Use The Hairy Arm Technique To Deal With Overly Critical Bosses

Use The Hairy Arm Technique To Deal With Overly Critical Bosses

Sometimes, bosses and clients only exist to find something wrong and correct it. If you’re dealing with a particularly critical person, writer Oliver Burkeman suggests adding in an intentional flaw to distract them.

Photo by Rich Moore.

The idea is that when the client looks over your work, they will find the obvious mistake and leave the rest of the work alone feeling satisfied with having made some kind of input. The name comes from one graphic designer who would leave a glimpse of his own hairy arm at the edge of an ad he presented to a client:

An American business consultant, Lawrence San, tells the following story about a colleague he calls Joe, who worked as a graphic designer in the days before computers. One of Joe’s clients was forever ruining projects by insisting on stupid changes. Then something odd started happening: each time the client was presented with a newly photographed layout, he’d encounter the image of Joe’s own arm at one edge of the frame, partly obscuring the ad. “The guy would look at it,” Joe recalled, “and he’d say, ‘What the hell is that hairy arm doing in there?'” Joe would apologise for the slip-up. And then, “as he was stalking self-righteously away”, Joe said, “I’d call after him: ‘When I remove the arm, can we go into production?’ And he’d call over his shoulder, ‘Yes, but get that arm out of there first!’ Then I’d hear him muttering, ‘These people! You’ve got to watch them like a hawk.'”

That arm, of course, was no error: it was introduced so the client could object, and feel he was making his mark — and justifying his salary — while leaving the ad untouched.

Of course, this technique only works on bosses who are notorious for finding flaws where there are none. If you’re dealing with a reasonable client, distracting them with obvious problems can potentially set both yourself and them up for failure if they don’t catch real issues. Use the technique carefully and sparingly.

The theory of the hairy arm: the tactical benefits of making deliberate mistakes [Oliver Burkeman]


  • I’m a graphic designer and I’ve always known this as the “Yacht Theory”. I was told about it about 15 years ago by a colleague who had worked with David Ogilvy in the 1060’s. He told me a story about having to present some ideas to a particularly challenging client. They’d been struggling go get approval because he continuously asked for changes. One day Ogilvy walked in and told the designers to put a picture of a yacht into the layout. Apparently the yacht was a glaringly inappropriate addition, and therefore the only thing the client focused on. The removal of it was the only change he made before giving the design his approval.

    To this day I’ve used that principle to get concepts passed. Everybody, not jut the difficult clients, want to have some level of creative input into the design. But I don’t allow it in copy. Making mistakes in copy just makes you look like an illiterate clown.

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