Question of the Week #17

From Kaitlin Hooper: “If you have experience in one field of design, such as in-house, is it hard to transition to working for a smaller firm?”

Generally, the work you do is the work you’ll get.
Professional designers face this all the time. If you do a lot of work in print, it can be difficult to convince a client that you’re qualified for interactive work. If a lot of that print work was designing brochures for real estate developers, it’s not uncommon for a potential client who needs a brochure for their architecture or law firm to seek someone with more “experience.” It’s a frustrating reality that many clients define their problems very, very narrowly.

Similarly, your experience in a particular professional environment (in-house, large agency, boutique firm, startup, etc.) will tend to make you more attractive to employers looking to staff a similar kind of environment. There are, after all, nuances to each that are best appreciated from direct experience. Startups, for example, often have periods of high pressure and tight, critical deadlines in preparation for product launches. Stress levels can fluctuate as funding comes and goes. In these scenarios, flexibility and resilience are among your most valuable skills. In a larger agency you may be relegated to a smaller part of the design process (as a designer, production artist, etc.), so working effectively within that clearly defined workflow is an important skill. In a smaller studio you’ll usually wear many more hats. You may spend less time focused on a specific task, and more time dealing with project management, production and administrative tasks. Every situation has its own peculiarities.

The longer you spend in one type of environment the more you proficient you will become at the skills it requires. This doesn’t mean that you will become unqualified for other types of experiences, but you will become more attractive to employers whose positions more closely resemble your experience. This can make it difficult to make a change. If you’ve spent five years in house, for example, and then apply for ten different jobs ranging from other in-house positions to small studios, etc. you’ll likely find that there will be more interest from the in-house opportunities than the others.

A bird in hand…
This doesn’t mean you won’t have any interest, but depending on the job market and your temperament, it may be challenging to hold out for the change you want. What if you get a job offer from the one in-house job you applied for and rejections from the nine studios? Can you handle the anxiety of uncertainty of turning down the job you’ve been offered while you continue to search for the one you want? Can you handle it financially? Are you willing to purposely take on even more rejection, or will the lure of being ‘wanted’ prove the more powerful force? Successfully navigating change requires knowing the economic environment for design and business at large, being honest about your skills and limitations, and understanding your own tolerance for risk and rejection. When you do get the job, be prepared for it to a more lateral than an upward move. After all, you’re asking your new employer to absorb some of your learning curve.

Of course, there are exceptions to these generalizations. If you work for a ‘name brand’ firm or a studio run by a well-known designer, for example, you’ll find that your association with that firm or studio will open a lot of doors. Likewise, working in-house at a museum (for example) will get positive attention from small studios that do a lot of exhibit or cultural work. In most cases there will be a way to successfully frame your past experience in a way that makes it relevant to the opportunity you’re seeking. We can discuss the particulars of how to do this in class (if you remind me).