So you want to be a designer

The true rewards aren't what you might expect, it's time for a reality check

In the late 90s, there were two kinds of college commercials in abundance on television specifically targeted at youth lusting for the dream career. The first was careers in video game design and programming. Why put up with working for the man when you can be playing video games for the man, man!

The other was a career in graphic design. It didn’t sound bad at all to be paid to sit around on the computer and come up with cool graphics, work with hip clients and companies and do it all in the quirky environment of a Wah-Wah-Wah-Wacky™ advertising agency.

I can imagine that working hectically in the gaming industry night and day trying to meet extremely optimistic release dates for big game titles is far more involved than those commercials suggested. Graphic design is also similar where career expectations are quickly uprooted by the reality, something I quickly learned when I started and showed me just how little I actually knew or was prepared for.

Not to say that the design field isn’t worthwhile…far from it. Should you be dreaming and aspiring to become a designer, know that the true rewards of working in the field aren’t what you might expect and a bit of a reality check is needed. Let’s define what the actual purpose of a designer is.

Design involves communication…

Many would say the modus operandi of a designer is crafting a pleasing look and feel for a deliverable. While not an incorrect definition, it’s also an oversimplified one. If success lies on simply being more visually interesting than the concept that proceeded it, not only is that result highly subjective but it accomplishes nothing: it fails to address the purpose behind the work to begin with.

As cliched and overused this statement is from marketing firms, it’s absolutely true that the goal of design is to ultimately offer an effective solution to a specific problem. A client wants to increase awareness of their product line to a particular audience. A website’s feel and structure needs to be reworked as visitors aren’t finding the right content that converges into results. A company’s branding and collateral has fallen out of touch and needs to be consolidated. All of these are good examples of what is expected of a designer to address head-on.

The challenge is being seen in a world filled with visual noise and clutter: scream as loudly as you want but it’s difficult to stand out when everyone else is doing the same. Thus, design should not aim to make the loudest statement but rather make a strong emotional impression. (I can’t tell you anything about the last car ad I heard on the radio this week, but I sure remember watching the polar bear Coke commercials over two decades ago. )

In creating this, heed caution that the design work is not so open to interpretation that the target audience receives differing conclusions from what was originally intended. As a designer, your efforts are targeted: you’ll research clients, products, competitors and even culture and trends. There will be constraints on what you can and can’t do, but it’s how you answer this challenge that defines you as a designer.

…and communication involves compromise

One of your hardest challenges in the field may be yourself: there are a lot of quiet, reserved or introverted personalities in the design field and it’s not pleasant to hear that being an effective communicator is skill that must be learned.

Design should be clear and not have to explain itself to the audience…but the client or boardroom playing the role of design committee may be a much harder sell. There are those who are uncomfortable leaving their comfort zone when ideas are thought to be too different or radical, so it’s critical that a designer knows to pitch their ideas in a more engaging way than “Here it is,” emphasizing the importance of “why.”

When an idea is challenged, it’s important to listen to feedback and ultimately know when to compromise. Help others to understand why something may not be effective, but also be open to criticism and understand your solution may not always be the best one, either. Not all of your ideas will be utilized, and often times the right solution may even be one that neither you nor others have necessarily considered.

Decisions are more than what’s on the screen

Everything I’ve described thus far may sound a bit overwhelming, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve only described the first half of the process…your job as a designer is not done after clicking “Save” on the final document.

There may be other vendors and individuals that will be working with your files and every decision you make up to this point will effect the outcome later on. Fail to understand the difference between a plain and rich black and the printer will be held up when unexpected production issues or costs arise. As pixel perfect as your work appears on a fixed width Photoshop document, the web developer may be bringing your comps back to you when that layout just won’t work scaled down for smaller devices.

While in production, weigh every decision made as you create your work in order to ensure that the production process goes smoothly later on.  Spend time educating yourself of the process behind the media you’re working with such as prepress for print work and web coding / styling during development.

I don’t think a designer needs to go as far as learning how to do the jobs of production people, but it’s worthwhile to learn “of” these things: those with knowledge outside their trade will be far more effective at their own job than those who don’t.

It’s a crowded field

If the soft economy in the last decade wasn’t brutal, then the rise of competition is. The design field is highly overcrowded and it’s difficult to break into the competitive ranks.

Most marketing agencies typically have a plethora of designers or a large stack of resumes and job opportunities with them don’t come up often, or there is high competition when they do. Companies may be looking for something very specific…others might not even care and leave it up to silly HR departments and resume robots to screen candidates and be a judge of creative ability.

To succeed, you have to make yourself stand out from the competition and connect with a company and if this sounds similar to what I’ve described of the design field, congratulations: here is your very first marketing challenge. If you’re lacking experience, you need to be realistic and consider accepting a lesser job until your qualifications are more honed.

When you finally score a job for an agency, the battle is not over: the advertising field is volatile and clients and accounts can be lost at any moment. Employers with great foresight and planning know how to anticipate and weather these storms without effecting their staff, but others may consider their creative staff little more than a revolving door of heads to cut and rehire cheaper counterparts at will. To survive, creatives must always be scrutinizing their work scenario and pick up on signs of pending trouble: this kind of intuition only comes with experience.

But it’s all worth it

There will be nights of tearing your hair out, hating your work and questioning your self-worth as you approach critical deadlines. Jobs, clients and companies will come and go. You’ll have your work torn down for either legitimate reasons or political ones. There will be triumphs and there will be failures, for design either works or it doesn’t.

Endure that, and you’ll find success is the best feeling in the world when the client is ecstatic over the final result. But remember that reward is not always in the result but the journey, and creative minds who aspire to create order from chaos and find fulfillment in the entire challenge will find no better field than design to work in.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.