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The Boss Is Crazy And Running With Scissors!

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There are few things more frightening to a designer than an art director or a client on a rampage. Today, we're going take a small break from our normal web design coverage to delve into a few choice horror stories from Speider Schneider. Speider has worked everywhere from Disney/Pixar to the Graphic Artists Guild where he has gathered experiences that would make most grown men cry... so grab your flashlight and gather round the campfire. Let's dig in, shall we?

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About the Author: Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, global blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices and telling frightening stories that make students question their career choice (just kidding).

The Boss Is Crazy And Running With Scissors!

I had a great boss at one of my former jobs where I was the art director. He was a sweet and talented man and wouldn't have hurt a fly... but his medication was slowly turning him into a monster around the office.

As the weeks on the job rolled into months and then years, the staff inside the design office began to recognize that we had our good days and our bad days; The good days were when the boss was out of the office. Everything would run smoothly, clients were happy, and sales were up. The bad days were when the boss decided to show up. When he left the office on Fridays, we would breath a sigh of relief because he would be gone until Tuesday. An older man who had put in decades at this company, he was down to a three or four days a week... and for that we were glad.

It wasn't that he was horrible all the time... there was just something... off about him. Something slowly deteriorating in his psyche that put us all on guard. That was when the tantrums started.

The Transformation

Like a werewolf under a full moon, our boss began to "lose it" about once a month. REALLY lose it! He would come into the art department screaming like a banshee about some small design problem or that something hadn't been done in a certain way. Some of the most memorable office mandates included:

  • Not to use circles or ovals in layouts. Only squares, rectangles and triangles were allowed. He actually said, “I never want to see yucky circles or disgusting ovals. I want yummy circles and delicious rectangles!”. We felt like we were designing for Lucky Charms cereal.
  • We were not to use rules or lines when framing objects.
  • Grey borders only please. No other colors are allowed.
  • Weekly design meetings were ordered, because he needed to "teach us design". Mind you we were all industry veterans hired for our design talents.
  • I should collect examples of “good design” and spend my days in the office cataloging them religiously. Keep in mind that I was the art director... certainly there were better uses of my time.

His questionable design advice quickly became downright hazardous when he decided to start advising me on how to staff the office. His favorite activities became:

  • Insisting that I fire everyone in the art department and hire students (who all happened to be young women).
  • Insisting that I hire a friend of his although she didn’t know the first thing about design or how to use a computer.
  • Revealing his underhanded plans against the editors.
  • Revealing his underhanded plans against the freelancers.
  • Revealing his underhanded plans against me. I was told about this one by the freelancers.

It was hard to watch the descent into madness. He had been such a talented man in his day. At this point in time he was agitated, but not angry. The anger would come next.

Death Will Lead To Better Employee Engagement!

After many frightening tantrums and the studio tense with stress whenever the boss was in, I was eventually forced to call Human Resources.

They dismissed my complaints and warnings... In their words, our boss was a “nice man". They told me that, "with creative types you get a mustang and not a plow horse!”. Apparently, they felt that his irrational temper was positively charming.

“He’s going to hurt someone one day,” was all I could reply. It seemed insane that their only response suggested that his anger problem was what made him such a great leader!

A few weeks later, we had another explosive day. He was so red in the face that I followed his rapid pacing around the art department, wheeling a chair, trying to get him to sit down before his heart exploded. Our boss had a pacemaker and most of us were genuinely concerned for his health.

In a fit of rage, he turned, grabbed a large pair of scissors, and threw it at the chair. It bounced back and hit him right in the eye! I can't even make this stuff up... I told HR someone would get hurt!

He recovered and was retired shortly thereafter. He seemed better once he didn’t have to commute or listen to HIS crazy boss any longer.

Sure, this was a medication-related anger issue... but there are lots of people in the workplace who are just downright mean. I'm sure you've encountered a few yourself.

Getting Some Perspective

There are bad bosses in every profession, but it can seem at times that web designers attract a certain breed of crazy. If you're in a studio, I'm sure you've had a boss you thought was off his rocker; If you're a freelancer, you've had a similar client. We, as creatives, have the joy of a job that involves creating something from nothing... and along the way there’s lots of hot buttons that designers can push without even knowing it. Just like some designers can become emotionally attached to their work, some art directors and clients can get really wrapped up in projects as well.

Identify The Key Signs You Are Interviewing To Work in A Dungeon

Spotting the warning signs of a bad agency or client isn't really that hard. In fact, most of the points that I'll address might seem like common sense. The real trick is looking past the glitz and glamor of a particular project to see whether or not it's a good fit for you.

If you drive yourself to an interview, you get to experience one of the biggest factors in your sense of morale at the workplace: the commute. If your boss is a monster, it becomes a long journey of dread in the morning and a sobbing drag home in the evening. The same goes for public transportation, but there, people will see when you’re crying. You will probably see others crying, too!

If there's no commute or you'll be working as a freelancer from home, it's still worth taking the time to get to know your client in person when it's possible. The reason: you'll be able to spot the warning signs before you actually sign up for the job. Red flags abound to the senses – you just need to let your brain recognize those sights, sounds and, in some cases, smells. Here are just a few signs to look out for:

Upon Arrival...

As you arrive, ask yourself if the building itself is a death trap. Do people at the coffee shop next door seem to be lingering a little too long. Does the elevator have a death rattle? Are the bathrooms a science experiment?

When You Walk Inside...

When you walk in, take a look around you. Is the reception area clean? Are there awards on a shelf or do you see collection notice envelopes in the mail pile at the receptionist’s desk?

During the Interview...

Take a good look at the interviewer and listen closely for warning signs. Is the person fidgeting with something and talking AT you instead of to you? Do they speak negatively about the previous person in that position? Listen to what they say because they are telling you what they don’t like. If it sounds crazy, it probably is.

The Other Employees...

The biggest telltale sign is the look on other employee’s faces. I always ask to see the creative department. When they turn me down, I see a red flag and imagine some gulag of beaten-down creatives.

The Job Description...

If you're applying for a web design job, take a moment to really examine the job description. "We're looking for hire someone to design an awesome website for us" is a lot different from "We need a UI expert with experience in E-Commerce design solutions and can work closely with a PHP Development team." The more that your potential employer seems to understand your work, the more likely they are to respect it.

Read Between the Lines...

In any situation, you should know when things just don’t feel right. I’ve sat in an office while someone argued with my interviewer. I’ve met with multiple senior executives, all whom had a different job title for the position for which I was interviewing. I have had an interviewer who told me how horrible the company was. I wonder what would have happened if any of them had offered me a position?

What You Should Be Looking For In A Great Web Design Agency

These next few points will be geared towards finding a great design agency, but you can just as easily turn them towards finding freelance clients as well. The underlying lesson here is to find a job or project that you will feel good about both during and after you work on it!

A Portfolio That You Respect...

Take some time to research who you're interviewing with. If you're looking for an agency, don't bother sending in applications for agencies that don't match your personal style. If you want to design dark, grungy websites for rock bands, find a studio that specializes in that. A good studio can still be a bad match if you don't fit their style. There's nothing worse than saddling yourself with a project that you don't like, want, or care about.

Happy Employees...

This goes without saying, but if the other employees at a company are happy, there's a better chance that you'll be happy too. Take some time before or after the interview to get to know other people in the company if it's a possibility. Ask the receptionist about how her work week is going. Find out whether or not they seem satisfied with their jobs. This can often be one of the best ways to determine whether or not you'll fit in.

Good Communication...

Even if the person that you're interviewing with doesn't know everything about your job (they are hiring you for a reason, right?), it's important that they are able to communicate what they are looking for clearly and concisely. Often, completely ordinary situations can be turned into nightmares because of a misunderstanding, so finding a project where communication isn't taken for granted is crucial.

They Are Engaged in the Community...

I've found that teams that actively get involved with the community around them (whether it be a local community or a community of other designers), are more in tune with what's going on in the world. They're also a lot more likely to treat you well because they understand how quickly word travels.

Their Work Habits Fit Yours...

There are lots of agencies that are very well respected in the industry that work their designers as many as 16 hours a day... and the designers thank them for it! These positions are usually highly coveted, competitive and rewarding, but you'll want to consider whether or not that's how you are comfortable working. If you have a family and kids, chances are that you won't be willing to sacrifice your Saturday night to come into the office and work on the latest revisions to a design.

A Well Rounded Team...

Studios and companies that are truly great to work with are usually those that have an employee to handle each different aspect of the business. The design business is about more than illustration or coding or interfaces - it's also about marketing and managing clients and meeting deadlines. Well rounded teams will also be more likely to adapt to difficult project situations with innovative solutions (instead of stressing out and falling apart).

Recommendations and Testimonials...

I've saved this one for last because it's far and above the best way to find a great agency or client. Listening to people that already have worked with someone can be the quickest way to determine whether or not it's a great fit... just keep in mind that those same connections will go the other way; Agencies will often listen closely to their own set of recommendations before making a final hiring decision.

Final Thoughts

While the story about my crazy boss with scissors is certainly a rarity, the fact is that designers often find themselves in tricky (even scary) situations every day. Taking some preventative measures when you're looking to find that perfect job will maximize your chances at finding a gig you're happy with, but even in my case it wouldn't have prevented it.

If you do catch yourself in a horrid work situation, take my uncle's advice and record everything! Keep every email and every scrap of paper that you can and use it as evidence to support your case if it ever becomes a legal matter. Most big agencies have entire HR departments dedicated to snuffing out complaints like mine, so having a little credibility to fall back on might just save you when things go south.

Only you know how much you are willing to accept in the workplace and with abusive freelance clients. These days, a paycheck gives us more latitude in what we are willing to live with day-to-day. Perhaps that latitude needs to carry some weight of just not caring about someone yelling or calling us names. After a while, if you let it roll off your back, you won’t even notice it anymore.

Ah, I feel much, much better already!

Have your own design horror stories? Know a tip to sniffing out a bad client? Share it below with a comment!

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