You Work For Her

A dozen years ago, I was sitting in the senior design lab at Ferris State University with the soon-to-be graduating class. Looking around the room, it was hard not to notice that I was only one of three guys in the room. My freshman year, close to fifty students had gathered in the survey courses. Whittled down to a dozen through the pressures of the program and a rigorous portfolio review, I found myself within the gender minority. In fact, all the professors of my core classes were also women.

Last fall, partially due to an increasing percentage of my studio‘s clientele being female, we rebranded the company to better appeal to women. This Spring, looking up from a dozen concurrent projects, I realized that, other than a few long-term clients from the previous decade, 100% of the projects I was working on were for women. Even those accounts built on the life and work of men were being driven and managed by female liaisons. And the digital peripherals of the design world also have afforded me the privilege of working with a rising number of women stars—notably Krystyn Heide (@SquareGirl) of SquareSpace and Caroline Schnapp (@CarolineSchnapp) of Shopify.

It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. The fairer sex has always been aesthetically inclined, dominating a number of different industries based on the visual. Even further, as the design world continues to evolve in becoming more social online, I firmly believe that women excel in terms of the clear, consistent and continuous communication required for promoting businesses, products and services on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. This culminates in applications where the visual meets the social, namely Pinterest (whose user base is 80% women), Dribbble and Polyvore.

Many of my favorite designers are women: Paula Scher, April Griman, Lotta Nieminen, Tina Roth-Eisenberg, Jessica Walsh. Many of the contractors within my design network are women. Most of my best friends in school (and still, today) are women that passionately make their livings in the creative field. Despite a slowly cracking glass ceiling and a network stodgy ‘Old Boys’  driven agencies, I continue to find myself working predominantly with women. And though I haven’t much experience being a minority—despite being of Italian-American descent from the Midwest, despite spawning from a polyzygotic birth, despite being left-handed—I must say, it’s been a real pleasure.

I’ve found that, for the most part, my female clients seem to understand design better their male counterparts. They’re more receptive to the underlying concept in projects and aren’t as quick to balk at suggestions to spend more time in strategy and concept development. In short, they seem to value the growth of creative ideas beyond the constraints of time and budget.

That’s a bold statement, you say. And it is, but here’s how I go about justifying it:

Each time we approach prospective clients about beginning a design project, we ask them to answer 10 Questions. The questions cover a broad range of topics, including: corporate culture, audience demographic, marketing strategy, and short and long term goals. I looked back at the last ten responses that I received from women and (after digging a while) the last ten that I received from men.

When asked what factors would contribute to the client considering the project a success, most clients agreed that increased awareness and potential sales ranked at the top of their lists. What I found interesting, however, was the number of times that male clients noted their budgetary and time constraints in their responses. In contrast, women overwhelmingly concurred that aesthetic was among their chief concerns. That is to say, a project would only be considered successful if it was: beautiful, strong, bold, memorable, unique, and well-designed. And while time and budget might’ve been a contributing factor, it wasn’t a primary one.

If you manage a design studio, you already know this quite well: the cheaper projects rarely make it into the portfolio. This is because inexpensive, much to the chagrin of our marketers and designers, typically requires cutting out the strategy and concept development. And all of the above adjectives (“beautiful, strong, bold…”) rely on painstaking devotion to developing concepts and perfecting design pieces; quality takes time and time costs money.  So a designer would typically find more gratification in projects that focus more on concept development, clients that let aesthetic guide their satisfaction, and work deemed worthy of a place in the portfolio. Translation: find more female clients.

Now, I don’t want to imply that my female clients don’t pore over labor logs and expense sheets as closely as my male clients. Some of the world’s brightest and best CEOs are women (Melissa Mayer, of Yahoo!, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard and eBay, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft Foods, Patricia Russo of Lucent,  Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, to name a few) and they don’t get to where they are by frivolous spending and financial negligence. And I’m also not implying that I don’t consider my clients’ deadlines or budgets to be a weighty objective when embarking on new projects. No, I’m simply theorizing that my female clients generally share a designer’s values in creating new work. The mutual desire to create memorable and beautiful pieces is why they seek my studio for design work. More to the point, though, it’s exactly the reason I fell in love with this career in the first place. And this is why I’m glad to realize that I work for her.

*If you caught my allusion to the design resource store, You Work For Them, in the title of this post, kudos to you.

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