business advice | Oct 5, 2021 |
My dream client’s money comes from an unethical source. Can I work with them anyway?

Dear Sean,

I’ve been approached to do an amazing project for some absolutely delightful clients. Photos from this job could completely transform my career, and the couple seem collaborative in all the right ways—and hands-off in all the right ways, too! There’s just one catch: I’ve Googled them just enough to realize that their family’s fortune comes from selling a product that I find reprehensible and completely at odds with my values. It wasn’t these clients who marketed that product, but they are now reaping the rewards. Can I take the job and try turning a blind eye, or should I follow my conscience and walk away?

Guilt Trip

Dear Guilt Trip,

Art will forever change the world. The stronger that creative businesses are, the better they will be able to serve as the voice of change. Art is itself intolerant, outrageous, transformative. We all have clients and patrons, and serving their vision does not mean compromising ours. In fact, quite the opposite.

I deeply understand working for a client whose behavior you abhor. Whether you can do so is really not the question. The question is whether you can do the work that matters with a client who will respect you and your art. If you judge the patron, be very careful. Provided the product is legal and accepted where you are, that should be enough for you. (Illegality is, of course, a nonstarter.) Your job is to do the work so that you can have your voice. Use the fruits of your voice however you choose. Just do not give up your voice.

The absurdity of the cake maker refusing to serve gay couples on moral grounds (cheap press notwithstanding) is the same as a performer refusing to work in the Middle East. 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. But if you choose to go there, appreciate that you are marketing first and foremost, not taking a stand.

I realize you might vehemently disagree with me, and that is fine. My point is only to say that your work, your creative business, gives you a voice, and the stronger the business, the stronger your voice.

I was once appalled at the idea of doing business with those I found reprehensible. Then came designer, author and speaker Preston Bailey. I was the president of his business from 2003 to 2009, and we did events around the world. During my time with him, we worked with many clients that are among the worst perpetrators of human rights in the world—regimes that would stone him and his husband to death for their relationship and identity. So why do the work? His answer: because it is his stage, and if he can show beauty and what is possible from someone like him—a gay Black man—perhaps there can be a shift. And if not with them, then with those who can see what is achievable through his work.

It is about the work, and it ends there. And Bailey is far from alone here—almost any interior designer of note has likely done work for clients whose personal politics and beliefs are directly contrary to theirs.

History is littered with patrons of art who are less than scrupulous (the Borgias, for one). Art matters, today more than ever. Post-COVID, your work is to make your megaphone forever bigger. Do the work and leave it there; let that be enough. Then, with your megaphone in hand, make change. Donate to the fund that counteracts the product your client benefits from. Be an agent for change on your own time, but let your work stand on its own for those who care the most.

Homepage photo: © Augusta16 | Adobe Stock

Sean Low is the 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.

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