How to Effectively Navigate Egos in Design

Consider great marvels of human civilization from the Great Pyramids to Snapchat. Remarkable feats of ingenuity require vision, ambition, and—above all—collaboration. And you can be sure that in any major creative undertaking, egos abound—just imagine trying to collaborate with larger than life figures like Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs or Kanye West.

Innovators and dreamers with big ideas require teams of possibly-lesser-known creators to make them real. One element that separates the successful examples from unknown failures relegated to the dustbin of history is effective ego management.

Working on any design project, whether you’re the lone designer working for a client or collaborating on a team regularly means putting your people skills to work. The majority of people you will work with in design will be team players willing to engage, listen, contribute, and collaborate effectively to create something amazing. And everyone can have a bad day here and there—we all do!

Creative and entrepreneurial ventures are sparked and advanced by all types of characters—that’s what makes them interesting—but who hasn’t seen many a promising project stymied by unyielding personalities and inflexible attitudes?

Remote assignments can be especially difficult in this regard. You may be working alone with a sole client, or as one of a few designers/developers each wearing many hats. You may be working across different time zones, which can make it hard to conference in real time, and slows down the pace—and you may not have the luxury of a dedicated project manager to make sure everyone’s pulling the same cart.

Whatever the situation, to ensure the optimal outcome for your project, you have to balance your technical responsibilities while playing the part of ego manager. You as a designer are responsible for managing them (as well as yourself) and there are no excuses for your design decisions—the user is the king, not a client or your teammate.

Learn to navigate these tricky waters with grace and professionalism and you will grow as a designer and as a human.

I. Common Ego Monsters
Every project is a creative collaboration between multiple human beings who leverage their unique skills and experience to move toward the goal. It’s quite understandable that any of these experts may have a difference of opinion or style informed by their own experience. Healthy creative tension can bring two or more diverse brains together to hash out a great solution through conflict. Sometimes, however, strong personalities can rock the boat too hard.

II. Ways to Navigate the Ego Seas
While you can’t adjust every bad attitude, there are a few general methods for avoiding and dealing with an overabundance of inflated ego.

III. Know When to Abandon Ship
No one likes to say it, but there are times when a client and a creative team reach a point where the ship has run aground and there’s no path forward. Maybe no one can agree on the design solutions you’ve proposed. Maybe a stakeholder has crossed a line. Either way, it takes a level of professional maturity (and sometimes stoicism) to see the signs and to communicate with your client/collaborator clearly and without undue emotion, that the relationship has run its course.

I always have a “kill” clause in my contracts for this contingency, and you should, too. Decide from the beginning what should happen at what stage if the project needs to be aborted. Outline who owns what design artifacts from each phase in the process. If you only get to the sketching phase before the plug is pulled, you should have agreed in advance if those can be used by the next designer or if they’re yours.

Agree on a “kill fee” so that you’re not ¾ of the way into a project when it’s abandoned by the client and they don’t want to pay you beyond the initial deposit. Knowing these things up front helps mitigate the fallout should things go south. Design leader Mike Monteiro wrote a great piece on what details to include in your own kill clause.

IV. Be a Good Shipmate
In the end, you are principally responsible for your own contributions to a project. Of course, that means delivering a successful design that is great for your clients and their users. Beyond that, however, you are also responsible for your human contribution.

Even extremely difficult personalities begin to soften in the face of sustained pleasant professionalism. A good attitude and positive approach to working with your clients and collaborators go a long way. Practice empathy and patience and you will be surprised how much of an effect you can have on other people’s moods!