i+D - January/February 2020 - 22

Business
of Design
Ethics,
Politics, &
Design

It can be difficult to avoid politics
when the type of work being done is
by nature controversial.

The Prudence of Planning
Perhaps the best way to mitigate ethical or political
issues from surfacing is simply to plan accordingly.
That begins with understanding who clients are and
whether their mission and values align with yours.
"We're very selective about the clients we choose to
work with," Rohde says. If a client or potential client
is unprofessional in their demeanor or starts yelling at
team members, for example, those are red flags that
usually prompt her to say, "I think we're too busy to
take on this project."

When to Fire a Client
Despite a designer's efforts to remain ethical and professional, there are times when severing
the client relationship is the proper course of action. The question is, how do you know
when it's best to fire a client rather than trying to salvage the relationship? Ultimately, there's
no clear-cut answer, as each client is unique and must be judged on a case-by-case basis.
However, there are lines that should not be crossed, and protections should be established
in contract paperwork ahead of time.
"You should fire a client if they are treating your team members poorly, and I think you
need to do that in two steps," Weatherspoon explains. First, she suggests designers should
communicate verbally and explain why they feel it's not in the best interest of the client to
continue the relationship or work on a project. Likely, the client will agree it's the best
course of action, Weatherspoon notes. If not, however, she says it's important to maintain
a level of respect and to remain calm throughout the exchange.
"The second step is following up that verbal conversation with an email and legally
documenting that the project needs to come to a close or that the arrangement isn't working,"
she explains.
Rohde says her firm includes a clause in its proposals and contracts that allows for
the commencement or continuation of work to stop if either party needs to terminate. Most
often, they can work through problems that arise and will use mediation if necessary. But she
says sometimes the best course of action is simply to bow out gracefully. "You get to a point
when you do a certain amount of work and realize that you probably shouldn't pursue any
additional work or even complete a contract. We just don't bill for that; and they go away
and we go away, and we go on from there."

Before it ever gets that far, however, Rohde says
JSR will research a potential client-either online
or through word-of-mouth referrals-to determine
if an organization is a good fit. "When we did our
strategic planning in August, we confirmed what our
mission was and what's important to us as a group,
as a company, as an entity. And a lot of times the
people that we attract are the people who understand
that mission. We do a little bit of investigative
evaluation before we sign a proposal with anyone
these days because you just don't know, so I'm
careful about that."
Nevertheless, it can be difficult to avoid politics
when the type of work being done is by nature
controversial, as it can be with affordable housing.
In those instances, it's important to stay on mission
and stand behind the value of design services
being performed.

Not every client will be as gracious, however. Some may retaliate by publicly maligning a
designer or firm on social media, for example. And there's no way to guarantee a disgruntled
client won't lash out in some form or fashion.

"A lot of times you just let the work speak for itself,
and you advocate where necessary," Weatherspoon
says. "In some instances, we do have to testify at city
hearings and councils, but at that point, our job then
is just to assist, to show how our design can and will
enhance a community. It makes it about the design
and not my personal politics or feelings, but about
how what we're doing is for the betterment of the
greater good of more people involved."

"Unfortunately, in today's climate there is no way to avoid every type of retaliation, whether
it be on social media, Yelp, or Google. That's just the culture we live in," Weatherspoon
observes. However, she notes that those scenarios are more common if clients feel like their
concerns go unheard. As a result, she says it's important to listen to your clients and handle
the situation with the utmost respect and integrity. Because if a situation escalates to social
media, she says, "Nothing you say or don't say to that client at that point is going to change
their view or mindset."

Working with many unique clients over the years,
Wozney says encountering different dynamics,
personalities, politics, and opinions is inevitable.
As such, she says, "We know it is more important
for us to be inclusive and listen; when we listen,
we gain valuable insight that allows us to develop
creative solutions."

ROBERT NIEMINEN
is a freelance writer and regular contributor to
retrofit and Retail Environments magazine,
as well as the editor-at-large of interiors+sources.

22

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i+D - January/February 2020

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