I’ve never been the type to talk politics with my clients. In fact, I’ve never known (or honestly, perhaps I just never paid attention to) the leanings of my clients—until this election cycle, that is, when their lawn signs were unavoidable.
As luck would have it, one of my biggest jobs is about to be for a client with beliefs (and social media comments) I’ve discovered I simply can’t abide. The job would be incredible—financially for my firm and creatively for me. The photos would likely transform my portfolio. And the clients, in all of our meetings so far, are nice. They also recently returned the signed contract with no qualms about making a deposit—always a good sign!—but I’m increasingly leaning toward walking away rather than seething quietly about what I know to be their personal views. Am I crazy to say “never mind” to a huge opportunity?
Dear Politically Incompatible,
Throughout the course of my career, I have worked with many designers and architects who have done business in or with people from the Gulf States. Many of these designers happen to be gay. Punishment for being gay or engaging in homosexual activity in several of these Middle East countries is death. Will you judge these designers for their decision to work with these clients? If not, where do you draw the line? (Though millions of people still enjoy Michael Jackson’s songs, for example, I am forever haunted by the Leaving Neverland documentary and can no longer listen to his music.)
To be sure, your question is not really a business question. These clients appreciate you and your art, are ready to agree to your process and give you permission to do great work. They are your patrons—they appreciate the world you inhabit and they want what you see for themselves. But what if the situation were reversed? Suppose that they had the same values as you, but were unwilling to agree to your idiosyncratic process. (For example, they refused to pay your deposit or agree to your contract as drafted, or would not permit you to photograph the work for your portfolio.) What would you be talking about then? Probably not much, since more than likely they would not hire you and you wouldn’t seriously entertain working with them. Let us leave it here that, for your business and your art, these clients are wonderful.
The slippery slope is where you are casting your side-eye. That choice is yours, of course, but I would caution being pedantic. We are all an amalgamation of good and evil and—short of abject hate—their bedfellows throughout life. What someone believes is for them, and your judgment of their unworthiness comes at a price. It is why I keep my business focus on the quality of the patronage, not the patron, and push as far as I can not to judge beyond the ability to create great work. Yes, there is a line for all of us—I would simply suggest that, in this instance, you push further than you might otherwise be comfortable doing.
Your part is to do the work so that you can have your voice. Use the fruits of your voice however you choose, but do not give up your voice. The work is the work, and unless you think it a way to garner a market for those who share your beliefs above all others, let it stay there. If you choose this path, appreciate that you are marketing your creative business first and foremost, not taking a political stand.
I realize that many readers might vehemently disagree with me. My point is that your creative business gives you a stage—and the stronger your business, the stronger your stage. You can always take some of the money you earn from this client and contribute to causes you believe in (that your clients may not).
You are not your clients. You are not complicit in their worldview if you design for them. You are the professional in the room, tasked with transforming their lives with your art. Perhaps your work can show them something other, or help them shift even in the smallest way to appreciate the world as you have shown them. Drip by drip is how the world shifts—but without water, there can be no drip.
At its essence, your design is part of the human creative collective. You can no more tell me why you can design as you do than your clients can say why they cannot. From this place of the universal—the community you inhabit and which your clients wish to share with you—know there is connection and culture. Your gift matters, and if you shut down the opportunity to share it, so too do you curb its impact. Your work—and that of all designers, especially today—is to make your megaphone bigger in order to reach those that care. As much as you can, quit judging that which has no impact on the project, and focus on the joy that you and your creative business can deliver. Let that be enough.
Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.