April 13th, 2009

Getting Better

By Frank Chimero

Sunrise Sunset

These are uncertain times, but what times are certain? Usually, the interesting things are unpredictable. Like your life, and hopefully mine. And I’d venture to say that the best things that happen to all of us are typically the direct result of something completely out of our control. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s equal parts liberating and daunting.

You have a lot of challenges ahead of you after graduation. But, I will promise you this: if you keep your head on straight and use the skills that you’ve learned from this craft, everything is going to be OK. Doesn’t that just sound great? It’s like some sort of oasis away from all of this insanity. Say it to yourself. More importantly, say it for yourself. “Everything is going to be OK.”

Happy vibes, right? But I digress. This is not a time for rose-tinted glasses. There are real obstacles that have to be overcome. There’s a metric ton of stupid stuff that, unfortunately, was handed over to you. Older people tell me this is how it always goes: the young have to live in the world made by the old. Maybe we’ll wise up and realize that we don’t have to handcraft a bowl of something awful to serve to our kids. But for now, at the risk of sounding cliché, we have to play the hand we’re dealt.

To continue my lazy metaphor, we should lay all of our cards on the table. Let’s rip off the band-aid. You’re graduating, and looking for employment. And this economy sucks. Your job may not come quickly. Not many people are hiring. You may not even get a job: a design degree does not equal a design job. Welcome to the world of failure. Hopefully you’ve become acquainted to it through rigorous critiques and by taking meaningful risks with your work and life in school. One of the most important pieces of knowledge I gained from school is that failure cannot be driven out of life, especially in creative endeavors. Failure is okay. In fact, I’ve come to expect it from myself, and you should do the same. Failure is how you learn and how you get better. And if you’re not in this profession to learn and get better, go home. There are too many designers as it is.

Still with me? The good news is that there are several characteristics that, if you have them, will help you through the turbulent period of looking for your first job and transitioning from a student to a professional.

First, you’ll need patience. Maybe more so than any other previous time in your life. You may have to get a job not related to design to pay your bills. It’s not ideal, but reality never is. Life is a series of plan B’s (or in my case, Plan K’s or L’s). You’ll also need persistency to keep looking for design work after rejection. Take note, though: you’d still have to cope with “no,” even if you had the best portfolio in the best possible economic climate. Also, hearing “no” might not be a result of the quality of your work: the “no” may stem from the fact that the studio may not be in a situation to hire at all. I encourage you to bring your book to professionals regardless of their hiring status: feedback is healthy, and you may have the time to implement it to improve your work. More than anything, the best boat that will weather this storm is passion. Passion begets all of the other traits I’ve mentioned. It has stamina and determination. If you’re passionate, you can’t just turn your back on the thing that you love. You’ll make it through.

Don’t be scared to ask yourself “What is success?” A lot of people are asking themselves that right now. You don’t have to go work for a studio. There are other options. Success is relative, and there are many paths, not just the one “true” traditional path. Having a design degree can open a lot of doors. The thinking and making skills you are equipped with and using can make whatever you do better.

All of this news should be a solace if you’re talented, skilled and passionate. You’re well equipped to survive most anything anyone could throw at you. It should be a warning sign for you if you can’t see yourself holding out a bit of time for a design job. If you can’t wait for it, you probably do not want it badly enough. It might be time to reconsider your career path. There’s no shame in changing your mind about things, it’s just more clearly becoming who you are and defining what you want. That may or may not be a career in graphic design. You’re not abandoning anything; you’re embracing something new. Also, this type of “is design for me?” crisis will occur regardless, two or three years in, once the enchantment of the professional life fades away. There’s nothing wrong with sanity checking your decisions every once in a while.

In fact, it’s the lack of a sanity check that’s led to this whole mess. Some people thought it’d be wise to base a whole economic system on the idea that you can make a buck by putting your hand in the next guy’s pocket. Logic (and morals) should dictate that this isn’t a wise path to pursue. That system is falling apart before our eyes, and we’re left scrambling trying to sandbag the problem, while finding a suitable replacement. I believe the only thing we’ve got is what we’ve known and what has sustained economic systems for centuries: making stuff.

And, congratulations! You’re one of a small group of people left on this planet that not only remembers how to make stuff, but actually considers it a part of your well-being. The fact that what the world needs and what you personally need line up so directly should be very encouraging to you. If we’re looking to reestablish an economic system on innovation and production, who better to usher in this new period than designers? Designers are “idea people,” but our effectiveness is based on the making of those ideas. Hello, world. Here we are. Let’s roll up our sleeves.

If you’re looking to form a design career that’s built on a foundation of excessive consumption, think again. Right now, at the start of your career, you have a rare option in choosing what direction you’ll focus your momentum. You can choose to make things that are (or help sell) new things, or you can choose to make things that are (or help sell) new, better things. Better is the key. Our lives, our wallets, our consciences, our friends and family, and our planet deserve better. We need your skills to help determine what exactly better is, and what it looks like.

Also, those skills you’ve been honing the past four years or so aren’t too shabby. Consider this: the world is migrating from left-brained people to those of the right-brained variety. Right now, society requires leaps of ingenuity that only the creative can provide (whether designers or not). How else are we going to fix this mess, and make the world better? How else, without creativity, can you even imagine what better looks like, never mind how to get there?

We need hard working people with excellent work ethics. I’m not sure I’m aware of a group of people who work harder than design students. We need individuals comfortable with ambiguity. We need people who can simplify complex ideas, without watering them down, and transform intimidating data to approachable information. We need people who can tell a good story to soften hardened ears. We need individuals who have a knack for stepping back from everything and recognizing patterns in the big picture. The best designers do all of these every day, and these are the skills you’ve been polishing (hopefully) in school.

The tools of creation are widely available: they’re out there for almost everyone. If you figure out what better is, you don’t have to wait for someone to enable you. You can make it yourself, or with the help of like-minded people. Better is about more than typefaces, composition and color. It’s about planning action and moving. Better is about change and recognizing potential. This world can be better. And we can make it that way. The world is not yet done.