Money, chemistry and the moral sliding scale

Why would you say no to new work? Does having firm principles increase your influence?
How important is chemistry? And do principles go out of the window because you need the work or want the money?

On 5 May 2011, three eminent design principals gathered at a Designer Breakfast event at the offices of Bartle Bogle Hegarty to discuss where they draw the line.

Falling in love
So much of saying yes comes down to chemistry. As Cheryl Giovannoni, President, Global KCRs at Landor Associates, said at the debate: “Passionate people and good chemistry win work. It’s about having people in the room that the client falls in love with.”

Beyond money
Money is a great reason both for rejecting and accepting work. We all have to make a living and deserve to be paid fairly for the work we do. But money is only ever part of the equation. Cheryl Giovannoni commented: “You should never do work you don’t believe in. Human beings need to feel good about what they do, not simply sign up for something that’s going to make you money. It ends up feeling rotten for everybody – it’s really nasty.”

Four reasons to say no
So how about people’s reasons for saying no? At the talk, Tim Beard of Bibliothèque gave his four main reasons:

  1. The project is wrong for the company and wouldn’t be creatively fulfilling.
  2. The economics don’t stack up – it would cost more to do than you can charge the client.
  3. The personal relationship, or fit, is wrong. If the relationship isn’t based on trust and respect, the project just won’t move forward.
  4. The project could potentially conflict with existing client relationships.

However, for Tim, the integrity of the design and concept is the most important consideration, and is possibly even more important than the moral or financial integrity of the project.

It’s illegal, it’s immoral or it makes you fat
Ethical values are another powerful reason for accepting or turning down work. Sophie Thomas is a founding director of Thomas Matthews, a company that champions ‘appropriate, sustainable and beautiful design’. During the debate, she said: “As a designer and communicator, I’m selling an idea or a choice. And I take responsibility for that position of power and influence.” Her company works with large corporations such as Unilever and Shell, and turns down business if it involves an element of greenwash.

Where do you draw the line?
Tim Beard said that organisations exist on a moral sliding scale, with charities occupying the moral high ground, along with smaller independent companies with worthy principles. The scale then generally descends through global retail brands, fast food companies and cigarette manufacturers, down to arms traders and despotic regimes at the other end. However, all these groups have their own heroes and villains.

Finding a balance
Turning down work can be refreshing. It creates a boundary and reinforces your brand. It demonstrates what you do and don’t want to do. Who you do and don’t want to work for. And how you do and don’t want to work.

Equally, it’s hugely energising to recognise the kind of projects that really give you a buzz and a sense of pride.

In the end, it’s about finding a balance between your passion and enthusiasm for a project, your chemistry with the people involved, the budget and the ethical dimension.