The life of the graphic designer?
February 21, 2015 9:31 AM   Subscribe

What do you wish you would have known before becoming a graphic designer? Looking for possible career switch!

I'm doing some research into the field of graphic design. I would love some anecdotal advice/thoughts/data from current professionals. I am an artist and have been contemplating this career for a while. Salaries and other job information stats are good but clearly I can't make this decision based on numbers alone. I understand there's a huge variety of jobs within the graphic design field and am looking to narrow it down with some sage advice

Please let me know what you wish you would have know before becoming a graphic designer!
It can be anything from pay to job security to what kind of hours you work to the kind of work you do

Thank you!
posted by eggs to Work & Money (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I am an artist...

I wish I had fully understood how much graphic design isn't about being an artist, but instead a networking teamplayer who will have to leave your ego at the door. You'll have to be an artist in your own time for the most part.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:54 AM on February 21, 2015 [18 favorites]

Avenues for expressing your creativity in graphic design can be far and few between. For example, the design team at the arts school I worked at (ARTS SCHOOL?!) only got full creative freedom when designing the annual Christmas card,and maybe to a lesser extent the seasonal t-shirt for festival staff, everything else worked within strict enough brand guidelines that "creativity" was just a word in the signature tagline.
posted by furtive at 10:06 AM on February 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

1. Look to big industries for job security: Finance, healthcare, tech. They need you, and if you can do stuff in house that will save them the cost/trouble of going to an agency, you will be very successful. That said, there is no shame in nudging pixels on PowerPoint decks and formatting Word documents for random executives for $70K/year (or more).
2. If you can design and do some other thing, you are more valuable: Editing, writing, project management, subject matter expertise.
3. Get in the habit of checking your spelling. I've worked with some good folks who were solid designers but who could not spell. We had to revise more often and it was embarrassing for them.
4. Blatcher's right about leaving your ego at the door. The best designers I've worked with have been super nice, endlessly patient, problem-solving people who are also very, very good at what they do.
5. You can specialize in certain things (design for a particular agency, say, or presentation design) or you can go broad.
posted by mochapickle at 10:39 AM on February 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

I am not a graphic designer but have a couple of friends and acquaintances who are. Growing up as a teen in the 90s, it seemed like being a graphic designer was the coolest job in the world. (Really!) I always knew it was a hard field for finding and maintaining steady employment, but I have been very surprised to hear how frustrated, stressed, or otherwise dissatisfied many of those graphic designers are with their careers. They still love art and doing creative projects of their own but have found less opportunity for being creative at work itself; so much is business, really. Therefore, should you choose the artistic path, combining your creative and technical training with business classes would likely be wise.

That said, there are plenty of people for whom graphic design in their dream job on paper and in reality. I like the Life & Business section of the Design*Sponge blog for their interviews with various creative professionals. Everyone featured is successful but also honest about the challenges. Perhaps you could find more designers to look up there?
posted by smorgasbord at 1:40 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you plan to freelance, sort out your tax stuff in advance, not after the fact. Note that falling into freelancing can happen to any graphic designer who can't get a regular gig, or who's bridging across regular gigs.

If you freelance, your life will be less fraught if you have a partner with a regular paycheck. On the other hand, being hungry can make you more aggressive after contracts. When the wolf at the door has your name on it, and only your name, you hustle.

Study typography. It's the bones of the business.

Do not be tempted by the fashion industry. It's brutal on graphic designers.
posted by zadcat at 1:43 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

The biggest thing I'd learned early is most clients not only have no taste, they disregard very good advice, which leaves you having to produce work that is revolting.

The next was that for a long long time (and still some of the time now) most of my work was reproducing someone else's (often crappy) designs because they'd move on, there were no files available and the client wanted a couple of changes.

The third thing is create a niche. Most of my design work now is for academics, turning their theoretical concepts into visual language. This is really cool, because I have to understand what they're saying in order to translate it for an audience.

Lastly, fire bad clients (when you can afford to). My repeat clients let me have my head on creating designs. Sometimes they will ask for changes because of the way they want to move from one idea to the next, or some other thing I couldnt anticipate, but I don't accept repeat work from people who supposedly want my expertise but then insist I recreate their crappy diagram with clashing colours, because we make each other unhappy.

Oh and when billing, add 15% (or other reasonable amount) on top to cover time taken in bookkeeping or future correspondence because they can't file the file you sent them three months ago.
posted by b33j at 3:44 PM on February 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

My longtime sweetheart works in design, and she hates it. I don't know how much of the problem is the field itself and how much is her being a type-A stressball, but every place she's worked has involved long, long days, working weekends, endless revisions, tears and misery. She also rants about sexism in the field, a lot.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:54 PM on February 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've dated several graphic designers over the years and to echo most of the above comments, they all regretted buying into the 'graphic design is a great way to make art AND money'. Partly because they found it to be untrue (see: clients with terrible taste) but also because so many others did that competition was terribly fierce. Hopefully that part has improved in recent years.
posted by PaulaSchultz at 8:56 PM on February 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I found Work for Money, Design for Love helpful.
posted by delezzo at 10:43 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been a graphic designer for 25 years. My observations:

1. If you're looking for a way to "express yourself" creatively, graphic design may not be the course. Most projects are not the type that allow you to open up that way. Graphic design is largely a service - you are providing your design skill to make communications for a client's product or service.

2. The vast majority of graphic design projects are about communicating a sales message to buyers. Business to business or business to consumer.

3. Clients can be great, frustrating, shallow, brilliant, felonious (I had one!), wrong, right, fun, tedious... And on. These could be internal clients, if you're an in-house designer, or agency/freelance customers.

4. I've heard many designers get snarky/snooty about clients having poor taste or not appreciating what the designer does etc. I don't buy it. Clients write the checks. Clients bring the projects. Clients are entitled to make judgements about how their products/services are portrayed. If I disagree or feel we can do better, I'll say, but only to encourage the best results. If they choose to go a different way (like sticking with that ugly old logo), I don't get rankled. GD is not about your ego... It's about the client's product. In a way, it has more in common with being an electrician than being an artist.

5. There are a lot of mundane projects, and some fun ones. Business cards, flyers, data sheets, proposals... Those can be "blah." But then, something like shaping the identity of a new company, or creating a campaign for a cool new product... That can be groovy.

6. Do you like sitting in front of a computer? That's what the job is for the most part. The busier you get, the more computer time you will spend.

7. Once you've gained some chops, you can go freelance. Great pluses and minuses. It has allowed me to be king of my time, to work at home, to spend lots of time with my now-16 year old daughter, to pop out and golf or hike when I want, to sleep in sometimes... But it has also brought some roller coaster income and a few lean periods. It does help if you have two incomes in the family.

7. If you go the GD route, learn:

- How printing works
- Web design and everything related you can (Wordpress would be good)
- Project time management
- Advertising and copywriting basics
- Good client communication

8. A good way to start is in an in-house design and marketing job. Get as wide a skill set as you can. Small companies have a huge need for jack-of-all-trades designers (eg fix the website, design an emailer, do tradeshow collateral, do joes biz card, make a trade ad, make a video...)

9. Good luck!
posted by ecorrocio at 11:14 PM on February 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

It’s morning, so this may not come out right, and I’ll be making some sweeping generalizations, but here goes anyway.

What everyone said above is true.

Being a graphic designer is in some ways like being like a real estate agent or an actor. The barriers to entry into the field are very low. Lots of people think they have the talent and a good eye. Since it’s relatively easy to become a designer, there is almost always a surplus of them.

There are some designers/real estate agents/actors who are very successful and well known, but there are also thousands/millions who just doing ok.

It can be a fun career but it can also be a lot of work for only average pay.

I could go on, but I would need more coffee for that.
posted by freakazoid at 5:19 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

My advice:
  • Meet your deadlines.
  • Graphic design's much less about your own personal vision than it is about solving a problem visually.
  • Be prepared for everyone else in the world to consider themselves an expert in the field. Be ready to demonstrate (tactfully) what you bring to the table that they don't.
  • Being creative is only a small part of being a good creative.
  • Meet your deadlines (again). If you can't meet deadlines, or have issues with time and/or project management, this is not a good field for you. Designers are very often one of the last links in the production chain, and a link that's chronically shorted for time and money.
  • Be ready to educate your clients about why your solution to their problem works.
  • Everyone else's nephew is also an expert in the field who will work for half your hourly rate. Be ready to show why you're a better option.
  • Kill your little darlings.
  • Be smart enough to know that being smart isn't enough.
  • Don't just learn how to do something. Learn why you're doing it.
  • You'll know you're a creative when your business card (that someone else makes for you) has any of the following words on it: designer, creative, principal, artist, writer.
  • Everyone thinks they're a designer except designers. Real designers think they're hacks.
  • Pay your dues. The credibility they give you can't be bought with any other currency.
  • Good design is invisible.
  • Guess what? Meet your deadlines!
FWIW, I'm an art director.
posted by culfinglin at 10:52 AM on February 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Lots of great advice above. As a designer with 20 years experience the thing that bothers me the most is the flood of "designers" into the field and low point of entry for people to consider themselves a designer ( as well as culfinglin's point about everyone thinking they're a designer). I'm sure this happens in other fields, but it really devalues the work in a lot of people's eyes. This week I was finishing up some designs on a plane and a man two seats over interrupted me, motioned for me to take out my headphones then proceeded to offer suggestions on how I should improve upon my design. He was an engineer.

Overall I would suggest you to be realistic if moving from fine art. Design is more about business and communication than visual decoration and you will spend 10 hours a day looking at a computer screen. It is a drastic life change you should not discount.
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:57 AM on February 26, 2015

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