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The design company is not the only place to be a designer

Younger designers often come to me looking for advice on getting hired. As most of my design work has been in self-employment, I’m not the best person to ask — one reason why I started the “What employers look for” series — but if you’re finding studio work hard to come by, I overheard this valuable tip in a chat between Mike Dempsey and Michael Wolff.

Japanese lamp globe

Mike Dempsey:

“Younger designers [are] getting into a very overcrowded business, and increasingly so. Do you have any thoughts?”

Michael Wolff:

“I do actually. The main thought I have is don’t think a design company is where a designer should necessarily be, because if you’re interested in creativity and you are creative and you can see and you have got curiosity and you do appreciate things and you have got imagination, take it anywhere. Go and work in any company. Go and bring it to anyone who’ll listen to you.

“The design company is not the only place to be a designer. In fact it’s actually in some ways a rather constraining place to be a designer.”

Transcribed from the closing remarks of this 40-minute recording.

Related (from the archives): An excellent 12-minute video of Michael Wolff on creativity.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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22 comments about “The design company is not the only place to be a designer”

  1. Hope he is right. I am about to leave the company and start out on my own, hoping to bring it to anyone who will listen. :0

  2. Es cierto, a veces resulta bastante limitante el ser empleado, creo que como independientes nuestro trabajo resulta mas satisfactorio y poseemos un abanico mas amplio de posibilidades creativas, pero debemos aprender a encontrar los espacios para explotar nuestro talento sin morir en el intento.

  3. This is definitely true. I’ve been studying design for about a year and half, and last week I got a job as a CPC, collecting specimens for drug tests. Being creative, being very visually aware allowed me to absorb tons of information on procedures, regulations, how it all works just by watching my supervisors. Creativity is a great tool in any workplace, it helps with learning and figuring out better ways of doing things rather than following traditional processes that aren’t the most efficient.

  4. From experience I can say that working as a Graphic Designer in-house for a non design company is exciting since most of the time you are educating your colleagues about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you’re lucky like I was you’ll end up being the Designer and the Art Director without asking for it… and oddly enough without others actually noticing it as well. The best part is that it’s typically a 9 to 5 job where you are not asked (forced) to slave over to meet deadlines and help fill wallets of others. Benefits and job security are in the + column as well. I find the extra time is best spent on fulfilling your own personal projects.

  5. This is a great piece of advice really. I mean, I am doing freelance and working as a pro designer, but I do not work at a design company… in fact, I work at a bank, of all places.

    Design is the force driven by creativity. Creativity is all around us, it’s what inspires us, and with that being said, is never bound to one area of business. If it was, then a lot of company’s would be spending their time and money outsourcing when they could just get a designer in-house for themselves.

  6. This is very insightful stuff David, thank you for sharing this.

    I strongly believe in the fact that you don’t necessarily have to be working within a design company to be a designer. I believe you can express yourself as a designer no matter what profession you’re in.

    For instance, I’m writing this response from my 9 till 5 job as Sales Support within an FX company. But I do freelance graphic design in my spare time because it’s who I am and it’s how I want to express myself.

    “Go and work in any company. Go and bring it to anyone who’ll listen to you.”

    Great advice and strong words. You may not be able to get a design job right away. But in this day and age, with the internet & technology where it is, there aren’t any excuses anymore. With determination and persistence, there are many ways to be a designer.

  7. I also agree. Since graduating from university I found it extremely hard finding and securing a job in a design company. I only live 40mins from London too!

    However i was lucky enough to get a job working as a designer for a small local medical company. And i love it!

    My job ranges from catalogues, to manuals. I’m also in charge of making how to videos and banners, stands for our exhibitions and the labels for our products and the packaging. All in all i couldn’t have hoped for a more diverse job.

    Another benefit is being appreciated. The colleagues who cannot use the programs or envision what i can envision appreciate me a great deal, and in turn i respect them a lot more.

    Since taking on this job i’ve also been put in charge of marketing research. The opportunities and variations of my job would not have been available to me had i close-mindedly sought a graphics design job within a design company.

    So my advice to those seeking a design job? Keep your mind open and don’t think any less of yourself just because you aren’t in a design company!

  8. I agree with this whole heartedly. I am an in-house designer at a Natural History Museum. It is great! Full of lots of fun, scientific projects. Couldn’t ask for more.

  9. As much as a design company can help increase and hone a designers skills I believe sometimes it can stifle them as well, an interesting topic.

  10. That is true. As an author and business man, I can relate to how you said, “The design company is not the only place to be a designer”. I hope more people discover your blog because you really know what you’re talking about. Can’t wait to read more from you!

  11. All my work has *also* been in self-employment, and thus has always been a two way interaction between me and the client. I have *often* wondered just how complicated the relationship (and design process) would become if suddenly there was a third party (agency director etc) also engaged in the process.

    Happy to be where I am, delivering work that *I* feel is my best.

    I think that young designers are probably more enthralled with the idea of working in an agency rather than thinking about the actual day to day creative process.

  12. An interesting post David, being an ‘outsider’ to the design community I can second that it is very competitive.

    The ‘loudest’ designers/agencies are not the best; I have seen some fantastic designs and blogs from ‘nobodies’ that I think ‘why are they not elevated to where they should be’?

    From a client’s perspective it is hard, as the selection to hand are not the best, by any stretch of the imagination. A client really needs to get immersed in the design community to appreciate that there is a wide range of designers and research will prove invaluable in getting value for money and a design that works.

  13. I totally agree. I work for the state department, and while getting people to trust your designs is a challenge it’s not anymore so then when you are in a studio. You have to have a curiosity about the people you are working for and the programs you are working with. And in many ways I much prefer my internal clients then my freelance clients. One reason is that they seem to appreciate your design more. Most have never seen a logo designed for them let alone a brochure that really does give then all they hoped for. I love seeing that initial reason and then the following pride these agencies have for the art. It’s a lovely thing for me, because it’s like giving a gift to them rather then getting paid to do the work.

    In the end the State has a better “raw appreciation” for the design, even if they don’t know why, then my studio and freelance work ever has.

    And I like to think that I am teaching a whole new group hove to appreciate and understand proper design. That unto itself if more rewarding then any work I have done for a ad agency.

  14. This has certainly been the case for myself as well. I built my career working with a couple different in-house graphic departments in both the medical and sports industries and was able to expand into my own thing from there. I believe the whole philosophy presented here is applicable to many occupations. A personal favorite parallel would be to the music industry… A musician can simply dream big with hopes that one day they are possibly noticed by a label, or oppositely they can work hard, hit the road playing as many shows as they can anywhere that will have them, and eventually this kind of drive and hunger commands the attention of a label (at which point their worth is a much higher premium).

  15. Good luck, Steven. An exciting time, I’m sure.

    Giuseppe, I don’t think you can say that benefits and job security are improved when working for a non-design firm as opposed to for a design studio. The only real way to take control of job security is to become self-employed, and even then there are risks.

    Jamie, well said.

    Luke, great to read you’re doing so well in your job. It sounds like a similar role to the one I was in before I chose to go it alone.

    Thanks a lot for commenting, everyone.

  16. A few places I found work that have kept me, not as a full time employee, but as their graphic designer for all their needs which tend to arise several times a year.

    University library (displays, posters, window, fliers and announcements)
    small to mid size local non profits ( brochures, posters, and promotional items and post cards)
    website banners etc (this area is exploding in my experience)
    I have let printers know that I am available to do design work (has resulted in over 40 jobs)
    Being a member of the local chamber of commerce has been a hugh resource too! I live near Long Beach but have also joined the Los Angeles chamber of commerce… it has been a great marketing tool!

    Of course there is logo work etc out there and many resources on the internet to help free lancers find work but the above jobs have helped to keep me solvent even through this horrible financial recession the nation (USA) is in….

  17. The main reason why I wanted to work in a design agency after working as a freelance and at Road Safety University Department (as a designer) for over three years, was to get more experience on how to manage a design project, how to deal with different problems, being able to work for different companies on different projects, working on much bigger projects than the ones I was able as a ‘little freelancer’.

    Having said that, I also agree that it gives you a lot of experience to be the only designer of a company non-design related. I learned a lot from people that had different backgrounds and it made me grow in my field.

  18. This is true. I think people undervalue the volume of design work there is ‘outside’ an agency etc. Broadening horizons opens us up to so many opportunities!

  19. This is a very hopeful post as someone who would like to freelance instead of at a design firm. A problem that always loomed in the back of my mind is that if I wanted to transition from a design company to my own business, it may an overlap between my business and the company’s. One question I do have, is that if some one is a beginning designer, is it okay to dive right into design alone, instead of having a design firm hold me by the hand at first.

  20. Hello Taisa, relevant experience is always useful, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a success without such a background. It’ll probably take you more time, and you’re likely to make more mistakes along the way, but you can still go on to achieve great things.

  21. I worked both at an advertising company and in a non design-related company (software developing).

    the pros and cons about working as a designer in a non design-related company:
    + as said, the 9 to 5 job
    + you may have full control over everything, you can be proud of the whole output
    + you get an insight in workflows that you normally wouldn’t
    + you get to do everything graphically in the company
    – you get to do everything graphically in the company (since you’re the only person to do it, it all depends on you.)
    – your boss probably doesnt know anything about graphic design and may not understand why certain things take so long
    – by some people, you might not get taken serious as you’re the “guy who only does fancy graphics”, next to the guys “who do the real work”
    – there are only so many graphical things to do, so the big question is
    – what do you have to do when you’re not designing?
    – you won’t learn design stuff from your colleagues

    it can be awesome and it can be pretty dumb, but this all depends on the company, and especially what you’re hired as (just as some other job with some design stuff to do or as a graphic designer with some other stuff to do is a huge difference). in the end, it was a great opportunity for me to get in the graphic industry, since I could gather a lot of experience and stuff to put in my portfolio there.

  22. I honestly think Mike’s got a great point. Take creativity anywhere that could use the extra power of the left side of the brain.

    Thinking about it, successfully doing design outside the design field would be unexpected and more appreciated.

    Personally, I think working for most design companies would more likely constrain and would entail a designer to serve design with a side order of fries. This would make design nothing more than just plain fast-paced business instead of a creative process.

Anything to add?

Comments may be edited or deleted if I don't like the cut of your jib, but that's quite unlikely.