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Work / World Mental Health Day

An illustrator and designer anonymously explain how to tackle a brief infringing on your mental health

Dealing with clients in the creative industry can be like playing a game.

Sometimes, you’ve got to keep someone happy in the hope they’ll come back with work. “Maybe,” you think, “I’ll do this for a little less money than usual, and perhaps the client will come back with a bigger budget next time.” You might find yourself putting on a smile for the client who’s been incessantly panic-calling you about a project since 7AM because, hey, that’s just the "professional’ attitude to these things. See also: thinking, “Shit, I should really get round to responding to a client because they’ll have noticed that I was active on WhatsApp two minutes ago, even though that was because I was chatting to a mate about Bake Off because it’s 10PM, on a Tuesday.”

For better or worse, we live in an age where seeing what everyone you know has been up to is easier than it’s ever been in human history. As such, the relationship between a creative and the client commissioning them is becoming increasingly close. But do we know when to flag when that closeness is infringing on our mental wellbeing? And do we know when to say no when it comes to work-related matters?

Below, we hear from two creatives — one designer at an agency and one freelance illustrator — who’ve anonymously told their stories of these instances, what they did about it, and maybe what you should be doing too.

A designer’s example:

It’s Nice That: Can you tell us about an experience where you feel a client’s attitude and approach has infringed on your mental health wellbeing?

I once worked for a project which lasted for two years. It was meant to be one year, but the client didn’t share the work with the wider team, so when it ended (or we thought it did…) after the first year. It turned out the rest of the team were very unhappy — which meant we needed to go back to the beginning and do the whole thing again. Graphic design groundhog day!

It meant a (not too glamorous) project took up two years of my career, and I became a subject of pity from other designers in the studio, who were working on varied and exciting clients, while I was slowly working away, and repeating work for a few years.

INT: How did you deal with that situation?

Due to personal reasons, I was not able to leave the job, so I had to take my frustrated and built up energy and use it for good.

I used the security of this two-year project to give me an opportunity to use that extra energy and headspace to create work I really wanted to. When 6pm came, I left the studio and welcomed my second part of the day. I worked on projects which inspired me and led me to opportunities such as being commissioned for my dream brief, which in turn helped land me the job I am in now.

INT: What advice would you give to other designers in a similar situation?

Professionally: make sure that everyone who needs to be engaged in a project is there from the start! It also makes for better work, better collaboration and happier clients.

Personally: When you are in a situation that isn’t reflecting where you want to be, you can find opportunities to find them yourself, to take you to the place you do want to be in. I don’t believe everyone needs to be doing side projects all the time at all, but in this situation, it helped me get through a very dull, creatively stagnant and repetitive time, and led me to opportunities that suited me much better in the end.

An illustrator’s example:

It’s Nice That: Can you tell us about an experience where you feel a client’s attitude and approach has infringed on your mental health wellbeing?

I can’t think of a specific example, but, it seems to happen quite regularly, although I’ve taken measures to ensure it doesn’t happen to me as regularly. The most re-occurring thing is clients making unreasonable demands on your time. It seems as if their stress has been transferred onto you from a higher power, up the food chain. I get the feeling that there’s a kind of trickle-down effect, where the stress of a job gets more acute the further down the chain it goes. It might look a bit like this:

- Client/ company wants to say something on a particular date:

- PR/marketing decide ‘what to say’ and spend time looking for an appropriate design studio.
- Design studio, after playing with some ideas, decide ‘how to say it’ and approach an illustrator.
- Illustrator is given task of saying it with their voice with very little time remaining and not much budget left.

Then, the work goes back up the ladder, is assessed at each level and goes right back down to the bottom if it’s not right. It’s a lot of pressure and responsibility for the least amount of money and credit being at the bottom.

The other thing is when clients aren’t completely clear or are intentionally vague when briefing you, but they have a very specific idea of what they want in mind. The client wants to sound like they’re giving you the opportunity to ‘explore ideas’ because they want the job to sound interesting to you and they may offer you less money by dangling the ‘do what you like’ carrot. So, the brief appears to be quite open and interesting, although vague. I think clients don’t know the full gamut of what ‘exploration’ can mean to an illustrator or creative, so perhaps this is the moment when you should say: ’this is what being explorative means to me!’ When you start to produce work in an exploratory manner and deliver work, the client gets frustrated that you haven’t done what they had anticipated. You end up going back to and doing something you’ve done before, that they’re more familiar with. You’ve wasted your time and their time, plus you’re now committed to the job, nobody is happy. You end up just doing what you’re told to placate them, and make sure you get paid for what you have done.

INT: How do you deal with that situation?

Once in one of those situations, I think it’s good to chat on the phone, although difficult and not very appealing; to really talk about the position you’re in and how you feel about it. Without being overly emotional if possible. My feeling is that they’re getting frustrated and you’re getting frustrated and the best way to deal with it is to try and come to some compromise and plan for moving forward. To be human about it, and not a person on the end of an email. Talking person to person makes you realise you’re dealing with a person and they realise they’re dealing with a person.

INT: What advice would you give to other creatives in a similar situation?

It’s all about setting boundaries. Firstly, I always endeavour to ask for more time if I feel I need it from the start. I tell them how long it will take to do it well and not second rate. But, at the same time, let them know I’m interested and I want to work with them to get what they want. Sometimes this works in your favour and sometimes it doesn’t, but I find even if I do have to compromise on this aspect of my time, to meet a deadline; at least they’re aware I’m working hard to do it and don’t take my time for granted.

If there’s not enough money and they’re offering a particular amount, I won’t say no, I will say; this is what you can have for the amount of money. Sometimes there’s a way of doing less but them being able to use it more, creating something that is adaptable for example. I see this as part of the creative process too — helping them get what they want with the budget they have without you having to undervalue yourself. Let them know what you feel your time is worth. Being friendly and accommodating, but assertive. With experience you tend to be able to spot the jobs that might bring stress and can turn them down, I find it’s really worth doing this even if I’m anxious about the next job coming in. Instead, you can spend your time developing a new connection, finding another income source or approaching people for better work. Stress is different for different people, you must set your own parameters and allow those parameters (your comfort zone) to become your boundaries and stick to it.

It’s taken me a very long time to feel confident being assertive to clients. I was worried that me behaving this way might put clients off, it might lose me work and this was very scary. But I can say with hand on heart that; as soon as I started following this way of communicating, setting my boundaries and being very clear about what they are, I started to get more work and make better work. Clients seemed to have a respect and valued what they were getting out of me more than they did before. By establishing those boundaries I was able to make much better work that I was happier to share, this again had a knock on effect into getting more work.