Sometimes I get down on myself and my career path. There are days, no, there are weeks, when I feel uninspired, unmotivated, bummed out, broke…etc, that I seriously question my career path. Was it the right choice? Should I go back to school, and on, and on. This question comes back every so often. The following was taken from the blog of graphic designer, Frank Chimero. He explains this feeling we designers have and it’s perfectly normal. Thank you Frank.
There’s a good story a friend of mine has a hard time telling. A few years ago she was asked to work on the website of a large, public institution, and they approached her to see if she could come up with something that would last the organization 2 to 3 years. The budget was $7,000 dollars. She scoffed at the budget, but saw the opportunity of the project, and managed to negotiate a higher price of $10,000. Fair enough. The work went as planned, the site launched on time to the delight of the client, and everyone was happy. The new site was revealed in correspondence with a fancy, black-tie event, which my friend was dutifully invited to attend as a thanks for her work.
Sitting in the middle of the banquet hall was a giant ice sculpture. Marveling, she walked up to get a closer look. “Amazing, isn’t it?” asked the man next to her. “It’s hard to believe they could spend $15,000 on an ice sculpture just for this little party for us. I wonder what they’ll do with it once it’s almost melted at the end of the night.”
I’m of the belief that most designers go through what I call a quarter-life crisis. It’s the harsh realization that comes after a few years of working in the industry. They realize that there is a discord of experiences. It is the realization of the differences between the utmost value of design that students’ mentors and instructors have proclaimed in school, and the reality of the ambivalence (or, at worst, stark undervaluing) of many clients once they leave university’s heralded doors. It is the confusion and heartache caused by leaving an environment where everyone cares if something is beautiful, useful, and of the highest craft, to a place where you’re the crazy one because you’re the only one who cares about that sort of stuff. It’s moving from one universe where mediocrity is the devil to one where average is, well, common-place.
This may seem hyperbolic. And maybe it is. There are obvious exceptions, and those are the clients or jobs you fight to keep. But, moving from 4 years of being told by more experienced and trusted instructors about how design can save the world into a work climate where you’re sometimes degraded into a subservient set of hands to a client with little to no expertise in the practice is an epic test in tolerance. This is speaking to client work at its worst. Most more experienced designers have developed thick skin, and maybe a healthy dose of jadedness (which is maddening, to an idealist like myself). Young designers are forced to recon with the dissonance of what they were told versus what actually is. And they’re unprepared for it. They get blindsided.
Getting gobsmacked by reality isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s part of maturing as a professional and learning to work with clients. In short, it’s just the reality of the situation. But, I think the situation has gotten worse than it needs to be from a perfect storm. It’s the result of the sudden growth of the design industry, the influx of new students, the paramount confidence of professional designers of the value of their craft, and the paradoxical understanding by many of clients of the necessity of design, but still often completely missing the true value of it. Reality checks aren’t ever going to go away, but the danger comes from having our new practitioners not know this design existential crisis exists. They are not alone. It is a rite of passage.
I will say this as squarely as I know how for the students and young professionals reading this. Within the first year or two of working as a professional designer, you will question if you want to do this any more. You will get beat up and overworked, you will produce a giant pile of work that you are not proud of. You will be lucky if you get out of the first year with a feeling of pride in or ownership of anything you make. You will look back after the first year and not remember most of what kept you busy. You will make work that you question the use of, and you will do things that make you feel like a cog in some sort of awful, wasteful machine. There will be times that you will be just merely a tool for someone else. You will question what all this work is for and you will need to re-convince yourself at some point as to whether or not you love this practice.
And so it is.
This is what growing up feels like. It’s confronting the differences between the over-hyped and over-idealized romanticism of design and the harsh reality of trying to make a living by being creative. And still, sometimes I moan, too. My grandpa fought in a world war and worked in a shipyard for decades. Who the hell do I think I am? There is very rarely dirt under my fingernails. Am I even right for expecting this kind of satisfaction from my profession? Maybe not. I suppose I could blame my generation’s supposed feeling of entitlement that older pundits have told me about.
I think about quitting it all every so often: each 18 months, or so. Giving up design, stopping work for clients, maybe going back to school and studying something that people would understand. Maybe a teacher or something in economics or law or banking. (OK, maybe not banking.) Are we really to the point where we can’t understand what one another do for a living? Are we so want for tangible results of our work?
Design is a soft science, if that. Probably so soft it’s squishy. And the times that I get closest to thinking about quitting are the times that my disenchantment with becoming a tool are met with the realization that most of the work I’m producing doesn’t have much thick value. Not all design work is like that, of course, but not all of us can be a Superman. The times I want to walk away are the moments where I put the large amounts of head- and heartache on the scale with the slim value I feel I’m sometimes providing and realize I usually come out losing. These are the times that going back and learning about financial advising looks good. I can understand that doing that sort of work is always valuable. People need plans. I’m good at that. “Just need to learn the rules,” I tell myself. But then, ultimately, I imagine myself under-stimulated and bored.
Sometimes, even I’m unconvinced of the utility of what I’m doing. And, I’d say that the times that we have to launch our $10,000 websites while sitting in the shadow of a $15,000 ice sculpture are the frustrating moments when we think we’ve been found out for the farces that we really are. It starts with anger. Then, a scary thought creeps in: “What if they’re right?”
What is all this stuff for any way? Is it even worth it? Maybe I should do something with my life and teach kids how to add and read or about evolutionary biology, and let someone else worry about how that button looks on that website. But, I don’t think I could make it in a room full of kids. It’s a tough crowd. But, buttons aren’t very good company either.
I always come back. It’s either because I love this thing, or because it’s the only thing I know how to do, the only thing I’ve ever done. I haven’t decided yet. Maybe this is like any kind of young-love relationship: euphoric highs and cratering lows. Maybe the normalization comes with experience and age, or finding the right kind of cocktail. Maybe it is getting the correct mix that’s just right for you: a bit of client work, a dash of self-indulgent creative activity, a hint of collaboration, a healthy bit of self-loathing, and maybe a tiny bit of off-time. Or maybe all this turmoil just comes from being a fussy, navel-gazing, difficult creative person. Touché.
All I know is that I’m weary once more, and I’ll need some time to convince myself that I love this gig again. And I know I’m not alone in needing this. So far, my tumultuous, revolving-door relationship with design has taught me this: the only way I know how to fall in love again is to shut everything off and spend some time alone with design, trying to re-experience what made me love it in the first place.
Clients, I’ll be back soon. For now, it’s just the two of us. Let’s call it a holiday.
Blog of Frank Chimero. Curiosity, questioning, and answering, done through the lens of design.
“Curiosity, creativity, discovery and wonder; they aren’t traits of youth, they’re traits of learning. If you want to feel younger and you want to replicate the conditions of youth, do that.”
- Bejamin Salka
Benjamin is the CEO of Story Pirates in his CreativeMornings/NewYork talk.