The Designer & Company Disconnect

Most companies I talk to are desperately looking to hire good designers. Most designers I talk to are desperately looking for work. Somewhere, there’s a breakdown happening.

This article first appeared on DESK Magazine.

Recently, I read that 82% of executives of Fortune 500 companies believe they don’t recruit highly talented people. At the same time, 73% of workers are disengaged and thinking of getting another job.

I have a few theories about why this is happening, at least as it relates to the creative industry.

Too-high expectations from companies

These days, companies want the “unicorn designer” with design skills, coding skills, video skills, photography skills, etc. The reality is that many designers are highly skilled in one area and “proficient” in the rest. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it all. It’s becoming easier and more natural to grow these secondary skills. But it’s likely they don’t do everything as well as their main skill.

In the end, while they try to fill every role as an all-star designer and acquire new skills, they have fewer opportunities to shine in what they do best.

“Great talent is scarce”

I may be guilty of having unrealistic expectations myself. Or maybe our expectations as a company are fair, but as a McKinsey&Company study suggests, we’re at a shortage of highly talented people.

When hiring a designer, I look for a balance of hard skills + taste + strategic thinking. Most designers check one or two requirements but lack the third. The designer may have the hard skills to take a project from start to finish, but lack strategic and holistic thinking — meaning they’re only good at what they do when they’re told exactly what to do. Other designers may be able to think strategically but aren’t able to execute on it, making them worthless for a company that needs a hands-on team.

Perhaps we are indeed holding designers to an unrealistic standard, asking one person to fulfill many requirements. Or maybe those designers exist, there just aren’t many of them out there. And the ones that do exist are part of the 27% who are happily employed.

“Do what you love” mentality

These days, we are led to believe the perfect job exists. You know, the one where we love our work so much we “don’t work a day in our life.” The one that makes us spring out of bed each morning, throw open the windows and sing like a character in a musical.

I’m all for doing work that fulfills me, but I think we as employees have the wrong understanding of what this means. I also see companies making promises to fulfill these expectations when they’re trying to recruit a designer. So when it turns out that the job we dreamed about doesn’t constantly excite us at every turn, we lose motivation and feel “disengaged.”

I love my job and there are some days I feel ecstatic about it, but those days are few and far between. Other days, I’m just doing the work. And yes, it feels like work. Work that fulfills me, but work nonetheless.

If the “do what you love” doctrine is taken to an extreme, we’re all losing. We may start to dread our perfectly fine job and believe the grass is always greener on the other side. It’s a matter of expectations, once again.

Too much process, too little bravery

Some companies are so bogged down with process, the room for creativity is slim. Thus, designers don’t have the opportunity to flex their creative strength and companies don’t see the best possible work. The result is disappointed companies and stifled, bitter employees.

Process used to be a tool we used to get better at creative work. To make the work we’re meant to do more efficient. Process is a means to an end. But at some point, process became something companies not only treated as a religion, but also an asset they could sell to clients. Process became the end-goal itself and unsurprisingly, leads to frustration.

Companies don’t know what they need or want

Example: Most companies now think they need a UX designer, but some barely understand what a UX designer does. Meanwhile, most designers are calling themselves UX designers now because it’s what gets them the job. So a company hires what seems right, the designer applies for what seems right, and both are clueless about what is actually needed.

In some cases, a recruiter may be copy & pasting job descriptions without understanding what they are asking for or how that position fits into their company. All scenarios result in unhappy companies and unhappy designers.

Designers have skills, but lack professional capabilities

In our How to Get a Job at X series, the most-wanted secondary skill (skill besides design) BY FAR is communication. It’s possible designers are talented, they’re just not communicating their designs and themselves well. A designer could do the best work but if they aren’t able to present it well or sell it to stakeholders (the team, clients, etc.), their work becomes useless.

This means a company may hire an outstanding designer purely judging from their portfolio, only to discover that nothing gets done.

As I mentioned, these are all just theories. The problem may be deeper or more complex than this, or a combination of these issues. In any case, I still see these problems to be true within our industry. Fixing them requires better education on every side, a leveling of our expectations and a simple effort to do better.


Thank you for reading!

Want to learn more about me? I’m Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify.