Fab Founder On 5 Ways To Navigate Design Politics

Designers, it’s time for some real talk, from Fab cofounder Bradford Shellhammer.

Fab Founder On 5 Ways To Navigate Design Politics

Once upon a time I worked with a design team. Actually, that’s not true. I’ve worked with a myriad of design teams during my career. Over and over. And merchant teams. And editorial teams. And there is this thing that always exists. Contempt. Contempt for others who don’t understand design. Or trend. Or editorial voice. (I have a design degree. I feel your pain. But get over yourself. Really.)


Here’s a big secret. All humans understand design. Trend. Editorial voice. This is not rocket science. It’s art. Art is for everyone. Design, too.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I respect designers. And merchants. And writers. And artists. And photographers. And most of my life has been rooted in championing the talents of designers, artists, writers, and photographers. It’s why I created It’s why Shellhammer & Company exists. But let’s not pretend that design is as complex as rocket science. Or engineering. Or heart surgery. It’s just not. Yeah, I said it.

And because of this designers have to deal with the fact that others will have opinions. And that’s okay. Opinions of people who have never studied color theory or creative writing or know what kerning is are invaluable to designers (and writers and creatives and artists). Why? Because they force us to face our work and defend it and fight for it.

And sometimes change it. Yes, sometimes we change our work. Outside opinion is good. Designers don’t know everything. And dialogue is the key to results. With that said I give you five ways to maneuver design politics:


Yes, you. Yes, YOU! Designer. You. You don’t know everything. Design (which includes writing, art, creative work, etc. for this essay) is subjective. And everyone deserves a right to an opinion. Especially the CEO. Colors? Fonts? Images? Layouts? Yes, even your CFO should be welcome to share his or her opinion.


Your job as a designer is to solve a problem. It’s to articulate visually. It’s to SUPPORT the business. You’re support staff just like the receptionist and the general counsel and the facilities manager. Making peace with that, that you’re a support function, will allow you to focus on what you should be worrying about and getting energized about and fretting about: DESIGNING. That’s your job.


Too often creative professionals listen to business professionals, take it all in, and then spit out what they want. Not what the business stakeholders wanted. I see it all the time.

Designers like to pop their headphones on and escape into work. Writers too. And artists. Designers can be solitary people who emerge from their work with the answers that will fix everything.


Working in a solitary silo is just as bad as team silos. Part of the job of a designer is to bring people with you. Listen to everyone. Engage everyone. Meet with them and show them your iterations. Your mood boards. Your ideas in rough, ugly, unpolished form. This may make more work for you. But it will make better work, and it will make others want to work with you.


Trust. Trust is a designer’s best friend. And you earn it. You don’t just get it.


D’oh! Designers get to make things! Making things is fun. Grouchy designers, GO AWAY! The world does not need you. If you’re a curmudgeon designer seriously think of a new career. We designers have the best jobs in the world. If you’re walking around with a look on your face suggesting otherwise I suggest you get a new job. Or a new face. I know just the person in Beverly Hills who can assist.

Milton Glaser is happy. Yves Behar is happy. Donatella Versace looks happy (but that might be a result of surgery not eternal sunshine).

Seriously though. Designers, you get to make the world a better, more beautiful, and more functional place. How could you not be smiling? Finance, eh, I get their frowns. Excel can do that! But design? Really? Just stop. And if you cannot control your inner Grinch, may I suggest a new career? Accounts Payable is hiring I hear. (JK AP!)


Sometimes we have to design fast. That’s okay. But the best design is not rushed. It’s thoughtful. It’s calculated. It’s not design for the sake of design. It’s slowly and surely addressing a need and a desire and delivering on it, learning from it, altering because of feedback and usage, and then starting the process all over again.


Cut off your ears! Learn to love your shell!

You won’t fix things overnight. But you might help in fixing things and solving problems over months. Quarters. Seasons. Dare I say, years?

Your shell is your friend. Retreat into it to design. Emerge from it to present and listen. Never rush though. A blustering, out-of-breath designer has no fans, no friends. And you need people on your side, Turtle-butt.


The design of human relationships and teams is not something taught at RISD. Parsons does not have a class on how to make your boss look good (they should though, Joel Towers, and I am available, hello!). Pratt will not have a symposium on what not to say and what to say to the people you meet on the way up your career ladder. But trust me, politics is something all designers should study.

Politics is not a dirty word. It’s really not at all. The best politicians listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. And then they inspire. And then they listen again. And they keep listening and taking everything their constituents say and they then champion those needs, wants, and desires. And they do it in a way that makes everyone feel their voice was heard.

The best politicians are not the ones who try to be everything to everyone. They’re the ones who take their skills and couple that with the needs of their constituents (your company) and then make hard, but thoughtful, and inclusive decisions.


That’s what you need to do, designers.

A version of this article originally appeared here.


About the author

Bradford Shellhammer cofounded and is principal and creative director of the design consultancy Follow him on Twitter.