What I’ve learned about Design Jobs & Settling

I’ve noticed a hesitancy within the design community to talk about the actual career path for design, and the current struggles designers face. I think it’s important that young designers think beyond the type of work they want to create and have a vision for the type of career they want to have. It’s also time for the industry to step up and provide those careers to the talent that keeps it alive.

Culturally, design is more valued now than perhaps at any other time in history. Companies from every industry are seeing the value in design and are desperately hunting for the best talent. So why is it that I see so many quality designers aimlessly working for low wages? I hear you all gasping. “We are creatives! We don’t do this for the money, we do it because we love it!” Stop it. Design is your career, not your hobby, and you need to step back and think about a few factors when it’s time for you to make your next career move.

What’s the problem here?

Graphic Design is listed on every “top 10 majors not to pursue” list on the internet, and it’s not because design isn’t important, it’s because we have let agencies and firms turn a career path into a meat factory. It’s easy to get swept away by branding studios that have gorgeous work or prestigious clients. We all have dreamed about doing packaging for some hippy organic foodstuff or doing a total rebrand for a restaurant. From the menus to the signage to the particular state the reclaimed barn wood comes from, we want total control over a project — the ability to work in tactile arenas, and to have physical objects we can point to to show the spoils of our labor. Work that will photograph splendidly and appear on zillions of Pinterest boards.

This should make you want to vomit. This is not the pay progression you would expect of a profession that often requires a degree and expensive equipment and software. Data and chart courtesy of payscale.com Source: http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Graphic_Designer/Salary

The problem is a lot of studios who specialize in this kind of work are doing it by taking advantage of their designers. Boutique design firms often hire students out of school in the 30–40k a year range. You would assume there’s a pay bump after that inital entrance into the industry but there rarely is, and the chart above demonstrates. In addition to the poor pay, many firms expect their employees to work 50 hour weeks and give little in the way of benefits or retirement plans. Places like this often have to keep 20–30 projects running at a time just to pay you that meager salary. That’s not the way a business should work. If they have that many clients and a handful of in-house designers who are being paid pennies, then they’re pocketing too much for themselves or grossly undercharging for the firm’s work. How is this not undervaluing design? I’m consistently horrified to learn what designers are paid today; people I respect and who do amazing work across multiple mediums. Why is it so often designers who mistreat those in their own profession?

I hope we dispell this idea that talking about designer salaries is somehow tacky or improper. As designers we’re surrounded by a culture that says “selling out” is the worst thing you can do, and that if you want more than the minimum required to live you’re somehow a bad person, or you don’t really do it for the love of design, or some other horse crap. Making a fair wage isn’t selling out. The people who spew that stuff are the people who want to suck you dry while paying you nothing in return and it’s why things have stagnated for so long. This is about being responsible with your talents from both a career and a creative perspective. You have a talent and have spent years cultivating it and you deserve to be paid as such.

Is this your career, or is it your hobby?

Did you spend 4 years in school learning how to make pretty things all day for the fun of it, or did you do it because you wanted to have a career? I have known dozens of talented designers who leave school, take a job and tread water for two years, and when they realize it’s a dead-end job, they have nowhere to go. They can’t show their work from the job, or they want to transition from print to interactive to make a better living, and they can’t. They didn’t use the opportunities they had in school to learn it, and now that they are in the wild they don’t have the means or the time.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you need to have all your creative fun and sustain yourself with the same keyboard stroke. Your career is for growing your skill sets, your person, making connections, overcoming weaknesses and for setting up the rest of your life. Your hobby is for creative fulfillment, exploration, and fun. You can’t always have both at the same place all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Your day job isn’t everything

No job, no matter how perfect it seems, is going to completely satisfy you creatively. You’re never going to have as much control, freedom, or budget as you want. But the great thing about being a designer is that design can be your career and design can be your hobby. You have the ability to go out and make whatever you want on your own time, whether it’s for yourself or for your own clients. When I graduated I made the decision to try to pick jobs that focused on web design, which would allow me to grow and stay current in that field, while giving me a better and more stable living. It also meant I wasn’t giving the passions I had for print work away to someone else. I chose jobs that enabled me to give my all to them while still saving creative energy for myself and the things I wanted to pursue and have control over. The end result has been I’ve been able to diversify my work across multiple mediums and I am never, ever bored. Working across mediums engages different parts of your creative self, and something you discover on a branding project could spur an innovation in that app you’re working on.

If you choose poorly in your job search they are going to wring every idea you have out of you and they might not even let you claim it as your work when you leave (hence the prolificness of “secret portfolios”). Jobs are supposed to give and take. They give you opportunities to grow from working with others, learn new skills, meet fantastic people and earn a living, and in return you give a piece of your creative self and offer your skills in service to them. The key is finding jobs that give you more than they take. Don’t feel like your day job has to be creating all the things you love creating all the time. No one gets to do only the things they love to do at their job! Find a job that’s going to force you to grow and learn and better yourself without costing you your soul.

Getting your foot in the door is only the first step

A good job is not just the job that’s good for the next 12 months. A good job is one that’s going to allow you to expand your experiences and knowledge beyond what you’re doing now. You’re not just a hired gun, you’re an adorable little bundle of potential and any employer that doesn’t give you a way to progress professionally is wasting you, which is practically sinful. You should have the chance to art direct, to manage junior designers, to meet clients, to start company initiatives. Always, always ask a potential employer about the growth opportunities for designers within their company. If there are people who have been there for 5 years and are still doing the exact same job, that’s a red flag. This goes beyond title increases; it’s about responsibilities and giving yourself the chance to do new things. So much of developing as a designer is growing your soft skills: how you handle adversity, how you speak to a group, how you read people. If your face is stuck to your screen all day you’re missing out on these growth opportunities.

Last year I had the chance to interview at a place I’d only ever dreamed of working. In the middle of the second phone interview I realized if I hadn’t been in an environment like IBM for the past year, I never would have been able to handle myself properly. I would have been too slow on my feet, too shy, too nervous. I would have had things to say but no voice to say them with. There were things about working in-house at a massive corporation that were hard and scary for me, but they taught me invaluable lessons and forced me out of my shell. I’m never going to stop being an introvert, but at least now I’m an introvert who doesn’t feel like hiding under a table after a big presentation. Every job is a series of opportunities. When a job stops providing you with new opportunities, it’s time to move on. You cannot afford to be professionally or creatively stagnant.

Don’t be afraid to leave your home

I could list out dozens of extremely talented students from my alma mater who have taken their first jobs at advertising firms in their home state and were never heard from again. It’s a particular scourge in the South East, which as a whole is really limited in terms of the number of good design jobs available. There aren’t as many big clients or big cities there, and culturally design isn’t seen as as much of a priority. Regardless of where you are from: You’re young, you’re relatively unencumbered, and if you’re going to take a chance on a job, now is the time to do it. If you don’t take a risk now you might not be able to do it 5 years down the line when you’re married and have kids, 2 dogs and a cat. Moving for a job isn’t moving for forever. Explore different places, different opportunities, and if at the end of it you want to return to your roots you’ll come back a much better designer.

Make sure it’s a place where you’re valued

This isn’t a given at design agencies! Firms love to tell graduating designers how remarkably talented they are. How they can see them fitting right into their group, making the awesome things they make. But you have to be smart enough to look beyond the flattery and the opportunity to work with big names and be objective about the job decisions you make. Words are easy, push beyond that and look for the objective factors that are in play for any job.

Designers are not decorators. Make sure you get a job at a place where designers are decision makers. The last thing you want to do all day is make bad ideas pretty. “Polishing a turd,” as my father would say. As a young designer, you might not be able to be making those decisions yourself right off the bat, but try to find a place with leadership you respect who is going to fight for the designers working there. The best jobs I’ve had are the ones where the creative leadership fought to get designers the control and assets they needed to be successful.

If your job won’t allow you to show work you’ve done for them, particularly early in your career, you’re going to leave that job a few years down the line with nothing but student work to show, and it’s going to cripple you. It’s crucial that you not only work for a place that allows you to display the project you worked on in your portfolio, but that you’re going to be making work that you’re proud of. Don’t work at a place that won’t allow you to freelance, either. The connections you make from freelance opportunities can last you a lifetime and are more valuable than whatever that studio is offering you. “Oh, so you’re telling me you work long weeks, I can’t do freelance and you pay enough to barely get me over the poverty line? But there’s beer in the fridge?! Sign me up!”

Ask lots of questions. Try to reach out to some of the other employees, and do it through email or LinkedIn, not in the office, where they are very unlikely to speak out against the company. Ask them out for coffee sometime if you can, then you’ll get a more realistic picture of the office environment. Don’t take the risk of being surprised by anything. When you ask questions the employer knows you’re taking the opportunity seriously, they’ll appreciate it.

The little things matter

The people you are working with make such a huge difference in how you perceive your job. A steady job that pays well and fulfills you creatively can become total misery if you don’t have harmony with your coworkers. Research the people you’ll be working with and interact with them when you visit. This is one of the hardest things to test for when you’re looking at jobs but it can end up being one of the most important. Remember, there are people there who aren’t designers as well. Some of the best working relationships I’ve had have been with developers and project managers. There’s more to every agency than just designers. Designers can be assholes.

Know yourself

Know your process and what you need to be successful. As a designer, I need something concrete in front of me. I need copy, I need images, I need restrictions, I need to figure out a roadmap. This limits the kind of work that I can enjoy doing for long stretches of time. I’ve managed to luck my way into some good logo and poster designs, but those mediums don’t fit well within my talents and limitations as a designer because of the relative lack of materials available. It doesn’t matter how much I love the idea of doing branding work, at a certain point I have to look at my abilities and tailor what I do around that, so I’m not only enjoying myself, but giving the best result to my client. My process is very well suited for editorial or website work; where the content is set and I have clear definitions and restrictions for what I’m working on. If I were to go to a place that handed me a blank piece of paper and told me to make something cool out of it, I’d be a wreck. I want to know what message I’m communicating before I start.

You have to know what situations, mediums and timeframes work for you and find jobs that align with that. I tend to take a sniper vs a shotgun approach to design; I start with one idea and let it evolve as I work on it, rather than trying to come up with a lot of options to meet an arbitrary number. Because of this, I can work extremely quickly, but I’ve worked at jobs who actually saw that as a bad thing, like I wasn’t exploring enough, or that insisted on multiple options even if what I had was strong work. There are going to be different philosophies on this at every job you look at. Try to learn them and find what matches with your skills.

In closing

If you run an agency and you’re reading this, for God’s sake, pay your people. Give them a path to grow in experience and skill-sets. I say all of this because I want to see our industry grow and mature. For the designers out there: you can make whatever design you want to make while still taking care of yourself. Don’t settle. I can’t make your favorite firms pay you better but I can tell you there are great design jobs out there if you’ll just look for them. Put the onus on businesses to have to step-up and pay for the talent they think they deserve. I hope the recent smattering of agencies shutting their doors leads to a maturation of the industry. If design is a commodity, then we are in the drivers seat. Every time one of us takes an underpaying job with no future prospects we enable another business to do it to someone else. Let’s not let an opportunity to make things better for future designers pass.