Ideally designers should create works that best suit the needs of communicating a message to a target audience. The reality is that the target audience is never a paying member so the designer’s loyalty is compromised by contractual relationships to act in the best interests of their employer or client. How does a designer resolve the tension between the competing interests of employer, client and audience?
In the long-term, the best interests of the employer are best met by serving the interests of clients. Clients whose needs are met show positive business results and can afford to become repeat customers. Repeat clients are cheaper for the employer so retaining clients and helping clients thrive is good for the employer. However, sometimes an employer will not necessarily act in the best interest of a client, for example by scheduling too much work, or knowingly taking on work that will not add much value to the client’s business. The employed designer is contracted to their employer not the client so may not always be able to act in their client’s best interests.
Freelance designers have the luxury of no employer relationship to complicate matters. By contracting directly with clients the freelancer need only resolve the tensions between the client and the target audience.
In the long-term, the best interests of the client are best met when the client’s offerings add benefit to their target audience. The role of the designer is to communicate the client’s message to this audience. Often though, in the interest of keeping the client happy and retaining their business, the designer will accept instructions from the client that run counter to their best interests.
So, to describe the chain of responsibility, the designer acts in the best interests of their employer by acting in the best interests of employer’s clients. The designer acts in the best interests of the clients by acting in the interest of the client’s target audience. This means that by satisfying the needs of the target audience both the client and employer’s long-term interests are met.
There are two problems with this chain. The designer has no contractual responsibilities to the target audience and thus can act for short-term gain at the expense of the audience. Secondly each link in the chain introduces a political element where the interests of the audience can become forgotten.
The way to resolve the tension is for the designer to advocate for the target audience to the client, and advocate for the client to their employer. In situations where the client gives instructions that run counter to their best interests then it is the designer’s duty to inform the client but the client still has the right to decide. In situations where client’s best interests are being compromised by employer actions the designer should inform their employer but recognize that the designer is contracted to their employer first so the employer gets the right to decide.