Plato's Cave

July 5, 2010

If you’ve read many of my articles, I’m sure you’ve noted idealistic themes and encouragement toward uncompromising standards woven into or embroidered over their fabric. I’m sure it’s clear that I have a passion for sharing this sort of encouragement, and my inclination is fueled by regular examples of clear evidence that it is needed.

In addition to the notes of thanks, encouragement, and affirmation I receive, it is not uncommon for some readers to write saying they believe the ideals and standards expressed in my articles to be impractical, or at least overly-idealistic. And that’s fine. As I’ll examine in this article, it is perfectly natural for people to chafe at ideas that challenge their experience. What is natural, however, is not always wise.

I write not simply about what I believe to be important, but rather what I know to be important because I’m familiar with the results of both maintaining and neglecting these sorts of standards. I didn’t always hold with core principles or uncompromising values. We grow and we change. I’ve experienced the difference myself and I couldn’t advocate anything less than what I know from 30+ years of employment and professional experience to be right. So I write from that experience.

But what if you don’t have any relevant experience that points to the possibility that what I espouse could actually work, could actually prevent nightmare project scenarios or mitigate client problems common to your projects? What if you had spent your entire professional life relegated to seeing only the shadows of what is actually possible and appropriate? You’d think me a blowhard at best or a demagogue at worst.

In fact this very human tendency was detailed quite vividly in Plato’s best-known work, The Republic. More on that in a moment, but first here’s perhaps not an uncommon example of one person’s struggle to deal with the ideals and standards I write about.

Brick Wall, Inc.

A recent discussion I had with the CEO of a well known agency threw into sharp relief the difference between those who can perceive something better than they currently have and those who could never fathom anything beyond their miserable situation.

Despite detailing for me several perfectly horrendous project scenarios from his own experience, he maintained that such scenarios are inescapable and accused me of either bullshitting him or referring to less-important or less-involved projects in my accounting for how such issues can be avoided or mitigated. In arguing to discredit my suggestions for how genuine professionalism can mitigate or cull nightmare projects, he labeled my requirements of professionalism from my potential clients as instead unprofessional and fueled merely by hubris and a need to dominate others.

In fact, he seemed offended by the idea that a design professional should have any requirements of clients at all. I was left with the assumption that his idea is that a designer or agency should be happy that a potential client wanted to throw any work to them at all, and so the designer should simply behave like the good little servant and enabler.

Here's food for thought: The fact is that he and his employees have had to live with the ridiculously-nightmarish results he garners by way of his methodology while I and my employees have never had to endure such terrible scenarios, even when dealing with huge clients or projects. By his own admission, he has with his methods drawn his company into a situation where missing out on a single bid project could put his whole operation at risk. Perhaps I’m a bit slow, as I find his approach too clever for me to fully appreciate.

In our discussion this person made it clear that he had contempt for my ideals and was suspicious of my methodology. He expressed that any standards that might jeopardize chances for getting a project were irresponsible by how they potentially limited income. Despite my experience to the contrary, he dismissed any notion that designer/agency requirements for how potential clients should interact in the project to be folly, as large clients’ assumptions and red tape are impossible to penetrate in his experience. He suggested that choosing not to take on a project or client due to clear evidence of project-wrecking factors is not wisdom, but cowardice.

This agency CEO has learned to play a pitiful game well; a game whose rules were written by feckless idiots—absent design professionals’ input—and which preclude anyone’s effort toward responsible professionalism. These rules are based on the premise of mitigating and diluting rather than collecting and holding to responsibility. This tragically/supposedly successful guy is comfortable playing that game and drawing his employees into it.

I find his approach unimaginable and I refuse to descend into that sort of mire; not for money, not for anything. I instead hold to standards and values and to a concern for my employees’ quality of life no matter the circumstances. That’s what it means to be uncompromising. It is not hubris, but a simple, clear, and demonstrable fact when I say that I know a better way…toward which I’m passionate in encouraging others.

And yet for that I am apparently by some regarded with distrust or contempt. Herein lies the lesson I am compelled to share.

Plato's Cave

I understand where this sort of contemptuous attitude comes from, as I’m familiar with the Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s The Republic. (I encourage you to follow the link and read before continuing.) I know well how those who have only ever experienced the distorted echoes and shadows of what is professionally possible might fiercely attack anything that challenges their ignorance. It is human nature to believe the limits of our perception to be the entirety of reality.

Too often, however, what passes for professionalism in the experience of designers, even company CEOs, is but a shadow of what is possible and what is right. When that ignorance is reinforced by what is deemed to be success, it forms an armor that is difficult or impossible to penetrate with any sort of challenge.

To use the analogy from the Plato’s cave allegory, after years of seeming success with compromise and false professionalism, actual professionalism becomes unrecognizable. Having spent a career among those with a similarly stunted perception, stunted rules seem logical and compromise becomes not just common practice, but the coin of the realm. Based on this lamentable experience, any suggestion that compromise can and should be avoided simply smacks of cheating or ego grooming.

The prisoner of Plato’s cave latches onto his definition of success as the yardstick for evaluating competing arguments. If success is equated with sizable paydays, the fact that these paydays were achieved by way of incessant compromise and unprofessional methodology becomes irrelevant. Arguments critical of the compromise and methodology are therefore seen as attacks on the comfortable cloister of ignorance.

After all, compromise is a currency that is ever-plentiful so the unprofessional individual never runs short. We have but to ignore our values and we’re able to pay whatever price a client requires of us in order to score the big project or to stumble bruised and used toward its conclusion. Excuse me while I throw up.

Get the hell outta the cave

At the risk of this advice bouncing off of armor, here are a few admonitions. If you hide your values and requirements (if you even possess such things) from potential clients you are harming yourself and them. Ceding or neglecting your professional responsibilities in an effort to lubricate client interactions disqualifies you as a suitable designer or agency for anyone. Standards and professional requirements that vary between large and small clients or large and small projects are ethically bankrupt and in no way connected with professionalism.

If you are comfortable drawing your employees and colleagues into nightmarish projects or with nightmarish clients, you are unfit for leadership. If your boss makes a practice of bringing in unprofessional or otherwise unsuitable clients, you have a responsibility to find employment elsewhere as soon as you may or you risk losing every shred of your professionalism. You chose to work where you work. You are known by the company you keep.

If your entire enterprise hinges on getting the next project that comes your way, you have a screwed up enterprise and you should reflect on your life. Worthy people attract sustenance and worthy professionals have the luxury and obligation of choice. The converse is also true.

The difference between professionals and those who understand only the echoes and shadows of professionalism is that the latter evaluate things according to an external, transient standard—to the point that only subjective, situational evaluation becomes useful. When compromise brings what passes for success, compromise becomes indistinguishable from virtue. At that point, shadow becomes reality. Professionals, by contrast, evaluate things according to consistent, uncompromising, internal standards based on individual and professional responsibility; standards that can stand the bright light of day.

Each of us could likely stand to do some periodic, brutal evaluations of our practice to ensure we’ve not wandered into Plato’s cave. Self evaluations, however, are difficult to perform accurately. Sometimes we need an objective view to give us the appropriate kick in the pants. If our first reaction to that kick in the pants is an indignant and defensive position, chances are something has hit pretty close to the mark.

From his ultimately entrenched position, I believe that CEO from the discussion account above to be beyond help. The bigger tragedy is described by what his employees must endure and I hope they don’t endure it for long. Further, I hope their story does not closely resemble your own. If it does, I sincerely hope you will take my advice and observations to heart.