Illustration by Ryan Kholousi
Designers, often fresh out of their studies, can be a complete pain in the ass. I say this with love in my heart. We study design because of our artistic sensibilities—and, well, we like eating. That starving artist look is only attractive for so long. So we head out into the world with our portfolio of college work. We land a job. And about a year into work we discover a painful fact:
Design is a service. It isn’t art.
I’ve seen plenty of reactions to this realization over the years. You can spot the designer going through this easily enough. They’re the ones fighting with the client’s business core. They throw budgets right out of the window. They make eyerolling into an event so aggressive that you can almost hear it.
I describe this period as “second adolescence, but this time with a credit card.” If they survive this period, they seem defeated. Going through the motions. Completely lost. Sometimes, though, they get excellent at their craft. And it’s these folks I want to write about. They have rediscovered art.
I look for designers who are into some artistic pursuit outside of graphic design. Something that they can have just for themselves. It can be painting, music, writing, or, in my case, cartooning. Whatever. It will inform their work. Encourage it. Ask them about it. Having an outside passion helps that transition in innumerable ways.
“But wait,” I hear you cry. “What if I don’t have an art?” All you love is type. All you dream about are grids. Your Dribbble page is full of process shots for an imaginary weather app redesign. Your Behance page is full of mockups for unsolicited redesigns.
My advice to you is to be a sponge. Listen to music you have no interest in. Subscribe to a newspaper (subscribe to three, actually). If you don’t like sports, start watching one. Get a passport. Challenge yourself to open up to the world and let it all in. Something wonderful will start to occur. You’ll find yourself making connections in your brain that will spur your creativity. And you’ll find that you’re making real connections with people. People who could be clients or your coworkers. Empathy is the goal.
And now I’m throw one more challenge out there for us all.
Designers are artists.
Yes, I went there.
Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel because that’s where his heart was leading him. He received payment to do it. Sanora Babb worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Dust Bowl. She planned to write a novel about the experiences of the displaced migrants. Her boss shared her field reports with John Steinbeck. When her novel was ready for publication,The Grapes of Wrathwas the first to market. Publishers shied away afterward fearing they couldn’t market her book. Art is inextricably linked to commerce. Design is the purest form of that relationship. And like all artists, we have a responsibility with what we put out into the world.
So push your clients. Respectfully fight for the things that matter. Push yourself. Believe in your client’s message. Figure out how to communicate that to their customers. Make the world more beautiful where you can. Design is a noble service, and you should feel privileged to practice it.
This was originally published on the B² Interactive blog. If you want some extra reading, check out The Gift (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Lewis Hyde. It helped redefine my self-worth as an artist and a designer. Or if you don’t have the time for that, check out Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro. It’s a quick and inspirational read. I very much enjoy his work.