What People Don't Get About My Job: The Graphic Designer

"The vast majority of designers make ugly things for incompetent people."

Thanks to Mad Men and the countless ads on TV for schools that "allow you to express your creativity to its fullest potential", the thought is that every design job is a sexy glamorous job. Once you're through with school, you'll land a job at Leo Burnett, BBDO, Nike, Apple, or another company that has a pool table, sexy promiscuous secretaries, very entertaining socio-political drama, or something your parents and friends would recognize on the shelf.

The reality of it is the vast majority of designers will work to make ugly things for strategically incompetent people only to have more people still think very little of you. The GAP logo for instance, was more than likely the victim of a long line of vice presidents, product managers, communication directors, marketing chiefs, and other people with business degrees who think themselves experts in design solely because they work for a company that is reputed to care about design. Even designers across the world joined the flogging though they, by personal experience, know how little it takes from a VP to completely destroy the integrity of a project.

Dustin Curtis, a designer who openly criticized the site design of American Airlines on his blog, received a response from a designer at AA that was thoughtful and intelligently outlined the bureaucracy and red tape at a corporation that prevents good design. You could say this designer reached out to provide good customer service and was promptly fired by AA.

There is also the myth that by sheer virtue of your talent, you will receive adulation and recognition. That is the most accurate theme in Mad Men that can translate to today: we are an industry of networking and meritocracy. Who do you know? What clients have you worked for you? If you went to a fantastic school like SVA, Parsons, SCAD, SAIC, ACD, or another acronym that none of your friends or family will recognize, it won't matter till your portfolio can reflect where you want to work. You are an ant in a colony with many queens.

Most clients are small, so your work will likely go unnoticed. Nobody who looks at a can of Coke thinks a big agency hired a small firm who in turn assigned an underpaid designer to typeset the word "classic" on the can. The credit goes to one hotshot designer that billions of people cannot and should not be able to name. I say they shouldn't because the biggest myth about design is about recognition.

Design isn't a job, a career, or a calling. It's a total lifestyle. We dominate decision making that is about cultural construction and make-up: music, food, bikes, clothing. You can't walk down the street and safely guess who's a doctor or lawyer, but you can guess who has an interest in graphic design.

It's not simply pushing a button and clicking a few functions in Photoshop. It's a complicated industry with its own ecology made up of incredibly hard work individuals that is routinely undermined by its own customers.

I love what I do. I wouldn't change much about what I do. Some people can't go vegetarian, I can't stop thinking or practicing design.

PS. Everybody who has thought about hiring a graphic designer should read this blog and try to let who they hired as an expert do their job the best way they can.

We're asking readers to tell us what the public doesn't understand or appreciate about their jobs. Learn more about the project here.


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