a freelance ID's dilemma

8 Nov 2010 - 1:47am
5 years ago
1 reply
1662 reads

Fellow Designers, can we talk creative business career strategy?

Last week, a Bay Area ad agency hired me to "simplify the UI" of a project under the title Senior Interactive Designer. I expected two to three weeks of freelance work, but I didn't see day three. My conundrum concerns leadership.

I get the job and join a team that doesn't trust each other.

The dude who hided me (I'll call him James), was mild mannered with a salt and pepper stubble. Nice guy really. I'm not saying the the dude was lazy, but one of the first things he said to me was "I like to work about three hours a day - eleven to two". Sometimes he would talk about "the old days".

The other person I worked with was a stress ball - a young woman I'll call Penny. Motivated, smart, masters degree. Liked Twitter stats. Penny was our strategist. "I don't care what James has to say about this" was her affirmation to me on the morning of day two.

In our first meeting, Penny handed me a stack of paper - a crude wireframe and site map by James, example wireframes the client sent over, and a page of messy email feedback from the client. When I asked my teammates for their reaction to the client's feedback, James flippantly replies "who is this guy?" When I inquire about our timeframe, they say, "the client wants the complete site wireframe by tomorrow".

The agency's office was large - 100 desks or so, but only about fifteen employees including the IT guy worked there. It didn't feel like a cubical ghost town though, because the IT guy liked to berate people on his speakerphone; MSNBC blasted during the morning, Judge Judy, Access Hollywood and the Price Is Right blasted us into the afternoon.

The creative director, a fashionable young woman, let's call her Zooey, recently assumed the role after the last skipper skipped out unannounced. In meetings, Zooey would look at wireframes and say something to the effect of "I have no idea if this looks like a good website or not". Then James would assure her it was, which it most certainly was not. Seriously everyone, it was really poor work. Embarrassingly bad. Could have been a joke bad.

In our efforts to remedy this, Penny and I stay late on my first day paper prototyping. We finally come up with something we both believe in as the floor is being vacuumed late into the evening. The next day we arrive two hours before James and flesh it out. We present it, James scraps it, Penny doesn't raise a single objection. "I'm sorry" James says, and gives me the shoulder bump.

What to do?

As we all know, "simplifying the UI" can be quite an in-depth process requiring deep investigation of the user's needs and the business's requirements, a patient and focused ideation process involving collaborations, discussions and passionate decision making, not to mention a keen understanding of IA maping, and, in the case of website redesigns, SEO best practices, technological considerations, and even traffic data analyses. There are lots of pieces to the puzzle - which is part of the enjoyable challenge to me, but not James. "You're questioning decisions that have already been made" he said. Penny was knowledgeable and motivated, but couldn't bring herself to defend her ideas. So I began to wonder - what should I do? Quote The Inmates Are Running The Asylum? Should I, could I challenge the mediocrity and win?

Let me be clear here - we were making junk - churning out whatever the client requested, prettying up bankrupt design thinking with no adherence to a timeline, strategy for managing client expectations or even a basic cohesion forced upon us by a creative director knowledgeable of web design.

But yet, there I was - freelance ID being paid a decent rate, representing a creative staffing agency I want a good relationship with, and the opportunity to march into the creative director's office and tell her: our team is not producing good work, I need to sit down with you and map out a plan, and I need you to protect my job because I'm planning to disagree with the methods and challenge the decisions of the dude who effectively hired me.

But then I thought - wait, giving the corporate client exactly what they ask for is the agency's strategy here - if I say something, my staunch freelancing ass will probably just get fired by the creative director.

The team stays late into Friday evening, and we complete the 20 page wireframe around 10pm.

What's to be learned?

When I took the job, James told me it would be a 100+ hour project, and 24 billable hours into the job, I am informed through the staffing agency that my assignment was complete, and that I needn't come in on Monday.

What do you guys make of this? Should I have marched into Zooey's office? Should I have presented the ideas that Penny and I came up with behind James' back? It is reasonable to accept that they over projected the number of hours they needed from me five fold? What what you have done in my situation?

Thank you for your mentorship,



8 Nov 2010 - 4:59am
  1. They don't pay you enough to fix a dysfunctional organization. Don't try, especially as a freelancer.
  2. Be glad you do not work there anymore, while still being able to put "have actually worked" on your CV.
  3. Basically the only beef you actually do have is gross misrepresentation of hours by the client. That really is for your agency to resolve, you have little power by yourself. Do tell your agency this is not how you want your assignments to be handled.


Take their bad input documents and sketches, put them together with your output you can gussy up, add a narrative how your work and dedication can make crap so much better with before and after and put that story in a web-page or in a PowerPoint. This way you got two days paid to get a new portfolio piece to showcase how you help make a difference.

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