Something I’ve noticed while talking to design students is a romanticizing of the industry. When first learning design, there’s this notion that when we become designers we’ll do only beautiful, world-changing work. Then, we enter the industry and learn things aren’t exactly as we expected.
It’s understandable that young designers think this way. In school, almost everything is theoretical. We are given carefully selected assignments. We are shown the best of the best work. We learn the ideal processes and tools and scenarios. Everything exists within our university bubble, showing us the way things should or could be for a designer. We have no context aside from the small window that’s been opened for us. Plus, it’s natural to romanticize any industry before we experience it for ourselves. It’s what motivates us to pursue it in the first place.
When visiting design classes and asking what students want to do with their design career, I hear a lot of the same sentiments:
“I don’t want to do boring work that doesn’t excite me.”
“I only want to do X kind of work.”
When I talk with these designers in their first or second job, they already seem disenchanted and discouraged: The work is boring. They’re not being taught or challenged enough. The projects or clients don’t align with their passions. The culture doesn’t excite them. One year in and they’ve realized their dream job isn’t all it was cracked up to be. They’re working on some social ad for a no-name client with a small budget and zero assets and searching for a new job in a separate browser window.
Idealism can be beneficial. It can make us more ambitious and confident, convinced opportunity lies around the corner. But it can also be crushing when we realize not everything is as romantic as we imagined it to be. When I first pursued design as a career, I was ready to take on the world and do big, exciting projects for clients I believe in. I soon discovered that half of the time or more, I would not be doing this kind of work. In between all those award-winning, history-making campaigns we celebrate and read about in our textbooks is the work that pays the bills. The less sexy, maybe less award-worthy but nevertheless important work.
When we were young, we were taught the world was fair. As it turns out, it’s anything but. The truth is that it’s not our company’s job to give us non-boring work. It’s our job to make the work not boring.
It’s not just our company’s job to teach or lead us. It’s our job to ask questions and find answers.
It’s not our boss’s job to challenge us. It’s our job to seek challenging work that helps us grow, whether that’s at our day job or with a side gig.
After working for more than a decade as a designer, I can promise you this: There may never be a point when you’re consistently doing only creatively fulfilling, exciting work that perfectly aligns with your passions and values. For every one perfect project, there are 10 projects you’re doing just keep the lights on. Not only is that work a reality you will learn to accept, but it’s an opportunity. Any project, no matter how small, can change your life. It’s better to realize this early and take advantage of it.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Thomas Edison
I talked to designer Brian Collins about this in an NTMY podcast episode awhile ago. He spoke of a small, seemingly boring project he was assigned as a young designer that he turned into a career-changing opportunity.
“You’re given these assignments that on the face of them look like hell, [but] you can turn them into something incredible,” he said. “I believe in almost every assignment, there’s something in it… you can make it bigger, make it more interesting, more connected and turn it into something that can be certainly more fun to work on, and in some cases, profound.”
Even then, you may still get work that’s exactly what it seems on its face: Get-the job-done, do-what-you’re-asked, no-room-for-personal-creativity kind of projects. That’s fine. That’s having a job. Even those projects are helping you grow, whether you’re learning how to be faster and more efficient, or you’re making someone else’ job easier, or you’re getting a campaign out the door.
In everything, I strive to be useful. This attitude turns sludge work into an act of service. It helps me look for the positives instead of the negatives. It makes me a better teammate. It helps me offer solutions rather than placing blame. It keeps me moving forward. It’s up to us to make our job what we want it to be. It’s also up to us to be realistic, and remember work is work. Unless you’re working for yourself, it’s very unlikely you will always do exactly what you want to be doing. Actually, you probably won’t even if you are working for yourself.
Changing these unrealistic expectations is also up to those who came before you. Senior designers and publications do young designers a disservice by only sharing the success stories and the finished products. Perhaps, if we shared more of the ups and downs and the hard work behind the scenes, we’d paint a more realistic picture of a design career to young designers.
Brian Collins agrees.
“We work really hard and all we see are these huge success stories about [how] somebody opened their design firm and now they work all over the world, and now they did these projects and they have these incredible deals with brands around the world,” says Collins. “This desire to make it look seamless is, I think, bloodless. First, it doesn’t speak to how hard those people actually worked. And two, it doesn’t account for luck. Right place at the right time.”
It seems in the design industry, especially given our social-influencer, Instagram-famous world, we can easily be distracted in our career. We seek fame vs. mastery. We mix up our priorities and get the wrong idea about what it means to have a fulfilling, successful career. Like many professions, being a designer requires hard work, talent and timing. Yet unlike some professions, we are privileged to do the kind of work we do as designers. The most unpleasant projects still ultimately amount to us sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a computer screen using our minds to create an image.
There are moments when being a designer does feel as romantic as I imagined it would be. I wouldn’t still be doing it if I didn’t love it, if there weren’t nights I stayed up designing just because I wanted to. If it wasn’t a rush to solve a problem with the perfect visual. Our job can indeed be a dream job, whether we’re working in an agency, as a freelancer, on a product or for a company. Our dream job is also a job, like any other.