Dealing with Fragile Artist Syndrome


Back when I was heading the corporate communications department of a billion-dollar company, I had the uncomfortable experience of watching a graphic designer break down and crumple into a ball in my office.

Had he had a seizure? A heart attack? Had he learned of a death in the family? Nope. He just didn’t like the design changes I had asked him to make in my company’s annual report.

When I asked him for alternatives to my recommendations, he snapped, “Well, since you don’t like any of my ideas anyway, what does it matter?” And then he turned to look out the window; I believe I saw a tear.

Hey, I’m not heartless. If I recall correctly, I may have even handed him a tissue.

But I sure as heck didn’t hire him the next year. I’d rather design the annual report myself with a Crayola 64-pack than knowingly deal with a case of Fragile Artist Syndrome.

So Fragile, So Artistic

I can relate to fragile artists. I was a liberal arts major. I started my career as a journalist. I didn’t know how to balance my checkbook until I was 30 years old. It’s even possible — and I’m not admitting anything here — that I have openly wept in certain professional situations.

But a lot of executives who must work with creative types don’t have this kind of background. They come from a business background; they like the feel and smell and taste of money, and they have ever since they studied finance in college.

That’s back when the creatives were smoking bongs, protesting meat being served on campus, taking close-up photographs of blades of grass, and arguing about Nietzsche until 4 in the morning.

But funny how life goes. These two archetypes (OK, stereotypes), who never had anything to do with each other in college, in a few years would be forced to come together to create … CORPORATE COLLATERAL!

That’s right — annual reports, brochures, Web sites, you name it. If you wonder why so much corporate collateral sucks, and why you’ll never see any of it hanging up in a museum, you can lay the blame at the feet of this unholy, forced alliance.

Guess Who’s the Boss?

But you know what? The client is the boss in this relationship. He or she is paying the creative (the photographer, the designer, the copywriter, what have you) money to be creative on behalf of the corporation.

That means the creative has to collaborate with — and when there is disagreement, defer to — the client.

As a client, you’ll learn that some creatives are much better at this than others — and that often, it is the creatives who master client relations, rather than the most talented ones, who have the most successful careers.

Of course, the creatives who haven’t mastered client relations have a different term for those who have: butt-kissers.

Getting Down to Business

All kidding around aside, working with a fragile artist — one whose ego can’t withstand normal criticism from a client — can ruin a corporate communications project. At the least, it can take all the pleasure out of it.

So how do you, as a client, ensure that the photographer, designer or copywriter you’re about to hire is not susceptible to Fragile Artist Syndrome?

First, you should ask them directly how they handle criticism. Share an anecdote about a difficult communications project you’ve managed in the past — one with lots of red tape, versioning, and inane executive decision-making — and ask them how they would have dealt with it.

Next, ask them to provide examples of some of their more challenging projects. If their stories tend to cast former clients in a negative light, that’s not a good sign.

Finally, ask for references. Call the references and discuss the collaboration process. Did it come easy, or was it uncomfortable?

Specifically ask how the creative handled revisions. When you’re working with a fragile artist, and you ask them to take an idea back to the drawing board and come up with fresh concepts, what you’ll often find is that the level of creativity diminishes with each request. It’s typically a sign that the creative’s ego has been bruised, and he or she has lost enthusiasm for your project.

Ultimately, I’ve found the best way to avoid Fragile Artist Syndrome is to find creatives you work well with — and then keep hiring them. Shared experience builds trust and, as any old married couple can tell you, trust is the key to a long-term, low-maintenance relationship.


4 Responses to “Dealing with Fragile Artist Syndrome”

  1. The real secret isn't deferring, it's letting the client see that you know more about design than them but not making them feel like you're owning the show. Frankness, compromise and the occasional sneaky way of making them think they made the decision! Sure, if they keep at it, you gotta let them have their way, but confidence and wording things correctly can have a frowning client smiling!

  2. And of course, there ARE actually times when the designer isn't right :)

  3. Unfortunately, artists in particular can be mentally unstable, it's simply the nature of the game. I've dealt with a few bipolar people who are also artists, and you can't imagine the topsy turvy world they live in even though they are extremely talented. Reasoning doesn't always work, you have to acknowledge they have different issues than other people, they shouldn't be grouped as such, and you simply may not be able to communicate with that person through no fault of their own. You wouldn't call a CEO a 'fragile business person' because of his character, and if they are unstable, people often ignore it because money is involved, so artist are more frequently implicated as being 'difficult'. The bigger issue is understanding that mental health is everyone's problem, it's not a 'syndrome' and can't always be 'talked out'. Disregarding mental issues, you are still dealing with people who may exclusively use either the right or left side of their brain, and it could feel like juggling a grenade if you personally have the capacity to see both points of view, but they don't.

  4. This is a very sad story. It is a pity you don't have a picture of the design that you did not like.

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