The Secret Designer: First Job Horror

The Secret Designer By The Secret Designer  |  Feb. 13, 2018

This is a true story. The events described in this article took place at some point in the author’s career. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the clients, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

When I graduated from art school, I didn’t have a position waiting for me, so I moved back to my childhood bedroom in rural nowheresville. Opportunities there were thin on the ground, so after months living off my parents’ ever-diminishing goodwill, I packed everything I had into a single bag and hopped on a train for the city.

I set about pitching my portfolio to some of the better agencies; I got plenty of interest, but no actual offers. As the months passed, and my funds slowly depleted, I started to compromise on the quality of the agency I was approaching but no matter how low I set the bar, I couldn’t get a callback.

As one month turned into six, I was plagued by self-doubt, I even filled out an application for a cleaning position at Burger King, but was too afraid to mail it in case that final option fell through too.

After half a year of trying, my luck changed. I got a call from an agent at a recruitment firm I’d contacted months earlier. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in an interview at Studio A [not its real name].

Studio A wasn’t the biggest agency in the city, but they were the coolest. They worked with major film franchises, and record companies, my favorite band was one of their clients. I hadn’t even bothered knocking on their door because I figured that a junior role there was about three rungs above me on the career ladder. But they’d seen my portfolio, and they wanted to meet me.

Beautiful people with top-end MacBooks lounged in liberally scattered bean bags

The very next day I found myself in the lobby of a homage to every design studio cliché you can think of: Beautiful people with top-end MacBooks lounged in liberally scattered bean bags; the numerous glass cubicles were dotted with post-it notes where intense looking designers reviewed their strategies; the glass lift to the mezzanine floor was supplemented by a climbing wall—which I later found out, was strictly for show. All of this was situated in a glass and steel skyscraper with floor to ceiling views over the city. I desperately wanted to belong there, but standing in reception, with cardboard tucked into my only shoes to cover the holes in the soles, I felt distinctly out of my depth.

To my surprise, the interview went like a charm. When asked the mandatory, “Why do you want to work here?” I managed to reference a few of Studio A’s recent projects, some of which my interviewer had been lead on. He browsed my portfolio—hastily updated the night before—and then began talking about the upcoming projects that I would be suitable for. He took me on a tour of the studio, and introduced me around. Finally he asked me what my salary expectations were. I stumbled a little, and before I could ask for the minimum amount I thought I could survive on, he offered me almost four times as much. I tried to act nonchalant as I said, “yes.” As he walked me to the lift he said that HR would need me to come in and sign paperwork, they’d call and arrange it, but probably not until after the weekend.

I still remember the elation of that walk home. The optimism I felt. Every night spent working late, every Friday lecture that I attended instead of joining friends for a beer, every risk I’d taken moving to the city, it was all about to pay off. All of my doubts had been unfounded, everything was going to be okay.

The weekend passed in a caution-to-the-wind flurry of cheap bars and impromptu parties, and then Monday came. And then Monday went. And then Tuesday came. And then Tuesday went. And Wednesday. And Thursday. In my desperation I spent hours agonizing over a three line email, thanking them for the meeting and looking forward to hearing from the HR department—I was still hoping there’d been some improbable mistake; that somehow my contact details had been misplaced, or the head of HR had the flu, or something. But I knew in my heart that somehow I had blown it. The next day, there were still no messages on my cell, and my inbox was empty.

The following week the recruitment agent who had won me the interview called. Studio A was in trouble. One of the partners had embezzled so much money that they couldn’t pay their staff, and not only were they not hiring, they were laying off almost all of their staff. For me it had been (in the recruiter’s opinion) a lucky escape. I didn’t feel lucky, not only had I missed out on my dream job, but I was now competing against 40–50 designers with real world experience and extensive contacts. (Studio A closed its doors permanently a few months later.)

Weeks passed and just as I was contemplating calling my parents and begging for help, I ran into David [not his real name]. I’d met him previously at a co-working space. He bought me a beer and as we drank he offered me a few days work—officially it would be voluntary, but privately he’d slip me some cash to compensate me for my time. I had nothing better to do, so I took the job, spending a week clearing up David’s company’s website.

At the end of the week, David called me into his boss’ office and handed me an envelope with $400. I thanked him, and as I made to leave he asked me what I would say if he told me he was setting up a design agency.

“You don’t have the experience,” I blurted without thinking.

“Let me worry about that,” he said.

The ‘agency’ consisted of Alan [not his real name], an experienced developer David met in the same co-working space he’d met me. David, who was making himself creative director. And the whole project was being bankrolled by David’s current boss Freddy [not his real name], the owner of a paper supply company out of whose offices we would be working.

I just had to stay in the game until something better came along

David offered me much less money than I thought I was worth; the offices were in a part of town that was frankly dangerous—muggings were common and there was even a murder in the building opposite; there weren’t even any clients yet. In retrospect, saying “yes” was one of the worst decisions of my life, but almost a year after graduating I was close to destitute. I told myself I just had to stay in the game until something better came along.

Although my official role was ‘designer’ I was more of a general lackey. I labored away at my workstation, while David positioned himself on my shoulder issuing instructions. It quickly became apparent that my primary role was to bridge the gap between David’s creative ambitions, and his inability to understand Adobe CS.

For the first month we worked on the agency’s branding. The name of the agency was Digital Slap [close, but not its real name] with the strapline “Do you wanna get slapped?” It was so bad that I begged David to reconsider. But it was, in his words, “Edgy”; I had to admit it was better than his first choice: Yellow Snow. Once we’d done our best with the branding, we started mocking up case studies to fill the empty portfolio, until we had a stable of clients.

One morning, about six weeks in, David arrived triumphant; he had won the job to redesign the branding of one of the most exclusive restaurants in the city, and if we did well, we’d be redoing their digital and print work too.

Job 1: Register a new domain for the restaurant. Job 2: Design a fresh brand identity that referenced their old logotype, but would update their image to target a younger market.

The brief was vague, but I didn’t have the confidence to say so, and in my naivety I thought I could make it work. I dropped into the process I’d developed in college, rapidly iterating over ideas until several strong contenders emerged. I worked them up into presentable artwork, spending more time than strictly necessary on the best idea to ensure the client went the way I wanted them to.

David wouldn’t let me attend the pitch—which in retrospect should have sounded alarm bells—but he was the boss, so I simply briefed him before he left, told him to present the best idea second, and sat on the office fire escape waiting for the verdict.

David returned half cut and flustered. Not good enough. Try again.

So I started again, developing three new options. David again pitched alone. Again David returned, but this time he was more angry than flustered. Not good enough. Start again, and this time 12 options to choose from.

I didn’t know where I was going wrong, clearly there was a misalignment of the client’s expectations and the brief. Even more clearly, David didn’t know how to run a design project, but I had no idea how to broach this subject with my increasingly volatile employer.

It was Friday night, Alan and I called a crisis meeting. Freddy was busy with his primary business, and David didn’t show up. So Alan and I sat in the darkened studio, late into the night, trying to come up with a concept that would save my job. As is so often the case, when I really needed it, inspiration struck and I had an idea that was radically different to everything we’d presented so far. I worked through the weekend mocking it up on everything from T-shirts, to the sail of a yacht.

I showed it to David on Monday morning, but he refused to present it to the client. “They want more options, not less,” he raged. I was to get back to work, he would tell me when to stop.

Day after day I ground out ‘designs’. I abandoned my process, and simply looked for ways to introduce variation so that I could meet my quota of 12 logos per day. In the end I churned out 326, the vast majority of which were of no quality whatsoever.

In the end David told me to stop. I had lost the client.

In the end David told me to stop. I had lost the client. I hadn’t been honest when I took the job, because I’d led him to believe I was a capable designer. He liked me, and he wanted to give me another chance, but I mustn’t let him down this time. I promised I wouldn’t.

While I had been churning out restaurant logos Alan had been working on a separate project: David’s plan for a directory of boutique hotels that catered to niche customers, like cyclists, or pet owners. I was redeployed as Alan’s assistant, and we began a remarkably productive partnership. Alan already had a working beta version, so I skinned the UI and we started approaching hotels, eventually bringing enough on board for a serious beta test.

Since the start of the venture David had often been out of the studio, meeting clients, or working from home. But around this time he became increasingly absent. Alan started running a betting pool with the staff from Freddy’s primary business, on whether David would turn up that day. Invariably he turned up the day before pay day, and only the day before pay day.

One day, Alan and I knocked off early, and I walked with him to the train station. On the way we passed a bar and Alan remarked that on his way home, he usually saw David in there. “Where did you think he’s been everyday?” he asked, wiggling an imaginary glass up to his mouth (the international sign for ‘drinking problem’).

Ten months to the day after we’d started Alan resigned. He’d taken the job as a condition of residency, but he’d met his conditions and was leaving for a high-paying role in IT security at a well known Swiss bank. The last thing he ever said to me was “Get yourself out of here.”

Alan’s departure prompted a new work ethic from David, who appeared the next day bright-eyed and enthusiastic: Alan leaving made things difficult, but it didn’t change what we had to do; in fact if anything, the reduced staff costs would keep us afloat longer; we both had to work harder, but we’d be more agile; from now on, we’d both have to start bringing in clients.

Every day, no matter how early I arrived, David was already there, jabbing away at his keyboard. He chased prospects, followed-up with old leads, and brain-stormed fresh ideas for side-projects. Despite this, we still didn’t have a single client and I was inventing work to fill my time. Then one day, David didn’t appear.

Freddy called me into his office for a ‘chat’. He told me he’d fired David. Freddy had known from the first few weeks that he’d made a mistake investing in the scheme, but he’d given David his word that he’d fund it for a year, and that is what he had done. Freddy told me he’d been impressed with my diligence over the past year. While he was closing the doors of the design agency, his primary business was going fully digital and he needed someone to run that side of the business. He offered me the role, together with a salary bump.

I took the job, and although the opportunities for creative work were few and far between, I learned a lot about web technology, managing staff, and working with clients. Freddy turned out to be one of the best bosses I ever had; he genuinely cared about his employees, taking an interest in our lives, and pushing us to excel. I learned what it meant to be treated with respect. Freddy eventually trusted me with hundred-thousand dollar decisions that I was in no way qualified to make. If Freddy had been in the design business I’d probably still work for him today.

After the studio folded, David moved into his girlfriend’s apartment around the corner from mine—in fact we shared the same landlord. He could usually be found in the bar where he’d first bought me a beer, complaining over and over to anyone who would listen that Freddy had swindled him. More than once I carried him home when he was too drunk to walk.

One day, David had a heart attack and collapsed in the street. His girlfriend tried to save him, but he was dead before the ambulance arrived. He was 37. I didn’t go to the funeral, but Freddy did.

When I look back on that period of my career, it’s with enormous regret. The disappointment over not getting my dream job lead me into a semi-abusive role that crippled my confidence for years.

What I regret most is missing out on a mentor. I should have been a junior designer, working for an experienced lead, watching how they handle clients, learning their design secrets. Instead, I’ve had to wing it, learning as I go. And even though my current portfolio includes award-winning work for blue chip clients, I still struggle with the imposter syndrome that plagued me in my twenties.

 

Epilogue

When Freddy closed the agency, my final job was to approach the restaurant I had spent months rebranding, to chase up the invoice.

It was then that we discovered that the job had never existed. David had met the restaurant owner in a bar, and persuaded him to invest in a better domain name. David must have thought that gave him a foot in the door, and we could produce a rebrand so impressive that the restaurant would buy it from us. The times he’d left the office to pitch my designs, he hadn’t even met with the ‘client’.

A few days later, a check arrived from the restaurant to cover the cost of the domain we had registered for them. The agreed price had been $5. Freddy laughed and pinned it to the notice board above his desk. As far as I know, it’s still there.