Getting the Boot

the boot

I thought I'd been fired, but it turned out to be an escape

Late on a recent Friday afternoon I was left a VOICE MESSAGE telling me I was being replaced. Nice. The new editor of a publication I designed freelance for 10 years couldn't extend the courtesy to tell me directly, and instead had her boss leave the news on my voice mail.

The event spurred discussions with people & colleagues in my inner circle, and I learned it's not unusual nowadays to dismiss people via voice mail or e-mail. I'm not sure if it's due to cowardice, lack of respect, laziness or indifference. But whatever it is, it's symptomatic of cultural malaise.

A week and a half went by when I received a call from one of my printers, telling me the former client had called and asked for downloads of my files. When the printer informed the client that it was illegal to accommodate them, the client emailed me, instructing me to give my permission to the printer to release the files!

As most people in the creative industry are aware, when a freelance designer, photographer, illustrator or other creator of original content, is hired, unless it is specifically stated that the arrangement is for a buyout, copyright ownership is retained by the respective creators. The client is buying the "deliverable"—be it a finished brochure, annual report or other collateral—not the objects themselves.

So, I was let go, and they hired a replacement who was unable to move forward without my files.

A volley of emails ensued. The client insinuated I was trying to strong-arm them for more money because at one point I tried to explain the value of the files and left the door open for her to call me (which she elected not to do). She failed to recognize: If they had been respectful; if they had asked me instead of told me; and if they had not gone behind my back, I would have given them the files to them as a gesture of goodwill.

But lack of professional consideration left me no choice. I let them know their designer needed to proceed on her own. The client then had a "virtual" tantrum, but as far as I was concerned, it was a dead issue.

The next day, out of the blue, I received an email from another person from that office who acted as though everything was rosy, and asked in a friendly way if I was willing to give them the files, or possibly discuss a buyout? She was seemingly unaware of what had transpired between her boss and me, but the ironic thing was, she was the person who originally approached the printer! It was the theatre of the absurd. I explained to her the plan to have their new designer move forward on her own. End of story.

But not quite.

A few days later I received the following handwritten note in the mail:

"Dear Terri,

Thank you for your extraordinary contributions to XXXX with your work on XXXX over the years. You've always impressed us with your creativity and dedication. We are certain it won't be long before another [client] snaps you up! We hope our paths cross again in the future.

Please stay in touch. Thanks again.

[signed] XXXX and the communications team"

The reason for the note is a mystery. After the unethical actions and insulting missives, to suddenly receive such a complimentary note made no sense at all. It was a disingenuous attempt at...what?

When I first learned I'd no longer be working on this project, I felt sad about the loss. Now, realising what a goofed up group of new people are in place, I can only be thankful I'm not sucked into their quagmire.

Since that fateful Friday I've picked up several new clients—all wonderful people who are professional and know what they're doing. So the stars are shining upon me, it seems!


  1. I don't know how many times I have heard graphic designers tell me that a client they no longer have a relationship with wants native files. Their question to me always is, "Should I provide them?" My answer is always a loud NO, unless the askee is moved to agree for reasons of friendship and respect.
    Even asking for files indicates a fundamental ignorance of copyright law, use rights and ethical business practice. Unfortunately the woods are full of oblivious, uneducated dopes like this. It the hallmark of a business culture that has become increasingly peopled by juniors who 1)don't know what the hell they are doing. 2)lack basic respect for the professionalism of those of us who shape their communications or 3)have no real concept of the value of the services we provide.

    There are a couple of things that can be done to reduce your exposure to this common grief: First, take the time to educate your client in writing about your billing practices, basic copyright realities, and policies re ownership of materials, etc. See if you can get them to sign it when you start a new account relationship. Even if they don't read it or sign it, it puts them on notice and is at least something you can cite when they start wanting something that is not theirs.

    The other thing is less tangible. People sometimes ask these kinds of questions because they regard you as some kind of "vendor" or vassal who will jump to please them on demand. You can cure some of that by CHARGING MUCH MORE FOR YOUR WORK. You'll eliminate some of your potential clients, but I guarantee that the others will consider that you have more perceived value and tred a little more carefully around you. It sounds greedy and maybe worse, but it happens to be true. Prove that you are a cooperative "good guy" by making sure that you break your tail to solve their problems with good solutions, not by acting like a desperate amateur who is willing to be a doormat who is less than a full adult business partner. And make sure your attitude is clear to people at every level in the client organization because junior people will become promoted to new levels of authority, but may not necessarily become more educated or smarter about things like trade practices.

    Terri, these are some general observations and having worked with you, I don't see anything that you haven't done exquisitely well and right in your practice. So this is more pointed at others who may be on their way up in the business.

    Dick Paetzke

  2. Dick, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Your response reinforces what I believe to be true and your advice is welcomed. You truly are one of my heroes and mentors.

  3. Anonymous4:27 PM

    Terrific advice, Dick! I see you've been following Terri's blog. Boy, I have been missing some great authentic stories about life in the business world, graphic design and social networking. So glad to be reading and catching up on them. Good thoughts that remains pertinent in the current milieu.

    Thanks for sharing so much with the community, Terri. Blessings, Debby

  4. Dear Debby,

    Thank you for your comment here. I kept my blog private for the first few years because I was afraid to subject myself to the judgement of others. But in real life, we are confronted with judgement every day, so I guess the trick is to always consider the source.

    Dick is a person I have admired for many years. Former creative director of the Seattle offices of McCann Erickson and Evans (now Publicis), worldwide advertising agencies, he has been a wonderful friend and mentor to me.

    He possesses more wisdom and experience than almost anyone I know and I look forward to continuing to learn from him, and if fates allow, to collaborate with him.

    Thank you again for digging into the archives here. These old posts feel rather dusty now, but at the time they were written, I felt quite passionate about them.

    Warm regards,



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i'm a graphic designer who loves words. - terri nakamura