Graphic Design future in Chicago or New York?
December 22, 2008 4:09 PM   Subscribe

My future as a graphic designer: Stay in Chicago, or move to New York?

After a few years of searching for my passion in life, I've found my place as an illustrator and graphic designer. I live in a suburb of Chicago, and I do some design work for a small bank that loves darn near everything I do. My success there inspired me to enroll in the Graphic Design program at the College of DuPage. For the first time in my life, I care about school enough to get straight A's, and I'm a favorite of all my teachers. COD is a two-year school, so I will have an associate's degree in Graphic Design when I am done.

Here's the question: What's next?

I could move to Chicago and try to get work as a designer, or I could transfer to a four-year school and get a bachelor's first. After reading some threads on AskMe, though, it sounds like Chicago is not the best city for designers. New York seems to come up a lot, and the idea of going there seems great since so many of my heroes live there.

I really want to go where there is talent. I want to be challenged and inspired much more than what I'm getting here in the suburbs. I want to be around the best, because I want to be the best I can be. Which city should I live in? Which schools should I consider? Do you have any other advice for me?
posted by buriednexttoyou to Education (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Finish school (two year or four). Build a resume and a portfolio. Talk to people in both cities who are making a living as designers. Figure out what kind of design you want to do (in the marketing department of a corporation? small shop? Large advert firm? Free lance?) and go where the job is. Seems crazy in this economy to move before you have a job. The whole which is better Chicago or New York thing is bullshit. Live in the city that feels like a fit, and where you can make a living. I know New York is the center of the universe and all, but there are 2 million people in Chicago who appear to be functioning quite well despite not living in the center of the universe, including a lot of designers.

(plus, why limit yourself to Chicago or New York? Maybe there are other options as well, as long as you seem to have the ability to choose.)
posted by nax at 4:45 PM on December 22, 2008

I agree with nax and mattdidthat. Establish yourself where you know you have and can get work first. When you have a solid portfolio, you're better equipped to explore your opportunities elsewhere. You may even find yourself some place completely different. I certainly didn't expect to find myself working in Los Angeles when I got started with design in Kansas. But that's where I ended up, and I don't regret it. Build that portfolio!
posted by katillathehun at 4:53 PM on December 22, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for these answers. I love Chicago, I just got the impression from other threads that NY was the place to be, and I wanted to see if that was really the case.

Here's another question: How important is it to go for a bachelor's degree? All my teachers are recommending it, but they also concede that jobs usually come based on the strength of your portfolio, not your degree. What are your thoughts on this?
posted by buriednexttoyou at 5:00 PM on December 22, 2008

I have a design friend who ended up in LA but built his portfolio in a suburb of Dallas. Another continues to work happily in the Dallas suburbs.

NY is a good place to be, but it's not the only place to be.
posted by sondrialiac at 5:19 PM on December 22, 2008

Best answer: I obtained a B.A. in Asian Studies a few years ago as a "fall back", in case a full-time freelancing career (web development) did not work out for me. Two years is not a long time for reflection, so take some of this with a grain of salt.

First, you really need to think about if getting a B.A. or B.S. is really worth it. Where will you go to school? How much will it cost you in the long run? Will you be paying back educational loans while at the same time trying to dig your hands into a design career? I was not formally trained in web development and all of my skills are either self-taught or learned on the job, and I'm doing quite well for myself. But I'm also paying back loans from school. In the long run I may look back on college as a wonderful experience with regard to my social life, but as far as my career goes, I have seen no direct benefit to my income, and only a very tangential benefit to my ability to write project quotes for clients and communicate effectively with them. If you want to go to a four year college, I would suggest making sure that it really fits into the overall financial scheme of things. Simply going because someone suggested it or because it's what seems normal is doing yourself a disservice.

With regard to location, I'll echo a previous comment and ask if you want to work for a design firm or build up a portfolio by yourself and do freelance work. You may be able to do both, but a heavy focus on one or the either will have effects on your career decisions in the coming years. If you're looking to work with the best designers, learn from industry leaders, and be in an environment that fosters creativity, then New York may just be the place to go. But if you have a steady stream of clients right now, are happy freelancing, and can manage your finances without depending on a firm for income, then what necessarily makes New York better than any other location? You have ready access to materials online, group discussions and endless sources of inspiration online, and also access to books, which can be mailed worldwide. An occasional visit to New York may help spark your creativity, but you must take into account the living expenses, how long it normally takes a "nobody" (in the sense that you are just beginning your career) to become a "somebody" in the New York design industry, and also if the pace of life there is suitable for you.

You sound extremely passionate about your field of work, which is amazing. Passion and hunger to be better are very attractive traits, and you can capitalize on those traits no matter where you are located.

The thought comes to mind that sometimes it is better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. What do you want to be right now? It's much easier to establish yourself in unsaturated environments than in a place like New York, but at the same time your evolution as a designer will take a little bit longer if you don't make a strong effort to stay on top of the field.

There are many questions, really. I ask myself the following every few months (I'm currently living in Viet Nam, and my clients are based in the United States, Australia, and parts of Europe):
  • Am I stuck in this location? How easy will it be for me to move next week if I want to move?
  • Am I dependant on my location for income? (I am a freelancer) Will my clients be okay with me living so far away from their time zones, and will I be able to manage it without sacrificing my sanity?
  • Am I learning more with every new project that I take on, and if not, why? Are the jobs that I'm taking too easy or too difficult for me?
  • Am I getting enough social interaction (I work alone, at home)? If not, would working at a web development firm or a larger organization make me happier?
  • Do I really want a boss? Would I be okay giving up my clients, relationships, and workflow for another company? Side Note: If you are a freelancer, you should really think about whether or not to go work for a larger firm. You're not just taking on money. You're also giving up everything you've built up for a 9-to-5 that will have rules and regulations that you have not put on yourself in your own workspace.
  • If I go work for a larger firm, will they allow me to keep my clients, or will they ask me to fold my clients into their company? Will they look down upon me for having my own business on the side or looking into my own development strategies outside of work?
The list goes on and on. You need to figure out what kind of money you want to make, what kind of location suits you best (in terms of health, scenery, the people, etc.), and then also think about your career. School is not even a primary concern. If you're thinking about your career and how to make it better, then school is 10% of that. You won't learn how to talk to clients, how to manage projects, how to handle feedback and criticism, and how to deal with creativity burnout in school the way that you will learn in the real world, on the job.

Best of luck with everything.
posted by aloneinvietnam at 5:59 PM on December 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

As a designer in Chicago, I have to agree with Mattdidthat—we certainly do have some top notch studios here, big and small. Just to get a sense, get your hands on a Print Regional design annual. Chicago designers put out some wonderful work. I would be wary of heading there just because 'it's the place to be'. I think that wherever you do go, there will be a pocket of amazingly talented people doing wonderful work, New York doesn't have a monopoly on that.

chicago love, sorry for the defensiveness. I never expected to end up here, but the job brought me, and I have met some of the smartest, sharpest and talented people in this pretty tight-knit design community here. There's some exciting work and ideas coming from the youngish of Chicago in not just graphic design, but urban planning, architecture, environmental design, etc. It's great time to be in and part of this city.

As to whether you should get a four year or go out there with an associates, the portfolio is going to be a huge factor obviously. In New York you're going to be showing your work against people who are coming out of the east coast schools (risd, parson, pratt, sva, etc). So if your work is stellar, then the school on the resume is secondary. I will say though that it's a tough time to get work, period. Anything you can do to make yourself more attractive to employers, you should do.

New York is a wonderful place with great designers, so you could choose a worse place to be, but don't overlook some of the other great design centers around the country.

Good Luck!
posted by Sreiny at 7:59 PM on December 22, 2008

Don't forget that the cost of living in Chicago is drastically lower than in New York.
posted by sinfony at 10:37 PM on December 22, 2008

I taught college-level design courses and, as a teacher, and one who has hired people in the past, I look at their portfolio first. I can tell very quickly if they are talented or do the type of work I need done. So, getting a degree isn't necessarily the "end all" here.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:59 AM on December 23, 2008

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