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I have been a graphic designer for over 20 years, currently working under a Graphics Director, whose boss is the Department Manager, whose boss is the VP of Marketing.

The VP is recently hired, and unlike our past VPs, has been making comments/requests for changes on my design work. It is clear to the Graphics Director and myself that this individual has no design experience, or even a good eye for a balanced and professional layout.

So I need a tactful/diplomatic (or at least a bit more polite) way to tell someone above me in the chain-of-command that they know nothing about design and should just back off and trust me and the Graphics Director to handle design.

I'm looking for work elsewhere (Graphics Director level), but even if I do get the chance to leave this company, any advice on the situation will still help to improve my communication skills, and benefit the other designers who're at my level and below.

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While it seems like pushing back without ruffling feathers is impossible, I've seen it done and occasionally managed it myself.

Here are some approaches I've seen or used:

  1. Ignore his input. I don't use this one myself, but I have had it used on me and seen it used successfully. Many people will resent active opposition, but won't react to flat out being ignored. Often this is because they're so busy they lose track of things, and an issue you see as important might not be on their radar on the same way. If your VP is like me, non-response will just make him madder. However, if he's like my boss, non-response will not be a problem. You may not have any way of knowing in advance which type he will be, but given that this is a valid (if passive-aggressive) way to interpret your boss's instructions to push back without ruffling feathers, it's probably worth a shot.
  2. Ask him lots of questions. If you want to educate someone, sometimes it's better to let them feel like they came to the answer themselves. So, instead of saying "Blue on blue is completely illegible," maybe you should try "Would you mind looking at this prototype outside on your phone with the screen on low brightness and giving me your feedback?" A nice side-effect for this approach is that it makes micromanaging also very time-consuming. If he says no, ask him if he'll accept the ruling of whoever is officially doing your QA. Edit: Points below added per request.
    • One of my favorite ways to handle this sort of thing is to ask "Why wouldn't it work to..." This works well because it doesn't directly challenge the other person, but it does put the ball in their court to tell you why you can't implement your own solution.
    • Whenever you find yourself saying "Yes, but..." try changing it to "Yes, and..." You'd be surprised how many sentences work either way. The latter seems to get a better reaction from many people when you use it, however. More importantly, I find that when I do this, I often find my own viewpoint shifting to be less combative and more collaborative.
  3. Slow way down. You're trying to accomplish several things here.
    • Relax your own attitude, so you can let go a little bit and not get irritated.
    • Put fewer iterations in front of him, so he has fewer things to micromanage.
    • Give him less time before the deadline to give feedback, and let "Is this worth pushing back the deadline for this?" become a more relevant question.

One thing that's important to realize is that some people have a hard time giving professional respect. Just because you have been comfortably respected by everyone around you doesn't mean you can expect that from everyone who walks through the door. Sometimes it can take from months to years for such a person to start trusting you, months or years of shared experience, putting out fires together, etc. The problem with micromanagers is that if you do what they want, they won't trust you, because as they see it, you just did what they told you. And if you don't do what they want, they still won't trust you because, well, you didn't do what they wanted. In other words, they won't let you go to see if you'll come back, so they don't know if they'll come back if they let you go. enter image description here

Edit: Added because I thought of it later.

You also might want to try writing down why you can't/won't this, that or the other before you speak to anyone about it. I find that often in the very act of writing this stuff down, I'll see ways where I actually could do what they want, or see areas of compromise that weren't apparent before.

  • Interesting, like the idea of asking questions of the VP in order to educate them, good point about micromanaging and expectations. – Chris Apr 23 '14 at 15:59
  • So I spoke with the Graphics Director, and he says he'll support me but seems scared to discuss our design concerns with the VP. Says things like "career sensitive environment right now". I'll continue trying to be tactful when explaining my designs to the VP myself, and any additional advice about word choices etc. would be helpful. – Chris Apr 24 '14 at 17:57
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You can go about this a few ways. Firstly, you want to make sure this isn't seen by the VP as a "I can't take criticism of my own work" situation.

Option 1: Back up your position with third party sources

"Best Practices" are very useful here. If you did it a certain way because it's generally agreed-upon by other professionals in your industry, cite those other professionals when you push back against an unnecessary (or incorrect) change request.

Tact is important here. Mention that you are open to changes, but you did what you did because [guru x] said this is the best way.

Option 2: Ask your boss to fight for you

This is something your boss, also having a graphics background, should be able to do on your behalf. The whole purpose of hiring experienced design professionals is so that you can trust them to deliver the right solution for your needs.

If your new VP can't trust you, or your boss (who agrees with your choices), that is an issue that your boss should be discussing with the new VP.

Bonus Option: Let the VP have his/her way

Are the changes suggested by the VP going to result in loss of business or other detriment to the company? If not, I would suggest allowing the VP to get his/her way a few times. This could be the VP attempting to assert some control over you and your boss, and if you yield, the VP may be satisfied that s/he is in control, and leave you and your boss to make future layout choices without input.

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    Why the downvote? If there were a comment, I could evaluate whether I'm overlooking something in thinking this is a good answer. – thursdaysgeek Apr 22 '14 at 21:03
  • Good advice; Option 1 has been used in the past, I keep having to explain industry-wide graphic design standards repeatedly, and the reasoning behind each design decision I've made, trying to convey that blue text on a blue background doesn't work as well as white text, etc. Graphics Director says to me "push back" but also "don't ruffle any feathers". I can't ask him to intercede with the VP for me on every occasion... or should I? Option 3 goes against my conscience, this is national advertising for a big company, and it's my reputation as a designer as well as that of our brand on the line. – Chris Apr 22 '14 at 21:05
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    Yeah, option 3 isn't really an option if it's a big deal and could tarnish the company image. In honesty, if your boss isn't willing to handle this on your behalf, why aren't you just reporting directly to the VP? Your boss should be able to add value. This is a particular instance where your boss should step in. – Garrison Neely Apr 22 '14 at 21:09
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    I know quite a few professional graphic designers who purposefully leave in a massive, egregious problem that the busybody can ask to fix so that they feel like they've saved the project. That might work for you, although you run the risk of them LIKING it like that, too. – fluffy Apr 23 '14 at 4:29
  • fluffy: those "professional" graphic designers are NOT creating an environment of trust. Really hope there aren't too many out there working in that way. – Chris Apr 23 '14 at 16:00
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First I would try to find out what the reasons are that this VP has for making his suggestions/requests.

If there is a possibility that the requests/suggestions are motivated by a desire to be able to say "I helped creating that great design", then you could do the following:
Create your design as usual, but just before presenting it to the VP, add in an element that is clearly off and for which you will predictably get a request to get rid of it.
If done properly, then it should be technically easy to remove that element and both of you will be happy. You and your boss with your great design and the VP with having 'helped' creating it.

  • Adding a "clearly off" element to a design makes me, the designer, look incompetent, and gives the VP the false idea that THEY know something about design. My goal is for the designers to be trusted. – Chris Apr 28 '14 at 21:58
  • @Chris: Fair enough. It was just an idea. – Bart van Ingen Schenau Apr 29 '14 at 6:06

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