Even though we know better than to throw each other under the bus, trash talking among web designers is common. What are the repercussions of this bad behavior, and why are we so compelled to do it?
Invariably in the pursuit of work, we’re either pitted against or compared to other designers and developers. Regardless of whether we’re trying to keep a client, win a project or just survive a job interview, we need to be able to communicate what sets us apart from the people we’re competing against. Sadly, it seems like we don’t have to look far to see designers trashing other designers, presumably to get ahead. Obviously, talking badly about others is a terrible way to make a good impression. But it’s not just embarrassing to witness, it also diminishes the reputation of our profession. Insinuating that our peers are incompetent builds distrust in web designers. It makes it more difficult for us to do our jobs, creating skeptical clients who may be reluctant to reveal budgets or are insistent on getting work done on spec.
But wait! Isn’t it our job to point out things that suck, and make them less sucky? Even the most humble designers among us have been trained to be critical. We’re the ones hired to discern good typography from bad, flag usability issues, and optimize code.
So in situations where we’re asked to comment on the quality of our peers’ work, how do we address any shortcomings without making ourselves (or them) look like a-holes?
It should be quite straight forward, right? Prove our worth through demonstrations of our own abilities, and avoid taking actions that make others look bad. But if it’s really so simple, why is bad mouthing such a popular pastime? Does our inclination toward this type of gossip reveal malicious intentions? Perhaps not. When noticing other people do it, it’s easy to attribute the behavior to ego or selfishness. Yet we are all inclined to do it. And this may actually have more to do with the circumstances we find ourselves in than to the broad characteristics we like to define ourselves by (see aside). Consider the following example:
You’re brought in to fix a botched website implementation for a new client. The client is unhappy with their previous development team because the site has failed to achieve certain expected results. In some ways, your job is easy. You get to play Monday morning quarterback, pointing out all the usability problems with the existing design and picking apart the code. At the same time, there’s also significant pressure. Beneath all the client’s excitement is the not so subtle underpinning of apprehension. Expectations are set high that this time around things will be done right. Stakeholders half-joke that you’re going to solve all the organization’s problems, projecting a savior-like role onto you. As the new guy in town, you’re eager to assuage those fears, alleviating their concerns and reaffirming your credibility as an expert.
It’s great to want to make the client feel better about you and about the project. It’s natural to empathize with their pain, and show that you can identify with them. And when the client starts complaining about how messed up their site is or how terrible their last developer was, it’s easy to join in the mud-slinging. These are all human impulses motivated by the desire to strengthen the relationship with the group you want to gain acceptance from, while pushing out the last guy1. We’re biologically wired to respond to these social cues. We could as easily be talking about our neanderthal ancestors forming tribes or the hopelessly smitten buddy who provides a shoulder to cry on in romantic comedies. You’re not hired to be a caregiver, and certainly not to be a savior to the client’s every woe. Falling into these roles can create distractions from the job you’re being paid to do.
As inclined as we may be to succumb to insults, gossip and name calling, it hardly excuses rude and ignorant behavior. It’s important though that we understand situations that provoke this behavior, if only to help us avoid slipping into it.
So, the project you inherit is a mess. The perception is that money and time were wasted, but rarely can the blame be placed squarely on one side of the client-developer relationship. Before you place judgement on the previous team (let’s call them the “ex”) and potentially say damaging things, consider the factors that may have contributed to the project’s outcome. Were the requirements of the project too loosely specified? Was content poorly planned or delivered as an afterthought? Did the designer struggle against the weight of committee decisions?
By acquitting the client of responsibility and placing the blame on the ex you may elevate yourself temporarily and alleviate some of the client’s apprehension. Of course it’s easier to talk bad about the last team then it is to tell your client, “You need to get your shit together.” But if you don’t identify the real problems, chances are you’ll stumble into the same pitfalls. Show the client some tough, but honest, love. Where did the last project really go wrong? Lay out your strategy for how you’ll circumvent the problems this time around. Sell yourself by focusing on solutions and workarounds for any obstacles. Carry through on what you promise to do, and you’ll gain the respect of the client, without damaging the reputation of your peers.
What if the other designer IS incompetent?
If you do notice that a colleague is producing seemingly substandard work, do you have a professional obligation to bring it to light?
Unfortunately, some people do lousy work. Anyone can proclaim themselves a web designer–all it takes are some very basic tools. Tools like Adobe’s new Muse software promise to make web development more accessible to graphic designers–most of whom,according to Adobe2, do not know HTML, CSS or JS (don’t even get me started). Suffice to say, there is a severe range of competence in the industry, and more than a few people have been ripped off by ambitious amateurs in over their heads or careless hacks promising more than they can deliver.
It doesn’t matter. No matter how terrible a client’s past developer was, it’s not your problem. You won’t make yourself look better by throwing them under the bus. Besides, if someone is incompetent and has done bad work, they’re already laying with their back on the road. When you insinuate that you are better than another developer you don’t make yourself look better, you just establish a comparison. Instead of creating that comparison, just do a really good job from day one. Keep the client looking forward, not back.
Surprise! The next A-hole is you
One of your long time clients wants to bring some of the design/development in house and hires a new Webmaster. At first, you start getting requests for source files. Then come questions about why you chose to do things a certain way. Suddenly you realize that all the code you had produced is under scrutiny by this new person. Problems in the design emerge and the client mysteriously has lost all recollection of the past. Every accessibility, usability or standards battle you lost gets thrown in your face. Every time the client requested the impossible but only had a budget of four hours comes back to haunt you. Memory of all the tight pinches, miracle patches and favors you did simply flutter away as the next Savior shows up on the scene. A new Monday morning quarterback is born, and you are the web design world’s next a-hole. And the worst part is that you insist you aren’t the a-hole…you are just at the mercy of situational factors outside your control. Fundamental Attribution Error in your face!
Show some respect
It’s really, really easy to be critical, but be cognizant of the fact that a website can become a battleground—a place where conflicting interests, client demands, and evolving specs duke it out. Before casting stones, remember that all work and all decisions exist within a context. When you do have something critical to say, there’s no need to be derogatory; constructive criticism goes a long way. We’re all in this together. When you make your colleagues look bad, you make yourself look bad. When you insinuate that another design company can’t be trusted, you chip away at the credibility of everyone in the profession. When everyone is out for themselves, fewer of us will thrive. This is a cornerstone of what it means to behave ethically—to not only to be responsible for the things we create, but also to be conscientious of how our actions affect the ability of those around us to do well and flourish. That’s what keeps me so optimistic.
We work best as a collective. For every trash talking bad-mouther-f’r out there, there are scores of benevolent experts eager to share their wisdom. Considering that clients come to us seeking our industry insight and expertise, you’d expect a bunch of cloaks and secret formulas*. Instead, information is shared openly. We’re surrounded by opportunities to learn from and become inspired by one another. Code and techniques are shared freely, allowing us to build off the work of our peers. Everywhere around us design collaboration is occurring and people are cooperating to push the boundaries of what the web is capable of. What’s propelling us forward and allowing us to thrive is not the brilliance of the few brightest individuals within the field; it’s the strength of the network that has been created in the design and development community. It’s this shared hunger to produce better and better work, to challenge the limits of our creativity, and to envision a brighter, more connected future. There will always be those who don’t get it: the people to whom profit matters more than purpose, the a-holes who would rather discourage than uplift. But they are the minority, and they are the one’s who are really missing out.
In the words Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan, from the 1989 chart-busting comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Be excellent to each other!”