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When everyone thinks they’re a designer, you end up with ‘Animal Anus’

By Hannah O’Rourke, Director of Content

Don't be Shy

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November 22, 2023 | 8 min read

The internet’s been speculating about the origin of a shop sign that appears to sell… animal anus. Hannah O’Rourke of agency Don’t be Shy says that bad designer-client relationships produce animal anuses every day.

A shop sign that reads 'Animal Anus'

How can brands and designers avoid their own 'Animal Anus' moments? / Credit: Reddit user CrossedKiller

This unfortunate sign for a pet store in Mexico has been doing the rounds recently. Its genesis may never be known, but most designers who’ve weighed in have concluded that it probably involved an overbearing client demanding that their misguided vision be realized in full, and a broken-willed designer.

Commenting in a graphic design subreddit, one observer best-guessed that the sign was “one of many rough concepts presented to the client, and they instantly latched onto it. They wanted that exact thing, and that was that”.

(It ‘should’, apparently, say “Animal and Us”).

At Don’t be Shy, we’ve noticed clients being increasingly strident with their input on the creative process. This can be a blessing and a curse: the best, most ownable, most contextual creative comes from a deep understanding of the client – their personalities, aspirations, and anecdotes about loyal customers and disastrous sales pitches.

On the other hand, fussy, fickle changes to any and every detail of a project, without understanding the knock-on effects of these seemingly innocuous edits, can dilute and corrupt once-strong concepts. Although the client may get what they want in the moment, these insistent whims won’t get them what their brand needs in the long run.

This is a democracy, dammit!

Growing confidence in untrained design instincts can slow and stifle the ‘natural’ creative process – and frustrate and exhaust designers. At its absolute worst, this tinkering and over-the-shoulder micromanaging results in Animal Anus.

It’s an issue as old as marketing itself, but it does seem to have intensified recently.

Why? I can see two reasons. First, the proliferation of accessible design and imaging platforms (Wix, Canva, Midjourney, etc) that empower anyone to ‘feel’ like a designer. Second, there’s the increasing need to squeeze every penny out of shrinking marketing budgets. For some clients, this translates into aggressively commandeering the design process in order to guarantee its ‘success’.

So, what can we do about it?

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1. Involve creative in the insights

There’s no substitute for human interaction, shared conclusions, and the fact that (shocker!) having designers in the room with planners means first-hand exposure to golden insights, which can sometimes be overlooked by the more ‘sensible’ agency specialisms. Establishing the creative/client relationship early on creates a stronger rapport between the two and can smooth bumps down the line.

2. Celebrate the client

It’s all too easy to huff and puff about an ‘interfering’ client. When you’re working against a tight deadline and the fourth round of amends comes in, frustrations inevitably flare. But a solid relationship can mean all the difference between “What is he like, eh?” and “Who is this fucking joker and how dare he?”

As marketing experts, we can forget the criticality of the client. A gorgeous concept, a compelling narrative, and a clever contact strategy amount to nothing if your client has reservations about how it will land with the real people it needs to resonate with. Clients bring frontline insights and often have a far deeper understanding of the implications of any activity. Agencies should respect that.

3. Trust the (creative) process

Do you know what helps clients trust the process? Being able to see the process. Creatives, this is your time to shine. Inject a bit of performance into your creative presentations. Do you know what impresses clients? Having the craft behind a project evoked for them.

Show them the Sharpie stage. Get feedback on the brainfarts (the better ones, anyway). Then refine and realign and let them see the work that goes into that. Showcase the value in the explorative trial-and-erroring that goes on behind the scenes.

The proof of the process is in the outputs, and those outputs are exponentially improved when there are engaging check-ins and course corrections along the way.

4. Understand the egos

Designers’ work often requires them to interact with protective CEOs and opinionated CMOs. Every client has an ego – some bigger or more fragile than others’. It’s not solely down to client services to cater to them.

Of course, some people can just be bad guys. A handful of my lucky colleagues will never forget the explosive reaction of a certain CEO upon being presented with his rebrand routes. There was shouting. There were F-bombs. There were C-bombs. There were wild accusations (and, to be fair, once he finally stormed out, there were pained apologies from his weary team).

Yeah, that wasn’t great. And although we still stand by the routes we presented, perhaps earlier involvement in the creative process might’ve helped avoid the horror of that (now comically) grim afternoon.

5. Celebrate the specialisms

Everyone’s allowed an opinion. But in any significant creative endeavor, it’s worth paying for the years, not the hours. As long as each stakeholder has respect for the knowledge and experience of the others, a productive time should be had by all.

Because underneath the specialisms, we’re not so different after all. “Things work best when there’s a mutual understanding and respect for each other’s expertise,” says my colleague, senior designer Maria Adamo. “That allows us to do our job without feeling like that poor designer on The Apprentice who’s always being dictated to.”

Another colleague, Kess Crighton, our director of client services, puts it like this: “Ideally, we want the client and the agency fully aligned on the direction, with the client appreciating our expertise and leaning on us to guide them. That’s the smoothest, fastest path to a successful creative outcome.”

When everyone thinks they’re a designer then, yes, you can end up with Animal Anus.

But when everyone understands their role, and time is taken to establish clear boundaries, respect, and a little bit of leeway either way, you may just end up with the dog’s bollocks.

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