Entering a graphic design college young people have heads full of unrealistic ideas about their future careers. They grow a beard (if they are lads of course), put on trendy glasses with thick frames, take their Mac Book Pro (a couple of months worth of flipping burgers well spent) and go chasing their dream.
They imagine their future in fancy open space offices. They think of flexible working hours, being paid good money for their incredible creativity and realising their potential.
While the above can materialise for a small percentage of them, the reality of a graphic designer freshly out of college is quite different.
Just to show you how this looks like – the guy in the video below is just an ordinary graphic designer with an ordinary job. This would be the reality for most of the students leaving your graphic design college of choice.
The stuff below may sound harsh – but it is better to learn it now, rather than having spent years preparing for job that looks completely different that the one you imagine.
Monetizing creativity in any field is extremely difficult. Don’t bet your future on it. If you start a band – how likely are you to become a rockstar? Not very likely. Same goes for graphic design.
If you are not comfortable being a graphic design equivalent of a plumber, electrician or car mechanic – then there is nothing but disappointment for you in this field.
You will – most likely – end up in one of the print or web sweatshops where your time (and unpaid overtime) is measured to the minute. You will be working in a factory, just having a computer instead of a hammer.
In order to survive and keep your job you will have to throw your creativity to the bin, fast. Sorry – I should not call it a job – because it is actually going to be an internship.
You will discover that your work is not valued. What you do will be considered a cost that has to be minimised. Your manager will tell you that all you do is just a click of a button. And the faster you click that button, the better.
Your first customer will tell you your design is no good and will show you how it should be done.
He won’t be a smiling guy from some wealthy multinational with open mind and willingness to listen to your brilliant ideas. He will be a busy owner of some small local business, a guy used to getting stuff done his way, no discussions.
The output of this cooperation will be truly horrible and the last thing you would do is to put in into your portfolio.
The customers and their jobs soon will become series of images impossible to focus on as if you were looking through the window of a train. At some stage you will start asking yourself “is this why I spent all these years in the college? To do this stuff?”. The answer is yes.
In such environment you will not produce anything you would not be ashamed to show to another prospecting employer. This means that digging yourself out of this pit will be very unlikely.
You will be quite easy to replace. The management / company owners will often treat you badly. Speaking from my own experience and experience of many fellow designers I worked with in Ireland – you will either be paid or treated badly.
Under constant pressure from clients and the management you will start making mistakes. You will, because it will not be possible to deliver what they demand from you without cutting corners.
These mistakes – forgiven at first – will soon become the subject of meetings during which you will be grilled and made feel like a complete fool. These will play a significant role in lowering your self esteem and trust in your own capabilities.
If you are working in a print company, the rule of the thumb is that whatever goes wrong it is designer’s fault. You will learn to cover yourself at every step. Your colleagues will become your enemies.
Print is a dying industry. Long before you retire, your knowledge will be relevant only in places like Museum of Country Life where long gone professions are showcased.
The pressure will start taking its toll fairly quickly. Your social life will be limited due to long working hours and tiredness. This is when your life partner starts to realise that he/she probably made a wrong choice. The energetic college kid full of ideas will start becoming stressed out, grumpy and unpleasant person.
At some stage your are bound to turn to comfort food and alcohol to lift the pressure just for a moment. Quickly the combined effect of sedentary lifestyle, stress and improper nutrition will attack both your physical and mental health.
Lack of energy, apathy, indifference are the first signs of depression. Running in the hamster’s wheel of your job you will overlook the first onset of the symptoms. When you start seeking professional help you will be so beaten up that coming out of it will be next to impossible.
At some stage you will finally make the shocking discovery – you have just turned forty years of age.
Imagine Elvis Presley just before he died – overweight, miserable with a beer in one hand and a burger in another. This is going to be you – of course without all the Elvis’es money and fame.
Ok – if you are still reading it means you are really determined and I did not manage to scare you off. Seems you truly want it. The truth is that the grim vision described above does not necessarily have to be your fate.
It is true that only a small number of designers will have nice and fulfilling career. Roughly the same number will end up frustrated and burned out. Everybody else will have just an ordinary job as ordinary graphic designer. Think about all those non-celebrity chefs. They do a good job, make money, live normal lives.
On the open day in the graphic design college of your choice they probably will not tell you that you will be training hard to have a very ordinary job.
A job that is not guaranteed, nor it is secure. A job where you will make only small use of your artistic skills. A job where you are not considered an asset and where you will be easy to replace. Vast majority of graphic designers will be paid below average industrial wage.
The reality of working with clients at any level is that they enjoy providing their own creative input. They enjoy it a lot. The project quickly becomes personal and your role is reduced to a machine operator needed to realise their vision.
“Design by committee” is something common. Different people with different vision will give you contradicting directions and fight to push their ideas through.
If you are not comfortable doing what other people want in the best way you can – graphic design is not for you. At least not as a way to make living.
You will need to know how to produce decent jobs not for the customers, but despite of them. Sometimes it is impossible, often very hard.
Becoming a good technician is a must. You have to be extremely proficient in every technical aspect of your work, because this is very likely to be your bread and butter.
As a graphic designer you will be much more a craftsman than an artist. Keep this in mind when choosing this sort of career.
Try to start working when still in college. Work for free if necessary, however badly it sounds.
Do not be picky about the jobs you do. If you are good, you can do any job well. There are jobs and niches that are much more rewarding than working for corporations and multinationals. After 20 years spent as a graphic designer working for every possible sector of economy I discovered that designing memorial cards is actually the most rewarding work I have done so far. People do care, the work you do has emotional value for them and they will be truly grateful for the work you do. You won’t ever get this from corporate clients.
Also, be humble. It will improve the quality of your work. Ask people what they think. At the end of the day your work will be used by ordinary people, not other designers.
If there is one thing that graphic design colleges fail to tell their potential students, it would be this: if you go through this college, you will very likely have a job. Only the very few that are exceptionally talented and/or lucky will have careers.