Written by Juliette Cezzar. This article is snipped from Dear Design Student, full article here.
Q: As a design student, my parents don’t seem to show much support whenever I tell them about my plans for going after internships and jobs. I’ve shown them salaries, well-known companies that hire designers, and the things that designers have made and put out in the world. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve just been fooling myself this whole time. How do I get my parents (or any non-design person, for that matter) to understand the reality of design as a career?
A: A couple of years after I graduated from college and moved to New York, I was on the phone with my mom, who was again complaining that I didn’t take more interest in what she was doing. I realized we hadn’t talked about what I was doing for months. I stopped for a moment and then asked, “Mom, what do I do?” She said, “you work.” “Where do I work?” She paused. “In an…office?”
For the many years after I quit that job and refused to take another one, I’d wince when listening to her try to describe what I did to others. Often it was close enough, but not worth correcting, since I wouldn’t have been better able to explain it myself. My dad was more direct. At my MFA graduation he pulled me aside and said “you know, you should give this graphics design thing a college try, but you can still go to medical school.”
So I feel you on the parent thing. But the reality of design as a career? Design is a practice, a service, and a way to organize how to think about your life. Sometimes it even starts to look like a discipline. If by “career” you mean a life’s work cohered by some relatively constant principles, then sure. But if you mean an organized path to follow, then, um, no.
The “career path” for a designer now has more in common with one of those video games where the map is revealed as you go than with any 1960s idea of how someone’s work life should progress over time. Sometimes it goes in circles. Sometimes it leads away from design practice entirely. For every seasoned designer who spends the most of their day actually designing, there are a thousand who spend most of their time managing, advising, teaching, or some combination of the three. That map is always changing, too, not just revealing itself: follow the path exactly for any one of your heroes, and it’s guaranteed that you will not end up where they are. The other guarantee is that job titles are as arbitrary as avatars, so whatever job title you have won’t make sense to the people around you in the present, forget about meaning anything in the future. And those well-known companies you’re talking about? They may not exist ten years from now.
So then why do it? Sounds risky, right? But before you sign up to be a dental hygienist, consider that all of this is exactly why design is a wonderful place to be. Communication is a basic human and business need as well as an endless well of problems, so there is always an abundance of good work to go around. And because there is no set path, you are more free to move than you would have been if you chosen to do something else. Want to quit your job and go solo? Put in your notice. Tired of working alone? Partner with someone and start a studio. Want to work on bigger projects? Work in house. Want to work on a variety of projects? Join a larger agency. Want to quit and freelance again? No regrets. As long as you don’t believe in anyone’s hokum about a career ladder, you can do this. And as long as you are continuously learning — something that design practice forces you to do anyhow — your future isn’t pre-written. You learn different things in all of these roles and contexts, and even more if you move from one industry to another: from publishing to advertising, from museums to tech to food to medicine. There is no guarantee of success, sure, but rarely is there much at stake besides time and opportunity cost.
As you go, you’ll find, too, that it’s not just your parents who don’t know what exactly it is that you do. Unless you work on a really small team, even the people you work with probably won’t be able to describe what you do. You’re not really worried about your parents, or anyone else. You’re worried about you. This familiar worrying especially gnawed at me into my thirties: What game am I playing? Am I winning? If I’m not, why not? And if I am, why am I only playing games I can win?
These are all useful questions. To not know exactly what game you’re playing is usually fine, but if you think you’re playing a different game, things may not turn out the way you expect. At every turn, you do need to know how to measure whether or not you are doing well, and with a yardstick that has something more than dollar signs on it. If you don’t have moments when you say “I need to be better at this” and figure out how, you’ll never get any better at what you do. As for only playing games that you win, if you’re the kind of person who has a high need for achievement, chances are you’re going to want to hang in a zone where you make few mistakes. It’s natural for people to flip from seeking new challenges to defending their turf or expertise. Don’t know the new thing? Just declare it a fad and tell me again how sad it is that no one appreciates your comfort zone. But if you do push yourself to the point where you’re willing to play games that you’re not sure you’re going to win, those are the true achievements. You’re not going to get that by climbing any pre-warmed career ladder.
So if they turn up the heat, tell your parents this: I’m going to work with people I like on something that I think matters. I’m going to be independent. Beyond that, I don’t know, and that’s why I’m doing this. And if it doesn’t work out, don’t worry, I’ll go to medical school.