Is it me or is it the job?

Hi Ya’ll,

Long time reader here with a request for job advice from people who know the industry :slight_smile:

My question is: I am very unhappy in my career choice of ID. Is it me, (my experience level, my skill level) or is this just what the job entails?

I graduated in 2011 with a BFA in ID from an art school. I got a job right out of school basically heading up a design department for a very small local manufacturing plant that made mostly metal and graphic POP displays. Their original job post was for a draftsperson, but once they saw my resume they hired me to do designs, renderings, engineering drawings, graphics, redesign their website, IT, project management, etc… basically anything that involves a computer. Business started booming and I was soon managing the development of 15-20 projects at a time. When it came to new projects I never had time to get creative–although the clients and my employer encouraged me to. Between 60hr work week and $15/hr it was too much. There was just too little creativity to be worth it – especially coming from an art school type of environment. I decided to jump ship.

Pretty quickly I got recruited to a “high-end” POP design firm that is on contract with several major retailers in the US. I have been here for a total of 6 months and have been incredibly unhappy. They hired me specifically because I came from a manufacturing background so I had some insight versus a fresh graduate. When I first started I got a handful of fun/cool projects that seemed like the design mecca compared to the slatwall and peghooks I was doing before. They’ve since hired 3 new entry level designers and I’ve been stuck with just revising everyone’s work (there are 6 of us in total). When I do get a chance to work on a new project, the creative director pairs me up with a sr. designer who doesn’t give me any say in the design. We will both sketch, and because he is senior, he chooses his own sketch, and then I model it, and then he tells me to change nearly everything, and then we send it off to the client. Sometimes he even lets me have a say, and then photoshops over my changes without telling me – not even giving me a chance to learn what I am doing wrong.

To top it off, the other designers do a lot of blue-sky, out of the box, crazy concepts that I don’t feel right about presenting. After a client brief, it seems like they ignore 9 out of 10 of the client’s design criteria and just kind of do what they think will look good. Even when that means ignoring a client’s branding. And then when it comes to the client feedback and editing their blue-sky stuff down, the revisions land on my shoulders as it moves into production. I have to somehow force those 9 other design criteria back into a project that didn’t really fit their brand to begin with. To top it off the marketers, visual managers, buyers, everyone else on the client side then emails me to change the color to this, bold that, shape of this, material of that. When all is said and done, the fixtures always turn out to look like Frankenstein and I embarrassed to have my name on it. I feel like I am on salary to give my design expertise and so far have not been allowed to do so. Whenever I speak out or try to add in my own touch the sr designer shuts me down or comes behind me with his secret photoshop eraser.

I have never questioned my skills until recently and have never felt so disheartened. I know I am learning and young but I question if these are the people to learn from. I honestly feel like if my new job gave me the time of day to work on a project from start to finish that I could pull out something that looks good – that I can combine my creativity and manufacturing know-how and create something that will look good in concept AND production. I feel like maybe I don’t get assigned new projects because my ideas aren’t creative enough. (I figure it can’t be seniority thing as there are other entry level designers getting the new assignments) Is this just how design is? Is it always going to be like this?

I am thinking of maybe freelancing or changing fields but am worried it will be the same situation. I never really meant to end up in POP design and would love to get into accessibility products or UX. I would love to create something that isn’t going to be in a walmart dumpster after 6 months. Do I need to learn more from this job first? Or should I just get out of here before I waste more time being unhappy?

I ended up in POP design while I was in school and stayed in it several years after school so I feel your pain. It’s not for everyone. Some designers I knew were very happy in the field, I wasn’t one of them. If you like the field try to find a position with another firm as the one you are with doesn’t sound like it’s going to make you happy in the long term.

If you don’t want to be a POP designer I’d get out while you are young and have relatively few obligations (kids, mortgage, etc…). Any of the folks I graduated with that went into POP, or exhibit design found it very tough to go into more standard product design after a few years.

Just my $.02

P.O.P. is rough, I know your pain. The timelines are incredibly tight, the requests are often absurd, and the finished products are rarely something you feel like showing off or bragging about. The budgets are tiny and the demands are monumental. All your design experience and creativity is suppressed in favor of the whims of someone in your retail client’s marketing department who became the creative lead there because they made a church bulletin in MSPaint for the boss’s daughter.

I’m slugging through that industry now, and I’d suggest getting out while you’re still young. That’s what I’m doing. If your hours aren’t too bad, spend your off time redoing old design projects from school or starting new ones from scratch. Shop them around to places you’d like to work in other industries. Use the P.O.P. to pay the bills while you find something that makes you happy.

Or you could do what I’ve done and apply to some grad schools. It can be expensive, and isn’t necessarily worth it depending on the career path you want to take, but if you devote yourself to being great, it can be an effective “reboot” on your career (at least that’s what I really hope). My long term plan always involved teaching, so grad school makes sense for me, but if that’s not part of your plan it might make more sense to spend your energy on job hunting.

POP was an amazing entrance into design…for me. I came out of school with little technical knowledge so landing a salaried POP job helped to fund some other areas of focus. I learned a tremendous amount about corrugated packaging design (ArtiosCAD), later I moved onto permanent display design and engineering; designing with sheet metal, wood, wire, plastics, and cabinet style panel manufacturing. This sincerely created a strong foundation to move into more electronics packaging/engineering. I was in POP for about 5 years before I got my break into a traditional design consultancy. During the 5 years, I still kept my nose to the grindstone, worked on my p’folio sketched A LOT and applied and applied and applied…until I got my break.

You can decide to leave POP with excellent foundation knowledge that can nearly apply any where. In the end, everything needs to be packaged / Planned (POG) for retail and non-retail space. 10 years later, I can see the entire gamut of how my designs get designed, manufactured, shipped, managed within inventory and later on store shelves. I have an understanding of the budget required for product launches, promo vehicles and channel distribution. Some say that it shouldn’t be the concern of the designer. However, my POP skills ingrained a thinking that helps me to forecast the entire cost of goods sold; critical when your presenting ROI of product designs when you reach your senior design years. This will help to push your designs forward much quicker and with less hesitation on spending money.

If you decide to stay, you will learn a lot and have gained great insight into the business of promoting design through packaging and fulfillment. If you don’t, no sweat, you’ll have gained great insights into the back end of product / marketing promotions. Good luck!

Thanks, I really appreciate the different viewpoints! There are some aspects of POP that I like, such as seeing your work get produced so quickly. I like the combination of 2D graphics & 3D design. I have definitely learned from seeing manufacturing up close and personal. But beyond that, I feel like acm has hit the nail on the head with this:

The timelines are incredibly tight, the requests are often absurd, and the finished products are rarely something you feel like showing off or bragging about. The budgets are tiny and the demands are monumental. All your design experience and creativity is suppressed in favor of the whims of someone in your retail client’s marketing department who became the creative lead there because they made a church bulletin in MSPaint for the boss’s daughter.

This has been exactly my experience at both the small manufacturer and the design agency. Between my sr designers, the buyer, the visual manager, the category manager, marketers, etc, I can’t get a word in edgewise. I’m embarrassed to be involved with these displays and have no leverage to make any changes. I’m just an order-following CAD monkey. For me this is the major deal breaker – I’m being paid to do design and I would really love for that to be part of my job!

Is this how it is in the traditional product route too? I understand that I will be low on the totem pole wherever I go, I just want to be able to have a voice in the process! Am I dreamin’?

Well I’m not a senior designer by any means, so I can’t speak from experience, but there is a certain way I have always looked at moving up in the design field, or any field for that matter.

Every step in your career comes with tougher and tougher challenges. At every step, a certain percentage of the people are going to decide that it isn’t worth the effort to overcome them, and they start taking the path of least resistance. At that point, they quit advancing in a meaningful way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they may be devoting their effort towards pursuits they find more meaningful than their jobs (family, personal hobbies, travel etc.), and if they can pay the bills with where they are at, more power to them. Some of them will still advance through having good connections or just plain dumb luck, and they will become the kind of people no one likes working for or working with, because they’ve advanced past their level of competence.

For most of the people who “quit trying” however, they’ll reach a point where they’re reasonably content and just sort of stagnate there. They’ll really enjoy stand up comedy about how everyone really hates their job, and they’ll assume everybody else feels the same way. They’ll complain quietly to their coworkers about their industry, but they’ll never make any moves towards fixing anything. They’ll snicker at younger workers with wide-eyed ideals and energetic enthusiasm who want to change the world for the better, and feel satisfied knowing that in a few years, they’ll wake up to the grim truths of the “real world” and become just as jaded as everyone else. Work sucks, the game is rigged, and the sooner you accept your inevitable fate as a drone, the sooner you can start your path to find true happiness after 5pm.

But I don’t think that has to be your fate.

I think that the true luminaries of design, of art, of music, of science, they are the people that stuck it out and never quit trying. They never went in to work and worked just hard enough to not get fired. The are the ones who maintained that enthusiasm and hope for their work even after their peers had run out of steam and started coasting.

It’s a tough battle, and I think it gets tougher as you get older. There will be no shortage of people who will tell you to stop, to not even bother and to quit because you’re making them look bad by comparison. They’ll tell you not to even bother asking the client that question, because it’ll just mean more work for everybody, and if the final product isn’t perfect, it won’t be your problem. The fact that you still care is making it harder for them not to. But I think it’s worth it, in the end, because if you don’t stop, you get to become the kind of person who can say they really accomplished things. You didn’t just win conference championships at your high school sport or get nominated for some design award in undergrad, you launched a product you led the development on, you started a company that became a household name, you became the leader of a whole team of designers doing important work, you got asked to be a guest speaker at the university full of students who still have enthusiasm for your field, you did something that truly mattered while everyone else followed the easier path.

So if you don’t think the work you’re doing is what you want, look for something else. Do the best job you can do at what you’re doing now, but just do not take your eyes off the horizon. People will tell you “that’s just the way the working world is”, but don’t listen to them. It might be that way for them, but it doesn’t have to be that way for you if you’re the one who makes the effort to fix it. You’ll have to do most of it on your own, but it will be worth it because it will make you better than everyone else. Learn how electronics work and start building simple circuits on your own, take night classes at a local community college about manufacturing processes, learn some programming and web design, find design contests to enter and try to win them, see if you can design something and Kickstart it yourself.

Set high expectations of yourself, learn to love the process of becoming the great designer you always wanted to be, and do not compromise your enthusiasm for anyone.

I needed this post after the day I had yesterday… great read acm. Very inspirational.

Yeah, never let a job or manager make you think there is something wrong with you, that’s a dangerous place to be.

I remember being at a job and being pretty miserable. I started thinking I had a hard time getting along with people, or that I wasn’t a good person, or things like that. They would tell me a lot of things under the heading of “being more professional” but after I left the next place I worked was with someone who knew how to manage people so they could do their best both for the organization and for themselves. I realized there was never anything wrong with me.

So it’s not you. The place I was talking about being miserable did give me some good advice and skills that I used later, the best piece of advise was that a job is like a relationship, sometimes you have to know when to break up.

acm – Thank you very very much for that response! This was exactly what I needed to hear. I’m seriously going to print this out and keep it in my sketchbook. I have been taking this whole thing way too personally. I’m getting too caught up in stuff that’s only going to slow me down…time to reassess my goals and put my nose back to the grindstone! I really appreciate it!

My vote:
“It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young”

Sounds like you are mature, have a good head on your shoulders and are keeping perspective despite being young and in a challenging situation.

“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes”
“guard your dreams and visions”
“Someday girl I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun”

Best of luck to you!

Nice acm…

Love that line, reminds me of a quote I heard on the radio when I was like 13 years old.
" Hold onto your dreams and never quit, cos quitters never win!"

Damn acm - posting of the year right there -

Wow I think acm summed it up. I even needed that. Great post!!

OP - I know your pain. I have felt it myself. I started my career in POP and didn’t end up there because of choice, but just kind of feel into it. POP is a meat grinder and depending on who you work for it can be very rewarding or it can be very underwelming. What I will tell you is if you take a step back, clear all the shit, you will notice that you are learning a ton in the POP industry. Think about what you are learning about retail, how to work in a extremely fast paced environment, or how to work with a very cost prohibitive material. Try to soak all of that up. You will need those skills no matter where you work.

Remember, you are in charge of your career. Only you can accomplish your career goals. You can pull yourself out of this but it may take extra work. First thing you have to do is define those goals. Think about what it is you want to do now, what you want to do in the near future and what your dreams are for the distance future. Write those down. I personally have a Moleskin, well multiple now, that I record my career thoughts in. By writing it down it makes them real. You get a sense of commitment to them. Keep referring back to those goals. If your current situation isn’t satisfying them, then it is time to reset and potentially move on. When moving on you now have criteria on where to look. These kind of activities and thinking is what separates the complacent from the leaders.

To help us get you there, why don’t you post your portfolio and we can give you feedback and give you better direction on what you may need to work on to accomplish your career goals.

Hope this helps.


Agreed. ACM, you have the right perspective. I rember when I became a director at Nike at 30 someone said to me,“must be nice be on the fast track…” I has to explain that there was no fast track unless he is referring to the one I put myself on. No one cares about your career as much as you do. So if you think little of your career, imagine what others think!

Great posting ACM. Design is all about progressing and moving forward but we forget about that in our personal lives sometimes. If we applied our design skills to our lives we all might be better off. Passion, problem solving, fun, knowledge, experimenting, failing, succeeding…

I just want you guys to know how thankful I am for your advice. ACMs post especially really motivated me to start showing that I was capable of more rather than begrudgingly accept the busywork. I have been asking challenging questions and trying to participate more, ignoring the eye rolls from my fellow designers. And low and behold I found out today I got a raise and put on some special projects. Our CD sent me a very nice complimentary email on all my hard work. Thank you guys again for taking the time to respond and set me on the right path. I appreciate it!

That’s awesome and really good to hear.
Thanks for letting us know!

Nice! Attitude, approach, and intent are so important. Approach your career like a design problem.

And - remember this posting, these responses, and how you reacted, for the next time the ‘funk’ sets in. Because odds are sometime it will, and will require decisions or actions as difficult as this one, if not more. Good work.

Awesome! There will be good days and bad days. On the bad days, you’ve got to keep your nose to the grindstone and make it through to start fresh the next day. On the good days, don’t hesitate to feel good about your accomplishments. You earned it.

You guys are too kind. If you need any extra motivation for your day, here you go. Just make sure your sound is on :wink:.