Pimp my job
January 3, 2008 8:24 AM   Subscribe

I need career advice on how to become a graphic designer when I'm already a grown up. Bonus & intertwined question: can you help me see if I am on the path toward being screwed at my current job?

Ok, so. When I was a kid I couldn't draw so they told me to go pursue something else, like writing or music or science. I listened to them and got BA (and a masters degree) in English. Now I'm in my thirties and work for a marketing/advertising/graphic design company as a print project manager. I really like aspects of my job, especially related to the more technical side of things, like how to print what, and how paper behaves, and what spot varnish will do for you, and when printing hexachrome would be killer. Also, when I was in grad school for an unrelated degree in creative writing, I got pretty involved in the book arts program--took classes in typography, set metal type and operated a letterpress, etc. I loved it. I even designed and produced some wedding invitations for strangers on the side. But I basically have no formal training in design. I thought that was fine, as I get my creative kicks elsewhere and still get to feel involved in the process at my job--designers ask my opinion about typefaces and inks and stuff. This was great until I had my performance review, where I was not given a raise despite the fact that I earned a substantial one last year and I know the company is doing very well. Basically I was told that I needed to step it up and demonstrate that I was clearly on the path to someday being a Director of Production, that I had come as far as I could at my current level (though there were no concrete responsibilities put forth that I could take on or anything). Being sensitive and paranoid I immediately thought I should be polishing my resume as my status as golden child was officially defunct. But it also made think about what I really wanted. Frankly, the idea of managing people and becoming more removed from the actual production process sorta fills me with disinterest and bile. But I have to move up somehow, because I guess it's the end of the line at my current post. So, I came to the conclusion that what I really want to do is design. I wouldn't even mind being a studio production artist for a few years while building the technical skills I'd need. I'm thinking my strategy will be to propose that I set the goal of managing the studio while taking classes in all the design software. My main questions are therefore:

1. What advice would you give to a person in my situation, who has no degree or experience, to pursue a career in design? Am I too old? Can I do this without having to go back to school, because that's financially out of the question at this point. And if you're at all familiar with the structure at the sort of place I work, how would you leverage the resources I have to further my goal?

2. Should I be worried about keeping my job? In my experience, once a person falls out of favor, they have the unfortunate likelihood of being made scapegoat and basically having a very small chance of success at their job. Am I, from your limited perspective, poised for such a downfall?

This is anonymous because I am convinced people google me way more than they probably do, and I don't want anyone I work with to accidentally find this & know of my top secret ambitions.

Throwaway for talky-talk: weededoutofartsyprofessions@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
You can definitely get a career in design without formal training. I've had a pretty successful design career myself, and a strong freelance business as well - and I'm a college dropout. Granted, I made myself a slave to self-study, but it paid off. I don't know how old you are, but I doubt age will factor in much. We've got a guy where I work now who had barely any technical training whatsoever (he was a farmer) who decided he wanted to become a php programmer at 60 years of age, and he succeeded.

'course, he's a crotchety bastard if ever there was one, but I imagine he was always cranky.


Yes, you can do it, and you can do it without much formal training, but I highly recommend at least ponying up the dough for a few classes with a professional if you want to be a good designer. You can learn the software on your own, sure, but it helps to have guidance on the concepts of design. I took a year of it, myself, and it proved invaluable.

As for getting a job in the field, you might try freelancing in your off-hours until you've built a decent portfolio. I can almost promise you that it will be your portfolio that gets you in the door, not your schooling or age or anything like that.
posted by katillathehun at 9:08 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I worked in the marketing department of a travel goods company. It was ALWAYS the portfolio and the technical expertise that got our graphic designers hired, never the schooling.

Instead of investing money in education, I would invest it in a Mac and Adobe CS3 and start freelancing to develop a portfolio. There are even temp agencies that specialize in placing graphic designers and creative talent.
posted by Ostara at 9:21 AM on January 3, 2008

I'm a fairly successfully graphic/web designer with no formal training currently working full time at a name you would know. I'm in my late 20s.

When I interviewed for my current job, I had no education listed on my resume, and it never came up. I did have an ONLINE portfolio.

The posters above have already said it, but let me add to it...

1. Age doesn't matter. Being current on trends and pop culture does. You have to know what moves people to be an effective designer. That can be an interesting thing though, if you're 50 and trying to design for teens, you will likely have a tough time unless you are particularly young at heart. So I guess I'm saying know the market you want to design for.

2. Learn the software. We're getting out of the age of graphic design by hand. Not saying it doesn't exist, just saying there's not a whole lot of future in it, or money, except for the few. Photoshop, Illustrator are minimums. Expand your potential by adding Quark and InDesign if you want to do print, Dreamweaver and basic web info if you want to branch out into web design.

Lots of jobs are hybrids these days, you probably won't be doing just one type of design.

3. Freelance. This is the best way to get your feet wet, get better, and build your portfolio. Do this while you're still working at your current job. Maybe even share the fact that you're freelancing with folks at your current job; share what you're working on and they may get the idea that you can do more than just your job description. elance.com and designoutpost.com are great places to get started on becoming a service provider.

4. Build a portfolio, and put it online. Gone are the days when you can walk into someplace with a bunch of stuff printed out in an oversized folder and expect it impress. Everything we do revolves around the web, embrace that and use it.

5. Read industry websites. One of my favorites is underconsideration.com. It's important to understand what other people in the field are doing. If you don't work with a bunch of design-geeks, its the best way to meet new people and get that community feeling. Think of it as a support system for your creativity.
posted by finitejest at 9:34 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Am I too old? Can I do this without having to go back to school, because that's financially out of the question at this point.

I am an art director, and I have really good training. That said, most of the fundamentals I rely on were taught to me by books and peers in college! I've never worked with a designer who didn't have a design degree, but I've often thought it could be completely possible.

I'm not sure I would jump into trying to get paid for your work right away. Make it a passionate hobby. Keep up the letterpress and do crazy stuff with it.

I would also say for the time being you might want to bite the bullet and stick with the production. An individual with a top notch production background and a portfolio of totally experimental and crazy awesome work might just break in somewhere.
posted by muscat at 9:37 AM on January 3, 2008

As someone who has a BS in Graphic Design (DAAP), but chooses instead to work in technology (which I learned by jumping in with both feet), I can feel your pain.

I used to think you needed that degree to be a good Designer. Graphic Artist, sure, that can be learned on the fly, because it's the technical part of the job, but Design, that takes a more subtle understanding. But then I got to work with Designers who were self-trained and awesome. And some designers who had the sheepskin, but none of the passion or talent.

And that's the thing, really...passion and talent. If you have a good understanding of information hierarchy and usability, an eye for style, and the willingness to be wrong and learn from your mistakes, you can be a great Designer. Jump in with both feet, be passionate. Read about Paul Rand and Milton Glaser and Noel Martin. Learn to see grids everywhere, then learn to forget about them. Gather a library of typefaces and look critically at other people's work. Mentally redesign the logo on your shoes, the ad for a soft drink in the magazine at your doctors office, the menu at your favorite restaurant. Build a portfolio by offering your services to people who really need it, rather than people who are ready with a check. Edit everything. Once you have a half-way decent book, find someone who is willing to take a chance with you. Small agencies are often delighted to take on someone willing to do the busywork for low-pay for a while, and a skill like writing will come in handy there as well.

As for your current job, why not ASK? "Can I work towards doing some design here?" I was hired at my current job as a temp to do page layouts in Quark (coming off a 6mo layoff, I was taking anything!)...and I piped up and asked "Hey, can I rewrite our intranet, cos it kind of sucks?" Fast forward a few years and I'm the Director of Technology. It never hurts to ask, and if it does, well...*I* wouldn't want to work there!
posted by foxydot at 9:55 AM on January 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

More similar advice here. Your age and lack of formal training are irrelevant. Your knowledge of print is a huge asset that most green designers don't have. This is huge.

Much like you and katillathehun, my schooling was decidedly *not* in design. I was a radio guy for a number of years, but always fiddled around in the world of design on the side. Since I decided to jump ship on radio about 12 years ago, I've worked in fancypants ad agencies, design firms, and now have a nice practice that I'm quite happy with. I've even taught classes at a design school. suckers. ;)

Being capable is mostly a matter of diligent study and practice. Art school to some degree (design school to a larger degree) are essentially structured practice. Some of your education is in theory and nuts-n-bolts, but the bulk of your schooling is in studio time. Practice.

Sharpen your tools. Solid software skills are no longer optional. You'll always be learning more about the software, but be sure you're at least functional as a starting point. Continually expand your knowledge about design and color theory, typography, etc. Read, study past significant work, and doodle.

Build a portfolio of work. Anything at this point–even the invitations you've done in the past–are great to include early on as you add new pieces. If you aren't seeing project opportunities around you, look for them. Offer to design a brochure or business cards for a friend with a small business. Make up a company and design a whole package. Anything you can do to add some pieces to your folio and get some practice is the name of the game.

The rest will fall into place. Hang in there and you'll get where you want to be.
posted by braintoast at 9:59 AM on January 3, 2008

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