The Rejection Connection

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Several years ago I worked with the marketing director of a technology startup that characterized itself as a company of quick, young, nimble problem-solvers. The marketing director told me that she had sole responsibility for design decisions (how wrong they often are about this). “These are great!” she said upon previewing our presentation boards for a brand identity based on collages of photographic images. My assistant and I had worked hard on the project and thought they were pretty great, too. A few days later, when I presented in the CEO’s office, he shouted, “What is this? This is not what I want at all!” I tried to salvage the moment and the working relationship by suggesting that if he thought our concept was so out of sync with his vision of the company, we’d start over, getting his direct input this time. “I’ll think about it,” he said in a tone of voice that meant, “You’re out” just as clearly as Michael Corleone said it to his father’s consigliori, Tom Hagen, in The Godfather. And then I was back on the street, with the presentation tucked under my arm and tears in my eyes. A few months later I visited the company’s website to see what they’d chosen. The new solution: a globe. And not even a nice one at that.

Apologies to Manet

What could have been done differently to ensure a different outcome? And what could be done in the future to prevent this kind of situation—every designer’s nightmare—from happening again? This is an issue that I’ve been grappling with ever since I started my design business nearly 30 years ago.

Maybe it’s inevitable that no matter what you do, how carefully you structure the input phase of a project, there will always be a few clients who are too disorganized to get their thoughts together, who delegate when they shouldn’t, or who just don’t understand a design that is the slightest bit out of the ordinary. Or maybe they do recognize an interesting, unique approach, but they’re too scared to want it. Another one of my firm’s clients, an almost-great client in the entertainment business, said—while choosing a safe, “plain vanilla” (literally white-on-white) cover over two much more compelling options (and, I guess, noticing the look on my face)— “Ellen is seeing all her design awards fly out the window.” A perceptive guy. He put the tastes of his future investors, or at least what he envisioned they would respond to, first. Some clients have less noble motivations. And, like the technology CEO I never heard from again, some are far from tactful or respectful.

I’ve been grappling with the rejection issue, looking for strategies and solutions (and writing articles and books about it) not only as an attempt to preserve my own sanity and the health of my firm, but, I hope, to help other designers avoid the pitfalls. It’s telling that no matter how many designers I interview to get their perspectives on the subject, I hear the same answers over and over: Too many clients pass over brilliant solutions in favor of something safe, banal, or just plain bad. No amount of arguing and pleading and rational demonstrations of superior alternatives will cause them to change their minds. Even Stefan Sagmeister, known for treading where no one has ever gone before, has told me, “I argue and plead and beg all the time, and I don’t always get what I want.”

Yes, experienced designers, even at heavyweight firms, are not immune from rejection. David Ceradini, the principal of Ceradini Brand Design, who formerly worked at Michael Peters Group, Sterling Brands, Landor, and Wallace-Church, tells how a global beverage company quashed his team’s best thinking. “We were developing holiday gift packaging for a prominent brand,” he recalls. “We recommended a direction we felt was perfect, a clever holiday twist on their iconic symbol. When we presented to the brand team, they broke into smiles, which is exactly the emotional response you want to evoke in consumers. Yet they rejected our design, saying that the brandmark is sacred and in no way could be altered. Although there’s some truth to that, we feel clients could have more open minds—and what better opportunity to push the envelope, given the short time a holiday package is on the shelf?” What could have been done differently to prevent this from happening? “We could have provided examples of other brands that did similar things with their sacred marks and demonstrated the success they had,” Ceradini suggests.

Dan Dyksen, a senior partner at Brandlogic in Wilton, Connecticut, says that throughout his career there have always been a few clients who inevitably reject what his team considers to be the strongest and smartest solutions. “It’s a frustrating experience, and one that’s lead to many hours of internal discussion,” he says. “Was it the presentation? Was it the strategy? Were there too many design options—or not enough?” Dyksen says he’s learned how to lean hard on approved strategy when presenting concepts. “There’s a certain magic that happens when strategy and design live side by side, when you can articulate the strategic reason for every color, every font, every choice made in developing a compelling, memorable identity. And sticking to strategy keeps clients from making decisions based on moods, emotions, and random personal opinions.”

The designer and illustrator Felix Sockwell, whose graceful line drawings grace the pages of the daily New York Times, among many other publications, tells how Apple rejected his presentation for a new iTunes icon. “They said it looked like a grade-school art project,” he says.

Apple rejected this presentation for an iTunes mark by Felix Sockwell.

Sometimes a client’s reaction does sound like an uninformed personal opinion. And maybe rejection just comes with the territory that we’ve all got to live in. “I’ve done lots of stuff I’ve loved that the client rejected,” admits the Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, a former AIGA/National president.

What about you? Imprint and I offer an opportunity for you to share your experiences in the “comments” area below. Maybe your experiences will become part of a longer and more useful article. Or even a book with a title along the lines of How to Do Great Work AND Make Clients Happy. Somehow we’ve got to prove that doing great work and making clients happy are not mutually exclusive activities.

But right now we can have a little fun with our rejects. At a party! It’s this Wednesday, October 3, at the offices of Toniq in the Pushpin Building on East 32nd Street in New York City. And you’re invited. It’s the AIGA/Metro-North’s 2012 Salon de Refusés (so named in fond memory of that moment in art history, 1863, when Manet and other innovators were rejected by the French Salon and exhibited at an alternative Salon).

The party is the gala kickoff event of AIGA/Metro-North, the “branding” chapter that serves designers in the New York metropolitan area. The venue, Toniq, is the office of Cheryl Swanson, our new chapter president. She and all the guys quoted above (that’s right, Ceradini and Dyksen and Sockwell and Bierut) and many more will be there, along with the former AIGA president Debbie Millman. They’ll be handing out pseudo-awards to the Best Rejected Work!

All you have to do to be there, too, is (1) register through this link to Eventbrite and pay $15 if you’re an AIGA member and $25 if you’re not, and (2) Show up on Wednesday evening with one or more examples of your most-loved rejected work*, printed out at about 11 x 14″ with a tweet-length note attached explaining who it was for and what they said when they rejected it. There will be giant pin-up boards and food and wine (French, of course), music, and even a funny speech by Michael Bierut on how to sell your work. You’ll have fun, meet colleagues, maybe win an pseudo-award like the “Best Dog’s Dinner” certificate. And Felix Sockwell promises to start a website devoted to the best in rejected work.

What could be a better way to start the season and have a laugh or two about moments in our professional life that may have been a little sad?

AIGA Salon de Refusés icons donated by Felix Sockwell. Come to the event and vie for an pseudo-award for your best rejected work.

*Just make sure showing your rejected work doesn’t violate any client confidentiality agreements. We want to have fun with this, not engender any more problems with clients!


Print‘s October 2012 issue is now available. Purchase the issue, or download a PDF version, from

és #DebbieMillman