Unsolicited Advice: What's it take to be a designer?

Colin asked: I was wondering if you might be able to give me some advice on writing my resume. It’s been a few years since I’ve had to think about it but I need to produce a new one and I don’t have the faintest idea of how to begin. I know it’s not an easy question but any thoughts would be very very greatly appreciated!

This post was originally published May 15, 2012

Not a tacky question! I am going to answer with a bunch of thoughts based on my own experiences and those of my friends, but there are a lot of designer friends who follow this blog so maybe they’ll chime in too.

When I was in school a lot of people in my classes said shit like “I like art but wanted to be able to get a job.” That is crap. Not all artists are graphic designers. Many are definitely not graphic designers. I “know of” plenty of photographers who are like “oh I have photoshop! i can be a designer” and then they cover their beautiful photos with ugly watermark “logos” that they make for themselves. Illustrators who do amazing pieces and then screw them up with bad type. Graphic designers are not artists. Design is organization. Designers arrange content in meaningful ways to effectively communicate a message. A lot of those artists from school who wanted to be designers were really not very good. Decide if you are an artist or a designer. If you’re both, make sure you understand the difference. I think I am a pretty decent designer sometimes but I am only an adequate photographer, and I can’t draw for shit. I also make a lot of little things and post a lot of bits & pieces that I wouldn’t necessarily refer to as “my design work.”

Design jobs aren’t necessarily easy to come by. In a lot of ways, “designers” are as ubiquitous as “DJs” and “waiters.” People think they can just moonlight as designers, and in a lot of cases I think they really can get away with it. There never seems to be a shortage of designers and you just have to hope that you’re good enough to stand out. What do you have to offer beyond your knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite? Do you have typographer leanings? Are you obsessed with printmaking? Can you bind books in ten different ways? Master of the pen tool and vector illustration? Coding genius? Make sure you have some tricks up your sleeve.

As the print industry changes and, you know, everything moves online, more and more people want a true double threat. If you’re starting out, now is the time to take coding classes. It might suck, but you’ll be glad you did it later. Learn as much as you can. Not just the basics. Take a PHP course. Pick up as much as you can because that’s going to really help in the long run. I am not the best at coding but I’m not the worst, and that’s how I primarily make my living. Sure, you can get a job just doing mockups and pass the coding along, but if you can work on a project from sketches to live sites, you’re golden. It’s also really great to be able to do things for yourself. Portfolio site? No problem! Lots of designers and artists have great work that gets lost in crappy portfolio sites (mine is a maze of shit right now but at least I know it). You can spend a lot of money paying for a portfolio hosting service and a webstore and whatever else, or you can buy some server space and do it all yourself.

You have to really like this. I have a lot of friends who got “real” jobs after graduation. They’re in-house designers, they work with the marketing team, they work for local magazines or companies. I am thinking of specific people when I say that I have friends who tell me now that they hate design. They have steady jobs with benefits but they don’t even want to look at photoshop when they get home. They don’t do personal work. It’s just a job. I don’t think that’s necessarily the worst thing… after all, most people have a job, do it, then go home. That’s how life is. But designers also end up working tons of overtime, have crazy deadlines, and you know, it’s not necessarily an extremely high-paying industry. This isn’t mechanical engineering. You are not a surgeon. If you don’t love this stuff you are going to hate your life pretty soon.

Freelancing. Ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh freelancing can be great or it can be horrible. I am the wrong person to talk to about this. I am still in my “CAN’T BE TAMED” phase and am actually freelancing right now, going on six months with one company. I’ve been offered salary a few times and I keep turning it down because I like the flexibility, but in reality, I know that I’m pretty safe so it’s easy to say that. Other times you can really get fucked and end up with no job. It’s scary. Taxes are a mess and I won’t even pretend to know how my accountant does everything. Freelancing for random people is a whole ordeal too. I infrequently take on individual projects and really should have a contract written up but I don’t, which is dangerous and stupid. It’s also hard to be your own boss when you’d rather nap and there’s a new episode of SNL on Hulu. There are probably lots of resources on this elsewhere online, but freelancing in the industry is a real big deal and it’s important to know about this stuff. I think a lot of design programs encourage taking a business course as well. I wish my program had prepared us better and if you are just starting out, do yourself the favor. Learn how to sell yourself and learn how to cover your ass when it comes to taxes, contracts, and tricky clients.

You really really need to take time to create for yourself. I talked about people hating their life at jobs they don’t love, but there are also plenty of my design class friends who don’t currently make a living doing design work, and they also never make anything for themselves. You don’t have to sell prints or do freelance, but you need to create SOMETHING, SOMETIME, or you will lose it. You can have a blog and you can put some shit up. It doesn’t have to be serious and it’s not a portfolio, but in the same way that illustrators have sketchbooks, you can have your little bits and pieces. I think the best way to not hate your life as a designer is to just keep making things. You might be a designer full-time, but work on extremely boring and unfulfilling projects, because you know what, nobody is going to pay you to do a cool type treatment of a quote from Parks & Recreation. But at 11pm on tumblr, that shit is pure gold.

Keep current. I am shitty at keeping up with design blogs. I know I’m supposed to be obsessed with SwissMiss and stuff but I sort of fell off of the Google Reader bandwagon and it’s hard to get back on. Instead, I follow lots of cool design folks on tumblr and see things through their filters. It’s important to know what people are doing so that you can be inspired to try new things, shape your personal style (though good design is invisible and you need to know when to keep your own aesthetics in check), and know when something is dead. Keep Calm and Carry Nothing. Be extremely careful with Futura. Sure, I am not the expert and I can get caught up in trends, they’re trends for a reason, they’re cool and exciting. But know when things are moving along and try to keep up, in addition to learning the fundamentals in your courses.

Learn how to talk about design. Know about kerning, leading, and tracking. I don’t think anyone gives a fuck about picas but you know, that’s unit of measure that exists. Why is that poster “nice”? Why is that logo effective? Your design education will be what separates you from the coding genius who gets stuck doing web design too or guy who got photoshop for Christmas and got a gig doing club flyers.

I know a million designers who are better than I am, and I am aware of my short-comings. I will also be the first to admit that while I’ve had several jobs since school and have done a lot of work, I have also not worked in a formal agency setting. I only recently was exposed to the advertising world. My own education is not over. I want to go to grad school in a few years because there is so much more to learn. I have only barely begun my professional career, to be honest. But I have picked up some opinions and experience along the way. I appreciate the compliment, and have found tumblr to be an excellent place for my half-ideas and scraps, as well as to share completed projects, and I appreciate even being asked this question, which is why I tried to take the time to answer it fully.

I also know that my experience is not typical. I’ve been working three days a week for six months and making enough to live pretty decently. My rent is hilariously low. Not everyone has the same luxuries that I do and I’m not ignorant to that fact. I have enough money to pay for my little personal projects, and the time to work on them… not to mention focus on other things that are important to me right now, like traveling, hanging out with my friends, and sleeping 10 hours a night. That’s not typical. So yes, sometimes you take a job you don’t love because you just need to pay your bills! Sometimes you don’t love design because all you get to do are design web advertisements or car wraps or magazine ads for local businesses. The reality is that design isn’t necessarily a glamorous job. It’s not all thick glasses and letterpressed stationery. Some of my friends have great jobs at cool start ups or boutique design agencies or great advertising firms. Some of my friends scrape together their income freelancing. There are a lot of different options. Nobody is “better” than anyone else because they opted to stay poorer longer. Talent is important, sure, but sometimes it also comes down to luck, timing, and location.

More than anything, I think you need to make sure you really love it. I can’t say that enough. Do not get a design degree because you are a talented artist but want something to fall back on. If you just want guaranteed income, study aging management because people are getting old and we are sending them to assisted living homes. If it’s just a fail-safe, get a better one. Successful and happy designers work their fucking asses off, and if you’re not ready for that, re-think design as a full time career.

Adam J. Kurtz is an artist and author whose illustrative work is rooted in honesty, humor and a little darkness.

AdviceAlyssa Nassner