One of the most difficult questions I ever have to answer – one that, if unexpected, sends me into a temporary catatonic state – is a terribly simple one: “What do you do for a living?”
After the initial “uhhhhmmmmm,” I sometimes do my best to give a proper description of what a graphic designer does. But I’ve found myself doing that less lately, for several reasons. (1) The verbal manifesto I’m ready to unleash when summoned is not nearly as captivating to someone foreign to the field. (2) Any answer I give – the type of answer that the questioner is really after, a familiar thing like “I build websites” – grossly understates what I do. (3) My solution to problem 2 is to offer more profound, but overly general or vague statements like “I solve problems for a living.” This answer doesn’t suffice, even though it’s true to the core, because the same can be said about most professions: the goal is to solve a problem. My shoulder shouldn’t be turning this way. Solve this problem please, doctor. My car is making a terrible sound. Solve this problem please, mechanic.
So what should I say? I create posters? Yeesh. That’s terrible. Just like it would be terrible to say a librarian just stacks books, that a builder simply pounds wood together, or that a nurse just pushes buttons and brings cups of ice.
A better approach, maybe, is to take the questioning piece by piece, person by person. “What are the tangible things I create? What are the things I have to think about? How long does a particular task take? What skills are involved?” Rare is the opportunity when you’re able to answer all the questions you’d like, but a reasonable counter question is to ask “Do you want the long version or the short version?” The implication here is that there is much more behind the watered-down answer you’re about to give, and a subtle challenge is laid down: “are you really that invested in learning what I do, or do you want me to tell you what a simple, care-free job this is?”
So what’s your point here?
A high school student sent over some questions for me to answer as an email interview. It allowed me to at least establish the fact that designers don’t just draw pictures all day. But it still wasn’t enough. No philosophical rants, no terribly deep insights, and certainly no sufficient answer to the question “What does a designer do?” It’s never enough. Maybe I should write a book.
Here’s a copy of the interview. This is the real point of this post: simply relaying my answers to a series of common questions about my career path. But I had to place it within the context of this struggle that I find many designers have in describing what they do, in contrast to outside perceptions. These are certainly not THE answers, just the first things that came to my head within the narrow time frame I had to answer the questions. Forgive the dry tone here, and note, this is me answering as Derek the designer, not the instructor or occasionally-able-to-construct-a-humorous-passage writer. An interesting side note here is that sometimes, when you’re forced to do something just to do it (in this case, so the girl got her assignment done), you can’t just turn off your brain: something of value often results.
What are the primary tasks involved in your job? What is a typical work week or work day like?
I can only answer very specifically for what my personal experience has been, as the practice of graphic design manifests itself in so many ways. My background consists primarily of working in a design & advertising studio – working on projects of various types and for many companies, as opposed to working in-house somewhere – so the tasks performed within a day varied wildly. Usually some combination of the following tasks was involved:
- Researching and talking with people who have a business of some sort (clients)
- Sketching, sketching, and then re-sketching things like logos, posters, flyers and web pages
- Writing lists, lots of lists
- Playing pool
- Creating digital versions of things that have been sketched or illustrated in programs like Illustrator
- Coding web pages or websites (writing the code that is transformed into the layouts we’ve created)
- Dorking out on new typefaces or web techniques
- Meeting with individuals or groups, presenting work to them
- Checking and writing emails regarding all of the above
- Talking with other designers about what they’re working on, giving each other advice
- Writing radio commercial scripts
- Looking at old matchbook covers, coke bottle designs, war posters, getting inspired
What do you enjoy most and least about your job?
Graphic design is a field in which the fundamentals remain the same, and one can therefore continuously gain a better grasp of them, but also a field in which the medium is changing daily. A graphic designer must be a lifetime learner, which is exciting, challenging and rewarding. It can also be quite taxing on the mind to never quite have a complete grasp on what it is you’re doing. You must maintain balance in your life (have other hobbies and interests, don’t become a workaholic) or you may quickly find yourself longing for a simple, thoughtless job as a laborer.
Are there any special challenges presented by your job that are specific to what you do?
Probably the biggest challenge is learning to articulate your ideas about what you’re doing to the people for whom you’re doing it. Graphic design is everywhere, and the tools to create graphics are more accessible than ever before, so those not in the field often are unaware of how much work it requires to create successful graphic design. You might create a poster that, in the end, turns out to appear very simple and clean. But the work you did to discover that this was the best solution (and the things you do to make something look really simple) go unnoticed. So a lot of time is spent educating your clients about what it is that you do. In the end, designers are problem solvers and thinkers whose medium happens to be in graphic form, and people don’t want to pay someone for their thoughts if they imagine that designers simply put together colors and shapes on a computer.
What education is required to work in your field?
Truthfully, the education required to work as a graphic designer is to work as a graphic designer. That is something of a Catch 22 in that nobody is going to hire you as a designer if you haven’t designed anything and shown that you are proficient. That is why a formal education in graphic design is very beneficial. I wouldn’t say it is required, but it would take a special type of person and quite a bit of luck to become a successful designer before going broke if you tried to become a designer with no education. Beyond the passion, history and knowledge that is gained in school, potential employers view it as a sign of tenacity and dedication that you have completed a degree. It is also more difficult to make the connections you need to make without going to school for design.
What special skills are required or desirable in your field?
As with most jobs, you will likely be more successful if you are more educated, not just in your own field but as a well-rounded person. You must be patient, tenacious, and a good problem solver. Skills in drawing and other medium are useful as well; after all, it will be hard to develop an idea whose eventual usage will be graphic if you can’t get it from your mind to a piece of paper.
Do you interact with other employees? What is the level of interaction with others in the field? Are there times that are more busy than others?
Interaction with staff is crucial, since as designers your focus should always be what impact your work will have on others. Successful designers or design studios are constantly interacting with one another. There are certainly busy times, though the particulars are different based upon who your primary clientele are. For example, the summer always seems a bit slow to me, but one client I worked with in studio dished out most of their work in the summer time, since they were a water park.
What changes have you seen in the industry in recent years? What is the job market like?
The public in general is more aware of design and more desirous of it, but the challenge remains to educate the public about what goes into creating successful design work, as most of the work is done behind the scenes. The industry is becoming more saturated with designers, as far as I can tell, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are more innovative, amazing designers out there. The internet and its ability to spread trends and information virally have made it so that there is a lot of “pretty” work out there, but a lot of it looks pretty much the same. The one-person shop (designer, web developer, doer of everything else) is much more common now, and even if you work in a studio, employers want designers to know a little about everything.
Does your job impact your life? In what way(s)?
Being a designer will make you a more thoughtful and analytical person in general, as the primary task of a designer is to solve problems visually. You will also become hyper-aware of poorly set type, and may find yourself quizzing your friends or spouse about the typefaces around you as you eat lunch. You will meet a lot of really interesting people. In my first couple months as a designer, for example, I met one of my childhood heroes, Troy Aikman, and watched a series of commercials with him as they were filmed. I also sat in the trailer of and talked with the host of Extreme Makeover, and watched as a house was leveled and rebuilt in a week. (Yeah, they really do it that quickly.)
Would you change anything about the career path you’ve taken?
I would not change anything that I’ve done. I’ve made some poor decisions, but I believe it has given me the perspective that I have and allows me to give proper advice to others.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to enter the field you are a part of?
Read. Seriously, read as much as you can – fiction, history, news. Yes, look at design blogs and magazines, but don’t just admire the things that look good. Read the story behind the work when you can. As a designer, you’ll be tasked with solving problems. The way that you solve these problems – the things that establish your style and identity – comes from what you put into your brain. The concept of “Aha!” moments is highly overrated and maybe even nonsense. As a designer, the richness of your knowledge, the quirky ideas you formulate about the world around you, and your ability to connect with people of all backgrounds is what will separate you from others with equivalent skills. These are the things that make life as a designer an exciting one, and they just happen to be the things that make a good designer into a great, passionate one.
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