Question of the Week #01

Each week, a student from my Transition to Professional Practice class must pose the Question of the Week. They submit that question as a title graphic for the post.

Our first question comes from Amy Compeau, who asks, “Suppose you love design but you’re not sure you’re cut out for a career as a designer. What other career paths might you consider that will allow you to utilize your design skills?”

I love this question for many reasons, not the least of which is that it demonstrates a certain degree of self-awareness. It also acknowledges the elephant in the room when it comes to the ethics of recruiting and matriculating students to the field of graphic design.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 286,100 professional graphic designers in the United States. They project that this number will grow to 323,100 by the year 2018, an increase of 36,000 jobs. The National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) accredits about 300 postsecondary institutions with degree-granting programs in graphic design. If the average program graduates 25 students per semester, that equates to 15,000 entry-level designers entering the job market annually — slightly more than double the projected growth rate. And that’s a national average. In cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, etc., the disparity is likely to be even greater. Add in the legions of unaccredited programs, certificate-granting programs and Associates degrees and some estimates put the number of annual graduates as high as 40,000.

Simply put, there are many more designers out there than there are design jobs.

For those about to graduate, this is probably the scariest thing you could hear right now. So what do you do?

First of all, don’t panic. CCA is a great school with a great reputation. Part of that reputation is based on the school’s overall legacy, part is based on the reputations of your remarkable faculty, but most is based on the record of its graduates. CCA is the most influential design school in one of the most influential design capitals in the most influential state in country. It may not be the hardest program to get into, but getting out sure isn’t easy. You all can attest to that. Core, first year review, Level 3 review, Thesis — all of these are gateways to ensure the excellence and preparedness of our graduates. This class is another such gateway. As I said the first day, I have only one mission and that is to ensure that you are as well informed, well equipped and well connected as possible as you enter the job market. If you stay focused, work hard and stay humble, chances are good you’ll do just fine. If you maintain your skills and your attitude a long and rewarding career as a designer lies ahead.

But what if, as Amy asks, you can’t find a job as a designer? What if you don’t want to?

In that case those sobering statistics are your best friend. If fewer than one in two design graduates ultimately become practicing designers, the rest must be doing something for a living (and don’t worry, they aren’t all waiting tables). Education serves many purposes higher than transforming students into workers. Whether you practice in your field of study or not, the knowledge and skills you acquire through learning establish a continuum of culture, enrich your life, and shape your perspective. School is where you learn how to learn. How you apply that learning to your life and career is largely up to you. This is a reality I see affirmed every day; many of our clients are entrepreneurs who’ve left one career behind to pursue another. Two of our recent clients who graduated with law degrees instead opted for very different careers. One decided to pursue his dream of becoming a high school principal (starting his own charter school and receiving an award for those efforts from Robert Redford in the process). The other opened a sandwich shop. Graphic design isn’t much different; you will graduate prepared to practice design, but many of the skills acquired over the course of your education will also prepare you for other jobs and other dreams.

Here are a few directions you might consider:

Take a supporting role
Some designers enjoy the craft, output and atmosphere of design but don’t have the passion for communication, problem solving, client interaction etc. that is required of most designers. Production artists layout files and prepare projects for print and must have a keen understanding of color, type and layout and production techniques. The work is a little more predictable and in some ways less creative, but depending on your personality it can be extremely fulfilling.

Where production artists support print designers, web and app developers support and collaborate with interactive designers. Many designers just can’t keep up with changing technology. While they may be expert at visual or interaction design, the skills to produce their concepts may eventually prove elusive. If you’re turned on by technology, can write and edit code, and are willing to stay very up-to-date with the latest standards, platforms and principles you’ll find yourself in constant demand. Today many ‘web designers’ are trained heavily in the production aspects of web design and less so in the conceptual and communications strategy arena. This is changing rapidly, and a background in traditional communication design can round out your skills as a developer.

Larger companies often have a Creative Services position dedicated to hiring and managing outside creative services, including design. People in this role must be resourceful and organized. They must have excellent people management skills and an understanding of budgets, scheduling and logistics. A familiarity with the design process and a connection to the field can be an enormous asset. Kat Chanover went to CCA and became a creative services manager for Disney where she oversaw the merchandising and licensing for Pixar. Account managers and project managers liaise between designers and clients, ensuring that work is produced on time and on budget and according to the client’s interests, while also supporting the creativity of the designers. Here again an understanding of the design process and culture is invaluable.

Nicole Dotin was trained as a designer but ended up specializing in typeface design. Likewise, if you have a passion or interest or skill in some specific aspect of design, you might consider specializing in it. Examples include bookmaking, illustration, pattern/textile design, prototyping, sign painting, silk screening, letterpress, icon design, exhibit design, merchandising, etc. etc. etc.

Design is visual communication, but rarely does it stand alone, separate from the written word. Copywriters collaborate with designers to create complete, compelling communications through writing, editing or proofreading. The best copywriters know how to work with designers and visualize their words as intrinsic to an individual layout or the overall pacing of a website, brochure, etc. Some copywriters are also responsible for articulating marketing or communications strategy or defining entire campaigns.

Like other creative professions, design needs critical voices. Design writers, reviewers and critics with a background in professional practice have a better understanding of their subject and speak with the authority of first hand knowledge. They know the questions to ask and of whom to ask them. Steven Heller and DK Holland come to mind, as do Alissa Walker and Tina Roth Eisenberg who rose to prominence via their blogs to become influential creative commentators and curators.

Start an Empire
Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio both started out as designers but now run a series of successful blogs, conferences and competitions as well as writing several books.

Try something completely different
Of course there are many other more esoteric careers one might pursue unrelated to graphic design entirely. An eye for color, craft and composition drew former Venezuelan graphic designer Luis Silva away from his computer and into the kitchen. He is now a pastry chef (entry level pastry chefs make a little more than double what entry level designers make). Nashville photographer Jeremy Cowart was once a designer. Eric Goetze graduated from Parsons but became a baker. Randi Harris has a design degree from SVA, but now does prop styling and photo art directing. Denyse Schmidt is a RISD design grad who now makes quilts.

In the end, passion is what will sustain you. The skills you learn as a designer — an eye for detail, a love of craft, a desire to communicate, the ability to see solutions through other people’s eyes — can help you distinguish yourself in whatever area fulfills you. Steve Jobs was not a designer, but his passion for design was one of the critical differentiators that separated Apple from every other competitor. They became the most successful tech company on earth. You are designers. Imagine where your skills may take you…