The Humble Designer

I recently spent a morning unsubscribing from dozens of newsletters that have been clogging up my email inbox. Most of them were passing through without being opened so I implemented a well-known household decluttering rule, “If you haven’t used it in the last 12 months, get rid of it.” 

I now have a reasonably short list of newsletters to digest. One of my favorites is Critique by Jarrod Drysdale who writes about the practical aspects of working as a designer, such as marketing yourself and how to deal with difficult clients. A couple of weeks ago Jarrod wrote about some of the more difficult experiences he’s had during his career and encouraged his subscribers to share their own less-than-victorious design episodes. He reasons that it’s a good way to “deal with creative struggles, rather than letting them boil under the surface," and that sharing our struggles can help other designers feel less alone and allay their fears that somehow they are inferior at their craft. 

I agree with Jarrod and have decided to share some of my own design struggles.

When I graduated from art school, there was an economic recession going on so design jobs were difficult to come by. After roofing houses for a couple of months I landed my first job in a small print shop. The design work consisted mostly of typesetting business forms and the occasional direct-mail postcard. I was frustrated because I felt this kind of mundane work was beneath my talents as a designer but after few humbling experiences (like misreading an order for 5,000 copies as 50,000) I began to realize that maybe there was more to learn from this first design job than I thought. The most valuable experiences that I took away were: interacting successfully with customers is part of being a designer, knowing how print production works is useful (many designers don’t understand how the digital files they hand over to the printer are produced), and that it’s just as important for a mundane business form to be well designed as it is for a glossy catalog.

Next, I was hired as a junior designer by a small agency to create marketing pieces for a variety of clients. Without even asking if I had experience in this area, the art director sent me to supervise a photo shoot for a jewelry client. I showed up at the photographer’s studio with a few notes and a sketch of the ad. Thankfully, the photographer had experience with these projects and knew exactly what to do. I stood by quietly watching as he worked, feeling as useful as screen door on a submarine. To his credit, the photographer told my art director the shoot went great and to please send me back for the next project. I spent the next three years learning as much as I could about how to art direct a photo shoot, a valuable skill which I was able to carry forward into my next job.

During my tenure as an in-house designer at a university I learned a lesson about maintaining a healthy perspective about my role as a designer. I had just returned from a very difficult photo shoot at one of the university’s satellite campuses and was pouring over the 35mm slides, desperately trying to find some workable images for a new catalog. The Director of Admissions came to the studio to review the project, randomly pulled out 10 slides from the sleeve and said, “Use these.” My pride was dented and the voices in my head got louder as my temper rose. “He wasn’t even at the shoot!” “He has no idea how difficult it was to get any useable images at all!” “He has a degree in business management, not design!” I never verbalized my frustration but I spent the next several years learning how to provide excellent customer service and deal more effectively with difficult design situations. 

One of the things I’ve come to believe as a result of all these humbling experiences is that, while talent and knowledge are assets, no client will care how much you know (about design) until they know how much you care (about their design problem).

If you have a difficult design problem and want to partner with an experienced (and humble) designer, let’s talk.