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Flying first class from Miami to Philadelphia, I watch through the window as the Atlantic coast passes thirty thousand feet below me. I’ll pick up a rental car, check into a cozy little bed and breakfast, enjoy a gourmet meal at the inn and then climb the stairs to my room.

Tomorrow, I meet with the vice-president of a three billion dollar pharmaceutical company and his team to talk about technology, marketing and the design of their 14 million dollar website.

What am I doing here? I’m a freaking graphic designer! I work on a three-year-old computer out of a tiny room in my house. Aren’t designers in Pennsylvania as good as me? Why would someone pay this kind of bread to fly me on-site every week? What do they expect of me?

The following Monday, when I return to my university teaching job, I ask my graphic design students, “what do graphic designers do?”

“Easy,” says Raul. “Graphic designers build stuff.”

I shake my head. “Production artists build stuff for clients. Production is not design.”

I write the word DESIGN on the board. “Let’s take this apart.”

DE: to break down or take apart

SIGN: a mark or symbol with an attached meaning

I write down a few more “sign” words and solicit definitions from the students—not dictionary definitions, just definitions that feel right.

DESIGNATE: to delegate a meaning, role or value

ASSIGN: also means to delegate a meaning, role or value

What do graphic designers do? Graphic designers work with the relationship between image and meaning.

Through a conscious process of assignment, graphic designers empower images and type to communicate not just information but meaning and value. Design isn’t production work; it’s alchemy! You can learn all the software, write your own code and recognize fifty different typefaces, but if you don’t make your images inspire, communicate and engage, you’re not a graphic designer.

We’re getting closer. I push the students harder. “If graphic designers don’t build stuff, why do we design? Graphic designers use text and images to do what?”

“To communicate,” offers Carmen from the side of the room.

“Too vague,” I say. “Why communicate?”

“To solve a problem,” says George enthusiastically from the back row. I thought he was fooling around on Facebook and not paying attention but he’s in on the discussion. “To solve a problem or achieve a goal.”

“Good, George. You’re on to something. You can go back to Facebook now.” The class laughs. George smiles and shrugs his shoulders.

I write the definition on the board: Graphic Designers use text and images to solve a problem or achieve a goal.

“What is a wine cork worth?” I ask my students.

The shift in topic inspires confused expressions. “A nickel,” volunteers one student. “Fifteen cents,” suggests another. George challenges me. “How would we know? What kind of question is that?”

“What’s a wine cork worth if you’re at sea in a boat with a nickel-sized hole in its bottom?”

The students scan the room, checking each other’s faces to see who gets it and who doesn’t. Nobody wants to appear stupid.

“In other words,” says Nicole, a smart girl in the front row, “What you charge doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how many hours a job takes or how difficult it is. What the client wants to accomplish establishes the price.”

“Exactly,” I say. “Of course you figure in your hours and costs, but your job as a designer is to make aesthetic decisions to produce results for your client. With a flash of inspiration, you might design a logo in three minutes for a huge, successful company. Is that job worth only three minutes of your time? Steve Jobs paid Paul Rand a million bucks to design the logo for NeXT Computer Company. He and Rand both knew logos could be found cheaper, but Jobs understood the importance of strong branding. Rand didn’t charge him by the hour and I’ll bet Jobs made money on the deal when Apple bought him out and hired him back.”

“Fantastic story,” says George, “but who’s gonna pay you a million bucks to design a logo?”

“You got me,” I confess. “When you find out, I’ll send you a generous referral fee, but if you scale the price down from ridiculous to high-end professional, you ask a good question. Who is going to pay good money for your work?

“Not my clients,” says Carmen. “I have one client now; I bite my lip all day while she tells me what awful typefaces and color combinations she wants next. The revisions are endless; the project is ten times the work I thought it would be and I wouldn’t put the images in the same room as my portfolio.”

Most of the students freelance, hassling with art-directing clients and never-ending projects. Nicole chimes in. “Yeah, I hate having stuff in my portfolio where I have to apologize for horrible things clients force me to do.”

I aim my marker at the class. “There’s an old saying: ‘excellent work is done for excellent clients.’ Some people will tell their dentist what drill bit to use, even if the results are painful. Who will pay top dollar for your work? Excellent clients who trust you and recognize your value.”

“So where do we find these excellent clients?” asks Raul. “You make it sound easy but everyone wants to nickel and dime you.”

“You already have them,” I reply, “but you’re not establishing yourself as a professional aesthetic decision maker. Instead of asserting your value, you ask your client to tell you what to do. Ask them where they want to go, instead. Tell them you can get them there if they stay out of the way. It’s your job to tell them what they need; if they knew, they wouldn’t need a designer. Obviously, the client has a say, but if they trust your judgment, you can steer them around the clichés and push them not to do something safe, boring and ineffective.”

“What do you do when a client wants a globe with two swooshes in their logo?” asks Raul.

“I tell them I won’t do the job, and I explain why: a globe logo will make them look like a million other companies—the exact opposite of what a logo is supposed to accomplish.”

“You actually walk away from the job?” Raul and George ask in unison.

“Sort of. The client either recognizes I just saved them from making a stupid mistake—in which case, we start a conversation where I’m thought of as a resource instead of a production stooge—or they still want the globe logo—in which case I let them go on their way. How much do you think a client like that will pay for a logo, anyway? His nephew has a bootleg copy of Photoshop; he’ll do the job for fifty bucks.”

The students smile; they have met this client more than once.

“I need the bread just like you,” I continue “but if you think you’re poor now, check your bank balance after you spend a month working on a cheap logo for some clown who disappears when you come by for your check. You’re building a design practice and a professional reputation. You need successful clients to accomplish your goals.”

George isn’t satisfied yet. “Sorry, but I can’t afford to walk away from work; college tuition isn’t cheap.”

“We all do bread and butter work,” I explain. “Take those jobs if you must, but agree on what you’ll deliver and when. Tell the client how many revisions they’ll get. Write down what’s included and what isn’t. Spelling things out gives you a written contract so you won’t end up with one of those projects where the cheap logo includes a website and a brochure at no extra cost.”

“But that’s production work,” Nicole interrupts. “We’re talking about graphic design here. I like this; I was getting jaded; I’m actually getting excited about design again.”

Three days later, I’m flying first class to Philadelphia again, looking out the window and thinking.

My client’s project involves 100 content writers, 30 out-of-town consultants, a dedicated programming team and some fancy technology. If the website doesn’t engage its audience, inspire trust and encourage visitors to click past the first page, it will be an expensive failure. Graphic design will make or break the project. My client doesn’t need a graphics guru; they need an aesthetic decision-maker to protect an enormous investment.

Why am I here? I’m a freaking graphic designer!