best work I had ever done. Presentation day came and went, a week passed and I still hadn't heard anything. I reached out, only to hear we had been fired. No second chance, no feedback, no nothing. Just a "Thanks, but we've decided to go with someone else."
The blame game
It put me in a downward spiral. I contemplated what had happened, initially blaming them. Were they just too used to their own crappy design that they couldn't see good design if it was standing right in front of them?
Maybe, but the reason felt closer to home, like the failure was mine. It was devastating. I considered changing careers. I felt like a hack.
It took me well over a week before I could tell the team we had parted ways. And even then I'm not sure I was completely honest. I was just so embarrassed. The weeks and months following involved a lot of self-reflection.
My true skills
When I finally took my personal feelings out of the picture, I saw that this client had bought into a portfolio of work done mainly by my team. I was the creative director at the time, however the amount of actual design I had been doing was limited. I also realised a few things about myself. I was intuitively good at client management. Up to this point, it didn't seem like a real skill. It came easy to me. I was just being myself.
After a few good therapy sessions, I finally understood my skill to be a valuable one. The truth is, many people do not know how to do this type of work, nor do they want to. In fact, it's okay - indeed, smart - to focus my efforts on this side of the business and let go of the parts I don't have time to hone.
I still think of myself as a designer - I can spot bad kerning at 10 paces. I've just loosened my definition of what a designer is supposed to be, and I'm much happier for it.
Words: Dawn Hancock Illustration: Zaneta Antosik
In 1999 Dawn Hancock founded Firebelly, a studio committed to socially responsible design. This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 225.