The Fall of the Designer: A Report From the Backwater

The Fall of the Designer.

Fellow designers,

I write this as I sit at work right now. Of course many of you reading this will immediately ask; “How on earth do you have time to write an essay when surely you have work to do?” or “Is it not completely unprofessional to waste your employer’s time and money by writing instead of working and actually earning your keep?”. My answers to these well-placed questions are;

-I have time because as a department, we are in a holding pattern for a few hours until some internal issues get resolved, then, rest assured we will be busy enough with our respective projects.

-It is wholly unprofessional and I make no excuses for it. I fully accept the fact that I am being a naughty employee.

Now onto the point of this article. I am writing to report to you from the front lines of the design profession that there are a few of us that are in serious danger of being eliminated. Phased-out. Becoming extinct.

Some of you, no doubt, have jobs with companies where you are asked to fire up your creativity every day and are recognized for it. You work in offices with multi-colored walls, brand new equipment loaded with the latest software, well designed desks that compliment the Aeron Chair in which you now sit. For you, work isn’t a job, it’s the 8+ hours a day that you get to blast your music in your headphones while sipping the $4 latte you purchased in the downtown coffee house two blocks from your office. It’s also where you get to meet with your clients and “Wow” them with your mad talent and presentation skills. They sit in awe as you guide them down the path that you as a team have worked out for them. You know exactly what they should be producing and how it should look and they have every confidence in your judgement. You are the rock stars that make it happen for them and they are all too happy to fork over that payment after you have invoiced them. You are on the cutting edge of design and next month ID magazine is going to be in to interview you and your team for a front-page article. Life is indeed good for you.

Unfortunately most of us don’t have those jobs. Of course we almost all thought we would while we were still cutting our teeth in school. We went to the conferences and listened to guest speakers tell us how grand the life of a designer will be. We read the magazines and had lengthy discussions amongst ourselves about the philosophy of design. We came to view ourselves as above the unwashed, design-illiterate masses; after all, we were designers (or at least we were going to be).

Then we graduated.

In an instant, we were free to find that dream job we had been preparing for. I myself was certain that I would find a top-paying job in downtown Chicago or New York. I would live in a trendy downtown loft, wear designer clothes, only go to the best nightclubs, and be surrounded by only the coolest people. My office would also be in an incredibly well designed building in a happening, urban neighborhood and come with a great view. The people I worked with would be designers like myself, they would appreciate good design and we would truly be a team. I envisioned late nights doing incredibly great work for only the best clients. Nike, Microsoft, LG would all be begging for our services. We would be the gods of our industry and our lives would be blessed.

Of course these grand notions were entirely unrealistic and I acknowledge my own part in my utter disappointment. I am a creative person. My imagination shifts into overdrive in no time at all so that it take no great amount of prodding before my expectations are built to the size of cathedrals. But it was no help to have professors, guest speakers, fellow students and others offering false visions of what to expect. One half my fault, one half the fault of those that should have been intellectually honest enough with us to give us a realistic idea of the profession.

We all learned very quickly that our dream job would not just fall in our lap as we had thought. “Okay.”, we thought, “We have to hustle and pay some dues first. But that dream job is just around the corner. We just know it.”

Five years later, the horrible truth stares me in the face. Not only am I not working with the kind of company I had envisioned, I’m not even in the same industry. To help clarify, I offer this bit of personal information: I went to school to be an industrial designer. I now work as a senior designer with a major manufacturer of POP signage and displays. In school, they barely even mentioned the POP industry. We were fed a constant diet of pure product design except for one class our senior year. And that class was not given any real degree of respect or concern by either the students or the staff. The attitude was that we happened to be in a geographic location that was very big in the POP industry and as such, a few of the graduates would probably have to settle for their first job being at a display company so they might as well give us an introduction to it. But not to fear, most of us would surely get entry level positions with a respectable deign firm and we would be on our way. Reality would prove differently.

After graduation, only a handful of us went into product design. The market was saturated with ID graduates and there was a very limited supply of positions available. Thus, when the music stopped playing, only a handful found seats, the rest of us, were left to twist in the wind. I was not one of the lucky few.

Instead, after opening up the options to include POP and exhibit design, I was lucky enough to land almost immediately at a huge POP company in the area I went to school. I was to be one of the chumps after all. I reconciled that it would be a temporary move. The good stuff would come, I just have to bide my time and build my portfolio. In the mean time, I was working with other designers, though I was definitely the “kid”. The rest of the team had been working for 20+ years and they all had families. It was obvious that none of them had any real passion for the job. It was a paycheck, their real interest lie outside of work. Being the team-player that I am, I thrive on the energy and enthusiasm of others. In order to maintain my own drive, I need to be surrounded by others with the same passion. It took only months for that starry-eyed rookie to begin fading into the same shade of complacent grey that permeated the entire department.

I knew I had to get out of there. My resume was updated and polished. My portfolio was reformatted and now included professional work. I posted my stuff on Coroflot and began sending out cover letters, resumes, and sample portfolios to those design houses that I dreamed of working at. I assumed that it would be a snap to at least get an interview lined up. If nothing else, I could make that initial contact and impress them enough to keep me in mind for future positions. However, the most I could generate was one phone interview. And to put it mildly, it didn’t go well. Not that I don’t speak well or have any trouble presenting myself. The trouble was in the fact that in the six months I had been working at “Company A”, I hadn’t done anything along the lines of 3D modeling on the computer. It simply wasn’t required. Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop were not only sufficient for the projects we did, they were and still are they best way to generate the renderings that we presented to the clients. Unfortunately for me, this design director only wanted people with strong 3D modeling skills. It didn’t matter that I could draw like the wind or that I was exceptionally talented at putting presentations together and actually presenting ideas to others. Because I wasn’t a computer-monkey, he had no interest. This was very disturbing as we had been told all through school that companies really didn’t care of you could bang out a flawless Alias model or not just as long as you could draw and design well. On top of this, the reports that were coming in from people in the field all told a similar story. 3D modeling was the number one function they performed and traditional drawing and design skills were slowly ebbing in importance.

Thus I found myself in quite a predicament, I couldn’t get a premier job unless I built up a strong knowledge and portfolio of 3D modeling, but then I had to question whether or not I would want the job anymore as I find using the computer for modeling to be very boring and tedious. So my best option was to give up on my initial dreams of what being a professional designer would be like and evaluate my options. The conclusion I reached was that although the POP industry wasn’t nearly as interesting as traditional product design would have been, it certainly had some advantages. For one, although the designer took some basic direction from the client contact and then from the in-house sales rep, we were usually set loose to design. We had a certain amount of freedom that many people we knew in the product design field didn’t experience. Secondly, given that by my very nature I hate tedious detail and am more of a “broad brushstrokes” person, the projects I worked on had very quick lead times which meant that there was only so much detail I was required to get into. For the most part I could dream up concept after concept and be done after only a couple of days before I moved on to the next project. Things didn’t get too stale. That is, until you’ve done the same type of project for the same customer for the eighth time.

After two years of working in POP, it came to a point where every single design brief was the same. It was always some nitwit with a marketing degree who wanted the latest, most awesome design using the latest, most awesome technology but only had the budget for the same, tired, junk that they usually buy from us. And so it began.

At first we could comfort ourselves with the fact that at least they were interested in seeing new design directions and loved to see how far we could push their brand and their “look”. As a team, we produced some incredible ideas for these guys. But over time we began to get project requests that not only included a written brief, but also came with a rough scribble or two of what the client had in mind. This is where the dynamic forever changed. The clients started getting the notion that they could and should take a piece of the design process away from the designers and keep it for themselves. In the beginning we could find solace by observing how awful the ideas were. Then, after the clients got a bit more savvy and actually began suggesting designs that weren’t too bad (by that I mean that while there was nothing unique or innovative about the design and was entirely typical and uninspired, it would still fit their needs nonetheless), we could at least look down on how poor the drawings and scribbles were.

Enter the ad agency.

We were used to working alongside a clients ad agency quite harmoniously. After all, a successful marketing campaign is waged on many fronts. Ad agencies tended to handle artwork, printed advertisements, logos etc. We could base our designs off what they were doing and thereby tie everything together. But at some point, the ad agencies convinced the customer that they could handle the design of the POP materials as well as the traditional media and artwork. That might have been okay had the agencies come to us for design work. However, what they did is go to their graphic designers (both outside and in-house) to come up with displays and signage. Once the graphic designers came up with a few illustrations, we would then get them and determine how to produce them. Now before I continue my little story, allow me to say that I hold absolutely no ill-will to graphic designers. They are some of my very best friends in the whole wide world. However, talent in one field does not equal talent in another. It kills me to get these “renderings” from the graphic design houses and to see that these designers have no idea of how to address the third dimension. They basically come up with a 2D graphic and then put inane callouts and notes on the sketches. I wouldn’t go to Taco Bell for a cheeseburger, so why are the ad agencies going to graphic design houses for industrial design? I think I know the answer and it has nothing to do with the graphic designers.

The answer is that some account executive either at the ad agency level or at the graphic design house itself has determined that one area of design is just like another so why go to different places when the designers over here are willing to do it all? That is part one. Part two is because most POP companies are manufacturers and offer design services as a perk to our customers. The way these companies make money is by manufacturing the display or sign, not by designing it. However, most times, the customers have the courtesy to allow the first run of a project to the company that designs it. So if an agency can get the design done on the outside, they can then shop it around and get the lowest price every time.

Being a free-market capitalist, I can’t really fault them for that. But it still leaves us in this particular nook of the industry to question our future. As it stands right now, I am at the third company I have worked for and each one has been the same. All the veterans spin yarns of what it was like not ten years before I graduated. They were the driving force behind a project, sales, engineering, purchasing would all defer to the judgment of the designer (to a certain extent of course). The designers were high-up on the totem pole and one could realistically expect the opportunity to move into the upper echelons of management. In the relatively short amount of time I’ve been working professionally, I’ve seen the shift in focus from design-based, to price-based. And when that happens, sales and engineering become much more valuable than design.

On a typical day, I will get a project handed to me, and there will most likely be a design already done, the most I’m needed for is to produce an exploded view with maybe a few callouts of size, materials, etc. Maybe 20% of the time I will do some actual creative design work, but mostly not. So that leaves me and most other designers in my field in this very precarious position. We are obviously being squeezed out of where we were, so how do we adapt? We have three choices:

  • Get out of the POP industry altogether and hope that there is a place for us somewhere.
  • Find a gig as a designer with a graphic design firm or ad agency
  • Given we are already halfway there, why not just make the full switch to becoming engineers?

I don’t have much confidence in any of these choices. But I do know that at least in my field, the role of a designer is not what it once was and market forces being what they are, I don’t know that it will ever recover.

Now I’m sure that many if not all of you will determine very quickly that I am bitter and jaded and that is the cause of my woes. I would simply like to point out that it has been my experience that the most bitter and jaded are the very ones who started off being the biggest dreamers and the most optimistic. But as Newton advised us “What goes up must come down” and I believe that the higher one flies, the harder one hits the ground.

I truly hope that the rest of you in the design world are faring better than this lot. It truly looks as though we are going to lose this ground, I ask that the rest of you fight like hell to hang onto yours.

Your brother in design,

“KSB Sky Arrow”

I agree that a very large number of people are suffering from disenchantment over what they thought their lives would be like versus what actually happened. I fully admit that my expectations were waaaaay out of whack and should have been reigned in by myself.

However, once I had accepted things not being as great as I had initially hoped, they just kept getting worse and worse with time. I’m positive there are those who feel differently who work in my very industry. But in the three companies I’ve been at, things in the industry seem to be changing very fast and the designer is one casualty.

I don’t ask for perfection (anymore), I only ask for acceptabilty. But alas that is slipping away as well.

RE-invent or die.

The “integrated marketing agencies” have been on the rise for the last decade for obvious reasons: globalisation fostered by communication and the end goal of better brand servicing and convenience. Why would customers or their agencies want creative artifacts produced in silos? (ie. job-shops?)

Instead of feeling victimized and entitled (the infamous reputation of Generation Y) you should view this as an opportunity to work up the value chain. Per the post above, stop “asking” and start taking (responsibility, leadership, action, whatever!)

As designers it is our job to invent the future, not cling onto the past. Begin by admitting that your ideal job hasn’t even been invented yet. The question is, who’s going to invent it?

i’m one of those kids that sits at the big firm, with the funky apartment, makes six figures, and gets to be creative all day. I must tell you, it rocks. Its not all glam, but i cant think of anything i’d rather be doing at this point. I had my quarterlifecrisis last year, and made some big changes. Check out and hit some of the forums there… lots of people there to help, and to share stories with. I went from the lemming life, to what I really wanted. I should write a book.

Anyways, just wanted to point you to a good resource for talking to ppl about this kind of stuff, it really helped me by reading about how other ppl get/got by.

I would say your post is very well written - it sounds like you can sketch too, what’s holding you back from landing a new gig? I think in addition to your portfolio and work - I would put together a sketch book of product sketches, and maybe work those into your teaser - when I was at a job I didn’t like would work all evening on applications, my resume (with professional resume help), and putting together a nice mailer - I landed the 3rd job I interviewed for - it sounds like there would be no love lost for POP (I worked one day at a POP place - the people were so depressed/nutz/hateful/verbally abusive that I never went back). I’ve made the transition from the toy industry too - that was tough - to product - just a matter of how bad you want it, and how easy you settle.

Although you mentioned it in your post, I must tell you


If you are, as you say, a creative individual, then all that engineering has to offer you is soul-sucking repetitive drudgery. Add that to the fact that unless you are a 4.0 grad, you will be either designing HVAC (like me, for the time being) or producing FEA Models in a toilet plunger factory. The market for engineers is near saturated right now with plucky young kids willing to do much more for much less. Employers know this. I am currently trying to escape Engineering to do ID, and from someone who has been there - IT AIN’T WORTH IT!

you wrote:

“Some of you, no doubt, have jobs with companies where you are asked to fire up your creativity every day and are recognized for it. You work in offices with multi-colored walls, brand new equipment loaded with the latest software, well designed desks that compliment the Aeron Chair in which you now sit. For you, work isn’t a job, it’s the 8+ hours a day that you get to blast your music in your headphones while sipping the $4 latte you purchased in the downtown coffee house two blocks from your office. It’s also where you get to meet with your clients and “Wow” them with your mad talent and presentation skills. They sit in awe as you guide them down the path that you as a team have worked out for them. You know exactly what they should be producing and how it should look and they have every confidence in your judgement. You are the rock stars that make it happen for them and they are all too happy to fork over that payment after you have invoiced them. You are on the cutting edge of design and next month ID magazine is going to be in to interview you and your team for a front-page article. Life is indeed good for you.”

That sounds not just idealistic but like a produced vision from an idealistic media advertising firm thinking about how cool it is to be a designer. Magazines love to espouse this kind of look - be it Wallpaper, T3, Gear, whatever - as designers we’re supposed to look and live like rockstars. I know about 2 designers who even think they live and work like this. Entirely a created image and has nothing to do with the men and women who pay their dues, go to work, and design cool shit. I mean, how cool is Columbus Ohio and yet those Crown forklift guys win rightly-deserved awards every go-around. I didn’t get past this paragraph though…need to get back to work. :wink:

Thank you all for the encouragment. Truthfully, I’m not really that worried about myself. I am one of those people with a deplorable sense of destiny and as such I truly beleive that I will be where fate wants me to be when it wants me to be there. I also believe that there is so much more to life than what we do as a livelihood.

I also agree that my initial concept of life as a deisgner is ENTIRELY a pre-packaged marketing cliche. But then, I was young and stupid enough to buy into it.

My real purpose for writing that was to vent a little frustration as well as to see how other folks in other areas of the design world were doing. I know my little diatribe comes off as “gloom and doom”, and for the designers in my particular field, it should. But for the rest of you, I really wouldn’t be surprised to hear that sailing has never been better.

In any case, thank you to everyone who put forth the effort it took to slog through that post.

Sky Arrow

Heres the thing… say that design ends up not working for you. By what I have read so far it sounds like you might make quite the creative writer. I understand that you were angry and had this ball of emotions running through you to write the post…

But what i really have to say is if you are sitting at your design job writing that quality post, you are at the wrong job… you should try being a writer… add that as option 4 to your list… :wink:

I would agree with CG. I think there is a difference between hype and vision.

I think it is completely natural (and wrong) to keep focussed only on results. We need to keep focussed on processes and progression that work towards those goals, and take satisfaction in the milestones. We may never get to the end goal, but there will be plenty of reward along the way to keep us happy. Just some thoughts…

Sounds like the problem is that you’re working for someone else. Every “job” I’ve ever had has sucked in one way or another. Having idiots or assholes tell you what to do every day by is soul destroying and saps all your creativity. Now I’ve got my own deal, and things are much better. Some days are hard, but there’s no one to blame but myself on the bad days. Why waste your life doing something you hate for people you don’t like?


i totally understand the part about landing up in POP and exhibition design.
like you, i did do that for awhile.
i graduated last year and for the first 6 months of 2005 i was working in an events design consultancy.
the work was exciting at first but i felt that it just got too boring after a while.
i managed to get a product design job.
hell its designing consumer goods but it sure is better than doing exhibitino design.

at the same time, i’ve met industrial design grads who fancy POP more than product desn. i guess its all where our interests lie.
i took the events design job just cuz i needed something to tide me by and everyday i HAD to tell myself that i could not settle.

what you wrote is totally true of the situation post graduation.

but you gotta do what you gotta do.

chin up mate.

just keep looking.


its the worst feeling ever.

This has got to be the most depressing read in my life!!! I wonder what your motivation was to write this in the first place? Does it make you feel good to make everyone else feel guilty?

You made the decision to join these places and compromise your own design values/integrity. No one made you take these jobs. If POP never interested you, you should have held out until you got the work you wanted. Get a job at a restaurant or something until you’re able to do the work you want to do. Do not blame the people with integrity who shine bright and work their asses off to get to where they are.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself. If great design is what you value, then there is no substitute. How do you think Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Loyd Wright, and others with integrity survived in a world of mediocrity? It was no “bed of roses” for them. They probably had it the toughest. They had extremely high, personal design values, and they refused to compromise them.

There are 2 kinds of people in this world: those who feed off guilt and want to bring others down to their level of misery, and those who shine. I sense your motivation is the prior. No matter how hard things get, I inspire to shine, and I always will.

kudos mate.
i think its a depressing read as well.

Okay, to the GUEST posted above, waiting around for your perfect, dream job out of school is STUPID!!! Hello, wake the freak up. It’s called money and unless you are an untalented, trust-fund child, you need to make money. School doesn’t come without some hefty bills.

That said, I can relate to the above story. It’s very well laid out. I started in exhibit, but was determined to get out. I sacrificed everything in order to get into product design by moving to BFE Kansas two years later. And that started my career in product, which is now into sporting goods. But that’s not to say it was easy. Dang, I was doing projects on the side to constantly build my portfolio and re-working my corefolio all the time. Finally, finally payed off.

But that’s not to say the exhibition design or POP is bad by any means. It’s simply a division of industrial design, worth no more or less than transportation or medical design. Serves a purpose. Makes money. In fact, exhibition design is a pretty small community and if you’re good, you can make some good money. Live in the big city, have the posh apartment.


I’ve really kicked up some dust here with my “little” post. I have to admit, the most encouraging thing has been to hear that my post was “The most depressing thing” that someone ever read. Seeing how much pure drivel exists out there, to know that at least in someone’s view, I’ve topped them all, is rather comforting. I guess if you are going to be depressing, you should be as depressing as you possibly can! Don’t half-ass it, go all out.

But allow me to take a moment to clarify something: I don’t expect anything to be handed to me. I believe in empowerment, not entitlement. I know full well that I can get another design job out there if I really wanted it. The problem though, is that I don’t know if would want it or not. At this point I have no idea of how things are in other fields of design. I know that the opportunities in POP are fading out, but what about exhibit design? What about product design?

Instead of an analysis of what you assume to be my problem, how about providing a little insight on your respective field of design. How are things going? What trends do you see taking shape as far as the role of a designer?

Design schools sell the myth of “the stylish designer” all the time. Why? Because as a business (especially private schools), they’ve got to keep the seats full. And even with all the bad stuff, ID looks pretty cool when compared to most professions. I think the BIGGEST problem with design in the US right now is the massive overstock of design degrees being pumped out at schools all over the US. My own program more than doubled in size in the time I was there. Most of the kids working through the program had very little chance of getting real design work once they gradauted. ID programs have to start being more selective about the people they let into their programs, or else this problem is only going to get worse. Every May hundreds (thousands?) of people graduate with ID degrees, further adding to the massive overstock of designers in the US.

Well said Johnny Rotten!

Per my own experience in school, I saw the administration switch policy from selective enrollment to open enrollment. That meant that no longer would an aspiring artist have to subject themselves to a portfolio review in order to be granted admission. As long as the check didn’t bounce, the school didn’t care how much talent you had. Because of this, class sizes got larger, attention to students got smaller, the quality of work got weaker, and the program as a whole lost a lot of the esteem that it had previously worked so hard to earn. This all happened while I was in school.

However, I know that my alma mater has since gotten a new president and adopted a more rigorous policy towards admitting students. I think this will help in alleviated the mass-production assembly line of design graduates. As with any other market, the design field is also subject to the laws of supply and demand. I happened to start my school tenure at the tail end of the demand explosion and finished just in time for the supply boom.

Anyone have any thoughts on how the design field is doing as far as how many designers are out there versus how many the market will bear?

Good point. But do you inspire others to shine as well? (Clients included)

That was the true diffrentiator between design greats such as the Eames, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Even Starck and Graves have that ability to inspire and draw people to them and their work even when its crap work and mediocre projects.

“Crap, mediocre. lame, boring, stupid, shite (fill in the blank here)” work can be enjoyed if you have the ability to surround yourself with inpiring people and/or have the ability to project that inspiration. I beleive the phrase:“go big or go home” was coined specifically for these situation. Although you aren’t able to polish a turd, at least you can make it enjoyable,…(just make sure you are get paid to do it.)

yes but before the suicide actually happens…depressing posts are one way to advertise that you are in need of inspiration

Gee, Brad, you were the best football player on your peewee league team and your coaches said you could be the Superbowl MVP!

Guess what - you only had a 1 in 10,000 chance of making onto a pro team, let alone getting into the Superbowl.

If design is your passion, then design and quit wasting your energy whining. Learn something new and apply it, but shut up about how you feel so slighted by the people who tried to educate you.

Quarter life crisis? My advice to those of you who have to rely on that kind of sissy pop crap is to go ahead and have that breakdown. It’ll thin the herd and spare those of us who have clues, lives, and purpose from hearing your pathetic wailing.

Welcome to real life.