Putting sticky notes on a wall doesn’t make you a designer.
Have you ever seen those photos of a wall covered in sticky notes and an impeccably dressed fashion-model-turned-designer standing nearby, looking thoughtful?
That’s not design.
Our industry paints a very specific picture of the exciting, creative lifestyle of a designer. But being a digital nomad and having authentic handmade designer sundries all over your desk have nothing to do with design.
We are sold on this image of being a designer: a glamorous lifestyle and the freedom to follow our creative spirit and get paid for it. We spend our days putting notes on walls and thinking. People sit on the edges of their seats just waiting to see what we will come up with. We use the Design Process (capitalized) to solve every problem like magicians. People respect us because of our great ideas. We imagine a world where every sticky note we slap on that wall is full of insight and every client will “Oooh” and “Aaah” at our genius and then shower us with cash and even more exciting creative opportunities.
But that is a dream. The daily work of most designers is nothing like that. Practicing design is not so glamorous as you might imagine.
And, maybe you have felt frustrated when you haven’t been able to accomplish that dream.
The reality is that we designers are rarely the people who have ideas but instead are usually the people who bring ideas to life. Designers spend more time getting our hands dirty translating other peoples’ ideas into a different format — sketching, moving pixels, and coding — than we do thinking up new ideas.
There’s another thing no one tells you: before we even get the chance to design, we have to sell it. Worse, selling design is difficult because few people other than designers understand what we do or what design should cost.
Selling design is further complicated by many popular design strategies, like UX research and Designing Thinking exercises. These can sound awfully expensive and academic to a small business or a client who doesn’t read design blogs (which, let’s be honest, includes the majority).
Not every client is a fortune 500 company with money to burn on a complex UX strategy. And not every client wants to pay you to sit in a room full of Eames chairs and follow your creative spirit.
Clients pay designers because they want an outcome, not a research summary document.
And, to be a practicing designer, you have to get your hands dirty and make a product that delivers an outcome — something people can understand and appreciate without having attended a design thinking workshop by a famous design studio. In many cases, that is a visual design.
Being a successful designer doesn’t look like the dream you see in those photos of swanky design studios where every desk is beautifully decorated and every designer is perfectly groomed and styled and lives in a constant near-nirvana state of inspiration, a walking muse, a creative god turned humble designer walking among us.
Instead, successful designers work hard, are often totally stressed out, and maybe sometimes forget to shower, just like other normal people.
We break our backs to cover every single concern, and we do the boring, tedious, and dry work so that we earn the chance to do the exciting design work too.
And I know this is sad, but some people are selling you on a dream many of us will never realize.
Chances are, you will never become a Sagmeister or another design celebrity who walks the earth pursuing art and having others worship you for it. Few of us are so lucky.
Instead, you will likely find your satisfaction in the achievement of doing work that, while mundane and often unglamorous, does actually matter in that people use it and experience a difference in their lives even if they don’t always know why. You will become fulfilled by solving problems no one else could. You will feel valued when you see others benefiting from your work.
Design isn’t a lifestyle, hobby, or passion. It’s not about being a tastemaker or trendsetter.
Putting sticky notes on a wall and trying to have great ideas don’t make you a designer.
Design is a profession.
If you want to make awesome design, you need to stop buying into the silly lifestyle you see painted across our industry, and instead, just get to work.