Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

Reaching Professional Milestones

An article my friend Jennifer sent out this morning has stirred some interesting discussion and self-reflections. The article belongs to the “Masters of Design” series by Fast Company, and is about Paula Scher: Her talent, her expertise within the graphic design industry, and what she’s had to do to get where she is… One of the pieces that caught a lot of my attention was:

“Corporate clients who have worked with her [Scher] marvel at her willingness to fight for what she thinks is the best solution to any given problem. ‘She’s uncompromising’, says Susan Avarde, managing director of […]”

I read this and something ached inside me. Just yesterday I was telling my friend Marla (also a designer) how it bothers me so much to have to give some clients the “bad” things they command me to do… Not asking for whether I think it works or not, and some times: not listening to my recommendations.

Many times, clients ask for something very specific, and they don’t trust the designer to solve the fundamental problem that the client’s “solution” is trying to address. The client wants “X”. The designer points out that “X” tested poorly during usability testing, that in order to solve the underlying problem, we should do “Y” or “Z’. But all suggestions fail: The client wants “X” where and how he wants it.

If the client is mine, I am usually able to communicate my concerns, listen to the client, find out the problem, and solve it to hopefully everybody’s satisfaction. But when the client is somebody else’s and I’m just a subcontractor, things are a little harder. Those are the projects where several times I feel like the client designs and I’m expected to simply execute, not think or say. I can’t feel proud of such work. I attempt to add value, but at some point I get tired of fighting, so I end up giving my client’s client exactly what he commands.

Reading on…

“Scher’s ability to persuade, she realized, rested on two things: ‘I would have to be perceived, first, as an absolute authority, and second, as the most powerful person to approach about design.'”

And I find myself nodding, because lately professional recognition seems to be the answer to all of my business concerns: The amount of work I’ll get, the quality of the projects I’ll get, my ability to choose projects, the compensation I’ll receive for my work, etc… But thinking about it for a minute… Is that really what I want? Is being considered an absolute authority within my professional field the current goal and panacea?

My friend Marla quotes Ms. Scher: “The thing that’s most to be feared is doing the same thing over and over again.”, and points out that earlier this year, I mentioned this same thing to express some personal discomfort. Like every other mortal, Scher probably started with little professional recognition, and Marla tells me “She fought for it and you are doing the same in small ways… Don’t you see a little of yourself in her?“.

I guess I do. However, I can’t compare myself to her, or expect to have what she has achieved in her career because: 1) I’ve just started mine, and 2) I have reached a milestone, and unaware of it, I haven’t set a new driving goal.

Some time ago, the immediate goal was transferring from a business background to a design career. Lately I have started to notice with horror that many of the activities I used to enjoy at work are not as exciting any more. I’m not as thrilled about designing and developing corporate web sites as I was some time ago. I’m less willing to work on client projects on weekends. I have reached a point where I seem to have what I once wanted: I work from home. I have great clients. I have built a good portfolio. I have work… It seems that the driving goal has been met: I am now fully marketable within my new chosen career. Maybe I hadn’t realized that: This goal is done. It’s now time to get a new one.

Do I want to…
Be professionally famous?
Be one the best designers in the industry?
Work only on super-exciting projects?
Make more money?
Grow my business?
Change the world?… The industry?…
… Do I want to do something new?

As a web designer in 2006, it’s easy to be blinded by trends and think that I want to be a web celebrity… That I want my sites to be visited by millions… That I want fans praising every silly thought I post on my blog… That I want to be buddies with Jeffrey Zeldman and Douglas Bowman… That I want to be able to charge what well-known designers probably charge… That I want to be profiled in magazines and receive design awards… That I want my work to be so well-known that it won’t matter when somebody rips it off…

But being honest, I don’t really like being a center of attention (I’ve never had a celebrity’s personality). I don’t really crave the brown-nosing comments I read on some web celebrity blogs. I don’t like speaking in public. I don’t want more work if it means I won’t be able to enjoy life. I don’t need awards to know when something I’ve designed is good. And I think I have much further to go to be the best designer — or anything else — I could be.

I guess it’s time to do a little soul-searching again, and find out what it is that I want to fight for now.


  1. On , Marla wrote:

    Great quotes!;)

    You accomplish every goal you set for yourself and you’re formidable. Can’t wait to learn what your next goal will be and how you will achieve it.

    Personally, I’m feeling the earth beneath my treads and I’m learning how to drive in uncertain terrain. I’m starting to understand the pull of off-roading, of testing your boundaries, of being a little bit out of control while feeling confident your tires will gain traction again, of leaving your marks in the mud and the beauty of it is that they’re not perfect imprints, but what you accomplished in your own deliberate way, at your own speed, in a pattern known only to you.

  2. On , Maria wrote:

    Nice metaphor, Marla…

    As you well know I definitely don’t do that with a vehicle (i.e. the off-roading, and testing of boundaries) but I like to think that I’ve tried it at least some times with my life. Those big decisions that have made me so uncomfortable and doubtful, and excited at the same time, have been some of the best in my life… I like how you say it: “what you accomplished in your own deliberate way, at your own speed, in a pattern known only to you”.

  3. On , Maria wrote:

    A silly comment I can’t resist…

    Have you noticed the new image on my header?
    Make no mistake: The seriousness in the expression and corresponding frown are NOT signs of religious fervor. It’s humiliation and embarrassment by noticing my dad take paparazzi photos of me as I walk dressed as a nun with a bunch of other kids all the way from my school to the church where we’ll take our first communion. The dress and the public walk was all ok, until I saw my dad shooting snapshots of me, and I just couldn’t take all that attention.

    Talk about not wanting to be a celebrity!

  4. On , Petie wrote:

    I LOVE that photo… I can’t believe your dad took it… It’s so crisp and clear and full of emotion. I thought that the gorgeous girl was you, but the picture is such good quality – I doubted it could actually be you. Usually, candid pictures from us as children are not that professional looking.

    I also don’t like the spotlight. I could never be a celebrity. I understand that. I admire your post. It’s so passionate and I think it’s great that you evaluate everything.

  5. On , Maria wrote:

    Thank you Petie.
    You think the little nun is gorgeous? HA! HA! She just makes me laugh every time I see her… She’s so upset. I love the frown in that little unibrow. Ahhh… If you knew how the rest of that day went…

  6. On , Petie wrote:

    New post topic? Until you mentioned that it was a frown from daddy papparazzi, I really did think it was a petite nun in deep religious concentration.