As Another Door Closes…

(Found this in my ‘drafts’, forgot I had started writing it a long time ago – June 13th to be exact.  Decided to wrap it up a bit and figured I’d post it.)

On Wednesdays I’ve been “working” at a print shop called the Sign Experts.  It’s a nice little start-up business, the owner aims to make it a completely eco-friendly venture, printing with vegetable-based inks, on sustainable paper, etc.  Anyhow, today is my last day working for him, as my other (real) job wants me to work Wednesdays now, which’ll be irrelevant in about two months when I start school anyhow, because then I’ll be in classes all Wednesday and can’t work anywhere.

So, on my last day, I’m kind of just sitting here reflecting.  I don’t actually have much else to do…it’s a little slow today.  I’ve only worked here about six months, but I do feel I’ve learned a few things; about myself and about the graphic design industry, and maybe about life in general.  Since I have nothing to do, I figured I’d jot some of these “lessons” down and share them with all you lovely people out there in cyberspace.

Things I’ve learned about the Graphic Design Industry (also applicable to all aspects of life):

“Good Design” is a matter of opinion – I actually have a long background in art and design.  I went to school for four years studying computer graphic design, and I did six years in art.  I’ve gone to school and worked with a lot of different “graphic designers”, some really incredibly talented, some not so much.  I know that, as far as design goes, everyone has their own style.  But I also thought I knew that, at the very least, there were rules about what made “good design”.  Until I started working at Sign Experts.  I have seen some of the most aesthetically insulting things receive approval from the client, get printed, and sent out.  When I taught arts&crafts at a YMCA camp a few summers ago, I pinned up a little story on the wall: If you put an apple in front of twenty people and ask them to draw it, you will get twenty very different pictures.  It was meant to encourage the kids to think outside the box and to embrace their own and each other’s very different perspectives.  I thought I understood the story’s meaning before but now it’s taken on a very new meaning: there are no rules of design, there is only what “I” like.

What the customer wants and what the customer says he wants are very rarely the same thing – I had a customer come in.  He wanted a poster printed for an event he was promoting at one of the casinos (I live in Vegas, that may never have been mentioned….).  He told me he needed a background image to show to the venue in order to receive approval.  The background needed to be of the mixed martial arts octagon fighting cage, he wanted it to be like a fight setting, lights, etc.  I asked him at least five times to verify that he just wanted the background image at that juncture, octagon fighting cage, fight setting, lights, etc.  Yes, yes, yes.  So I found a picture, octagon cage, fight setting, bright lights, and sent it off to him.  The response I received was very unpleasant and basically summed up to “this is not what I wanted”.  Apparently this customer was difficult from the start, and I was just last in line to (futilely) attempt appeasing him.  I knew from years of graphics training that the most important part of graphic design was to give the customer exactly what they say they want.  I did not know that there were customers (and lots of them) that would not be able to say what the fuck it is they want.

Communication is the key to a lock no one can find – So a lot of these titillating revelations are, surprise surprise, communication related.  Being a writer, an artist, and an anthropology major, perhaps, aiming to focus her studies on linguistics (still not fully decided…), I should be able to tell you better than anyone how important communication is — not just in personal relationships but in business relationships, or life in general.  However, before working at Sign Experts, I honestly can say, I had no clue how important and how lacking communication skills were in the general public.  Majority of the complaints that came in were due to a breakdown in communication.  I was sort of familiar with this effect, but I wasn’t familiar to such an intimate extent.  I filled in on Wednesdays for my friend who was the main graphic designer of the company and, by law, entitled to at least one day off.  Hence, me being there.  She was usually the one who spoke with the clients, gathered their information, and jotted it down for reference when actually compiling the project.  When I came in, she would set some of these references aside for me to work on.  This involved deciphering her scribbles, sometimes rifling through emails back and forth with the customer (typically in net-speak, of course), and eventually,  throwing my hands up in despair and giving her a call.  What was the point of her having a day off anyway?  (**Look for a possible future article further exploring the topic of communication and, most importantly, is implications for writers later**)

Money Always Comes First/People Suck – At the time I left, Sign Experts wasn’t doing well.  Not because of lack of clients, or inability to appease clients…no…no…but because the vast majority of clients are assholes who will do anything to stiff on the check.  Despite myself and my friend (the main graphic designer) constantly telling the owner he needed to collect money up-front on many of the very big, very costly projects – such as the vehicle wraps where your product could literally drive off without being paid for – for whatever reason, he was determined to deliver a quality product before being paid.  I know, it’s very noble of him, wanting the customer to be able to hold in their hands and look over with approval exactly what they are paying an exorbitant amount of cash for, but the problem is this: what if the customer decides they don’t approve or just back out altogether with no reason or simply decide to take the product and run (drive)?  Well, you’ve just spent countless hours, and wasted valuable – expensive – materials on pro bono work.  Don’t get me wrong, the owner of Sign Experts is an amazingly awesome person and should certainly be commended for his valiant effort to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and, more importantly, wanting to stress customer service.  Unfortunately, people suck.  Do yourself a favor, and always get your money first.  (I know, for the most part, this is backwards advice to writers.  Typically, we have to do all the work upfront and then we attempt to sell the finished (or near finished) product but that leads me to the next “revelation”)

Never Sell Yourself Short.  The owner of Sign Experts has a great special on business cards (500 for 30 bucks – full color, two-sided, glossy, and they would even design it for you), it was his ‘hook’.  It brought the customers in, and once inside, they could look at all the other shiny products he sold and consider purchasing some of them as well.  For a start-up company in an already over-saturated market, this was an essential ploy for building a reputation and bringing business in.  A lot of the people interested in business cards would presumably be business people, often business owners themselves, that would need other types of prints as well (wraps, signs, banners, postcards, etc.).  Problem was, majority of the people that came in only wanted the business cards.  Either they already had a printer they knew and trusted for all those other things, went through a megastore printer (Kinkos or Wal-Mart) which could set its prices ridiculously low or they weren’t business people….just people looking for cards to put their names on.   The cards themselves brought in no profit whatsoever, but some of those customers required days of back and forth on design work (read as: free labor).  For me, the solution should have been simple, charge for design at a 2 hour minimum, but maybe this situation had no solution, online business card sellers have thousands of template designs customers can choose from at no additional cost.  Regardless, my takeaway was simple: know what you and your time are worth, and never let them go for less.

Passion Perseveres So Keep Dreaming.  Most of these ‘revelations’ have been so tragic and dismal, but I’d like to end on a positive note.  The owner of Sign Experts, as I’ve already said, is an amazing person.  He lives as a vegan and is committed to building a name for himself in an industry known for being extremely unfriendly to the environment as a green printer.  His most important interest in this goal is proving to the naysayers out there who claim green printing processes can’t match non-eco-friendly quality or cost that they are wrong.  He wants to incorporate his healthy and eco-conscious lifestyle into his products, to use his company to advocate his personal ideologies of protecting the environment, establishing more humane treatment of animals, and essentially being happy, healthy, and wise.  However, most important, he’s doing it all for his son.  He wants to show his son that hard work pays off and that dreams are attainable.  His passion is evident in all that he does, and although the world seems intent on pushing him down and breaking his spirit, he persists, and that has, at least, inspired me to keep working on my own dreams.

— A few last words, every opportunity, no matter how trivial is may seem, is a new experience and in every new experience there is a lesson or two to be learned.  Working at Sign Experts didn’t line my pockets with riches – I was paid at least enough to cover the gas it took driving to the place and back home again, but every day there taught me something new, and that, in and of itself, is invaluable. —

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