The Fall of the Designer: A Report From the Backwater

Even if many of us at least partly recognize ourselves in your otherwise well written tale of hurt pride, it’s a good thing I came across your piece on one of my better days at the studio. And thanks for reminding me why I only answer to myself now to make a living.

That said, some perspective on your professional obituary (after only 5 years work?) is sorely needed. I too did some monkey POP work years ago and, yes, the semi-literate peddlers running these shops are aptly described in your letter. But so what? Most of us know it’s the bottom of the barrel. And confusing graphic, interior and product designers happens in other industries too because the design occupation is so loosely defined and the term misappropriated. I remember interviewing for positions where HR thought industrial designers were draftsmen or manufacturing setup technicians - engineers did all creative work. Right.

If you are familiar with Core posts you will find a lot of struggle for recognition but also that designers as a whole are a very passionate, energetic and resourceful lot. This is likely what got your self-pitying missive some laconic or less sympathetic responses. For many of us, advancing our professional standing is almost like fighting a war, so crybabies are uninspiring, to put it candidly.

More designers, especially unfulfilled ones, need to understand that modern industrial design in America was born as a government-aided artifice to help pull the country out of the Depression and drum up consumer spending through “beautifying” already engineered objects. Compared to even other applied arts fields, industrial design is still a baby in the woods in terms of professional maturity, especially because we have not had any more Loewys or Dreyfusses since the 30s to inject business with the same enthusiasm and optimism about the future. I mean, it’s not like you’re going to affect any durable positive change with stories like yours. And I agree you do not come across as spoiled or arrogant, but nonetheless you’re bleeding your ego very much in public and, to be honest, it doesn’t come across well. What’s more, we all heard the tune before and know it’s messy out there.

Note we are talking about the role of design in America specifically, where for all the feel-good BusinessWeek initiatives, we still have a very long way to go and, mostly, to start putting our money where our mouth is. This IS happening, albeit so slowly it barely registers on anyone’s radar. In the meantime, countries like Holland and Switzerland have government positions to ensure the use of good design in society whenever possible. Western Europe considers design a social force for the betterment of life, in America it is strictly a business tool for now.

You and I can talk until we’re blue in the face about the design employment picture 10-15 years ago but I dare you to come up with solid evidence that the quantity and quality of good design all around us hasn’t increased exponentially since. I recall the consumer electronics market of 20 years ago where you had overpriced Sony at one end and literally tones of instant junk from what were then emerging Chinese factories. Anyone here ever cut himself on flash from crappily molded plastic trinkets, for instance? Pressed the Play button once and it stayed there? Well, you did then.

We must admit product design as a professional activity (wink to residential architecture) tends to be a more refined, sophisticated endeavor than is the norm in America, historically disdainful of anything that smacks of European elitism or “bourgeois tastefulness”. We’re a young, gung-ho, action-oriented society with little patience for the million details needed to elevate humans from a pragmatic life of survival to one on a higher plateau. In many ways, design in America hasn’t progressed much in how it is applied since its streamlining heydays. As for the buying public, it knows quality and value when they see it but, no matter, they are far less in control of what ends up on the shelves than they like to believe. As designers, we can do either of two things in the desert - keep walking in search of water or plant a tree and start an oasis. Neither is easy or free of risk.

Right after school I worked in quick succession at a variety of tough jobs hardly related to product design but wherever I was I tried to make a constructive difference in someone else’s life and learn from it. That was always my supreme goal in design school, not the six-figure salary, fancy lofts and cool company you mention. In fact I thought “coolness” the very antithesis of responsible design and strictly another profitable corporate scam of monumental proportions. I returned to product design almost through the back door but I always sought out the less traditional applications for it and practically made it a point to avoid the places designers flocked to. Although I took a great deal of peer flack for it at the time for preaching to the unconverted, and paid a high personal price for some decisions, in retrospect it was the best thing to do professionally and I never lacked interesting paid work since.

Granted, each story is an individual one as is each life lived. Your questions are too broad to receive a complete answer on this forum but I encourage you to read through Core and other design sites and not naively expect an endless outpouring of ready made solutions, quick fixes and unconditional support with a single post. People not only don’t have the time but none of us is in the privileged position to be your Oracle and guide you. And if I were, I’d charge you serious dough for that too.

Try a talk with your ex professors and school director about your situation. This is also a great opportunity to blow off some steam where you can at least make a difference. Schools should really keep track of how their graduates fare over time, if only for their own marketing purposes. If ID schools don’t, well, we now know why.

I said it before and I’ll say it again. This was hardly ever a field for the job-begging kind, more for the independent minded who can think beyond the severely retarded design school curricula and its obsolete definition of ID. There are tremendous lucrative opportunities opening up for designers all the time but they require individuals who see the larger picture and are willing to go up against the flow, not with it. Too many expect the world to change for them but are unwilling to take a good look at themselves first. See if this is not your case too.

good point.

Can I work for you, egg? you need to write a book or something.

I swear, when I’m scanning through a thread and stumble upon a post by egg, I generally put down my $4 latte, lean back in my trendy office chair, and focus on what he’s written.

Put down your latte? I gulpped it down and punched my marketing rep in the face!

sky arrow - did you go to MIAD?

:laughing: I thought this was a NEW post. oh well, good read


Did I go to MIAD???

At the risk of revealing too much info, yes I did.

May I assume that you went / are still there as you seem to be familiar with the program?

yes, sky arrow, I’m alumni too… something about your story sounded all too familiar.

Well as an update for any out there who may be interested:

For the past four months I have been humming along quite happily at work (it still sucks, but now that I’ve accepted that it sucks and stopped fighting it, it isn’t so bad now).

My long-held aversion to doing 3D modelling has subsided and I really enjoy working in that format now. It really helped that I finally hit the power-arc of the learning curve so that I’m not completely lost anymore trying to build a CAD model.

My portfolio is updated and is starting to look spectacular. So even if I tire of this place, I shouldn’t have too much trouble landing somewhere else.

So things are okay. Could be better (they always could), they could be worse…

When I read this post this morning, it depressed me. It reminded me of searching for jobs while freelancing and having a tough time of it. It reminded me of how great my first job was, and how they have become progressively closer to CAD jockey status.

Then it hit me. I’ve been slowly constructing a strategy to start up my own company in a few years time. I’ve been searching for prospective markets that could use my skills. When I started thinking of this, my 9-5 job that pays the mortgage fell into place.

In short, I have no problems working at a 20% creative job where someone else crams their idea of creativity down my throat, if it means that I pop out the other end with my skills sharpened, my motivation high and the financial means I need to strike out on my own. I’d much rather this scenario then working at something I don’t like at all until I’m 65.

I don’t like that 99% of entry level designers, like Sky Arrow and I, have to take the jobs that we find. But, if we don’t let it beat us down, if instead, we use it to harden us, to motivate us to realize something greater, then it is worth it.

My advice to Sky Arrow is find a market niche that inspires you. There are a million out there. Then, find a way to make a product of your own.

Like the Egg, I’m out on my own, by myself. I’ve started 2 companies in addition to my design consulting. I’ve spend most of my time trying to get these two start-ups (1 medical and 1 outdoor rec.) off the ground.

The truth is this: unless you work for a monster company, the product development cycle is slowly disappearing. The “process” is constantly being shortened to the point where a napkin sketch goes to China for production. I’m going to have to produce a lot of napkin sketches to equal the 4-5 stage billing cycles I’d like to invoice. I don’t feel that I can securely base my future on my design skills alone. You can be the greatest designer in the world but the rate is the rate.

Bottom line: if you can’t beat’em join’em. ID’ers need to start enterprising.
If you have a good idea, protect it, develop it and sell it. Thats what should be taught in design schools. In my opinion, its the only way to turn the tide in our favor.

Someone needs to start teaching industrial designers how to be business people. You can’t hide in a cubical forever.

As Frank Zappa once said: “Remember there’s a big difference between kneeling down and bending over.”

well, that was a great read…like reading my own life story.
I went to ‘school’ in the UK and like the author of this thread fell into the POP industry straight after college to pay the bills and get some professional experience.

I found, however, that I had quite the knack for it and now and again a project would come along that I quite enjoyed.

I moved to Toronto, Canada 5 years ago and after initially being excited about working here I got quite dispondent because of the lack of design understanding here compared to Europe. So after a couple of lame jobs and a 6 month contract at a branding agency I got together with a graphic design friend and started my own business.

It’s been going 8 months now and to be honest it’s the best damn thing I ever did. We are turning a tidy profit and we don’t have the hassle of working for an ignorant employer who’s idea of design is making a 6ft chocolate bar to advertise said chocolate bars in store…none of that.

We saw a niche in the local area for a tie in between the industrial design and graphic design sides of this industry and we tend to service the manufacturing industry…for now. Mainly because we had a lot of contacts already there and they already have the contacts with the brand names. Slowly, this is starting to change and as a very very small company we are getting our toes in the door with bigger clients.

Ultimately we want to be that ‘agency’ that has an emphasis on tying in 2D and 3D elements…it’s a 3D world people! Our customers really do appreciate our level of knowledge that encompasses all facets of their business.

What the real kicker is though, is that as a ‘design studio’ we don’t make money on manufacturing and because there is this tendancy for POP manufacturers to whore themselves out for any nibble of business companies tend not to want to pay for design work. The POP industry has screwed itself if you ask me…they go out of business left, right and centre because owners believe the only way to differentiate themselves from their competitors is on price…which is bollocks, they need to differentiate themselves by offering good design.

Anyway, I could go on all day about the woes of this industry…it was a good article, but my advice…you think you could do something better, educate an industry that has run out of ideas ?..f*cking do it and stop wasting your time making money for chumps who should be driving trucks :slight_smile:

Good read. I did not see the original post as a “suicide note” or just another “feel sorry for myself” post - it was a well articulated version of what so many of us face/have faced. Thank you!

Some comments:
•It never ceases to amaze me how every graduating class from school thinks that they are the first and only ones to have some supreme knowledge that will catapult them into a glamorous or responsibility filled position in an instant. I find this especially amusing because I somehow fell for that too! But I’m still trying to figure out how this happens/how we let ourselves believe this! I watched talented upper-class-men graduate before me, I saw experienced designers returning to their alma-mater for presentations and recruiting - yet, somehow, I unconciously assumed they all floated off into the ether and wouldn’t be around competing for the same positions, ahead of me in line for promotions, more knowledgeable/experienced than I on projects. No one told me to think this way, it is something that my silly, immature mind made up - and I see students creating and buying this fantasy year after year, to this day. Funny. Tragic.
•Speaking of funny, a couple gems I notiiced here: Egg saying “people don’t have the time” (to listen, help or provide guidance?) - yet somehow, he and others have plenty of time to read and create lengthy posts! Also hilarious, those who offer “starting your own thing” as a solution to doing what you really want and not having to work for a-holes! Perhaps when the economy is good and the stars align, this might be the case. But the rule (as opposed to the exception), is that people pay you for what THEY want you to do - whether you collect a salary for it or bill someone for it. Whether they are down the hall in marketing or engineering (co-workers) or across town in marketing or engineering (clients) or all over the world shopping in stores (consumers), you are getting paid for doing someone elses bidding. I don’t know of a single shop - even the world’s top consultancies - that haven’t been forced at one time or another to accept crap work from crap clients and deal with crap people to make ends. And for most shops, this is called “bread and butter” or simply “business as usual” or the “way of life”. There’s a lot of complaining about the hype of design school or career here - please, let’s not propogate any hype about “working for yourself” here.
•Shame on any admissions staff or faculty who sell a small-time, regional design school as an entre into big time, global postions - and shame on Sky Arrow and any other students who buy this illogical offering. No offense, but anyone who thinks that a school like MIAD (we’re talking Milwaukee, right?!) is the path to big name consultancies/brands in New York, San Francisco, or London is not capable of intelligent or critical thinking. Again, go with the rule, not the exception. If you want the job and the lifestyle and ID magazine accolades imagined in the original post, then start with a renowned college in or near one of those global design centers. As has been said about career choices already - “don’t settle”. The same wisdom goes for schools. There is a “top 5” or so -real or perceived, doesn’t matter- anything less is settling. If you choose school number 6 or 178 instead, then be prepared for a career of struggle and settling.
•Finally, anyone who has a combination of imagination, intelligence, sensitivity, and ambition will be constantly questioning, doubting, even frustrated with the current state of things. The $4 latte, the 6 figures, the big city and big clients will do little to rid you of your personality traits. Plenty of designers “living the dream” you describe go home every evening feeling beaten down, feeling unfulfilled, feeling like they are wasting their potential, dreaming of something better. I think only a small percentage of this feeling is specifically career related - it is simply in you. Need something beyond job therapy to fix that!

Good read. Most of your points have been echoed and counterpointed already by others, but I have one other thought that might be something to think about:

Before you take a job, take a look at how design is looked upon in your company: is it design-centered or design-as-an-added-value? All designers need to consider the role of design in the organization they work for-- if the company considers design as an “added value” to attract manufacturing projects-- this is not a design centric organization. Manufacturing is what pays their bills, and when it comes down to it, design is just a means to an ends. You’ll probably never get the respect/projects/fame you want in an organization such as this. Contrast this with a design consulting model, where clients are paying for your mind and abilities-- design is core to the business! This is not to start a consultant vs. corporate fight-- there are crappy firms and design-centric corporations, too-- but ALWAYS consider the role of design within the organization-- this can be key to your happiness within a company.

As an ID student still “cutting my teeth” in school I do have in mind nothing but the best, there must be some out there that achieve it. Any suggestions from them?

As an ID student still “cutting my teeth” in school I do have in mind nothing but the best, there must be some out there that achieve it. Any suggestions from them?

yes lots of them:

it can be done, don’t let this thread get you down! There are a lot of us NOT posting who are very content with their jobs, maybe not living a rockstar lifestyle, but working for great consultancies, getting several great products on the market every year, and feeling the fufillment of having great designs out there and appreciated by others. Shoot for the stars, and don’t forget to be thankful and grateful on the way, and when you arrive. I don’t mean to sound cliche or cheezy, but a great attitude to match your great skills will take you places.

your text is well laid out and frank, I believe that it also reflects many of us in that industry.

Well, I don’t have a clue what POP means, since I’m living and working in Greece. But for one I’m feeling the same way as you.

I too dreamt of becoming a top notch automotive designer/styler and so I went to the UK to study industrial design. At least our tutors were realistic with us and did not filled our brains with hot air. They all told us the difficulties of a career in design.

So here I am like yourself, in a factory in Attica (Athens, Greece) designing metal plates, sheet metal boxes and metal machining parts. Not the ultra-slick, smartly formed, super functional articles I had in my mind 6 years ago when I was begging my career… The most glamorous concept I ever did in the last 5 years in this job is a telecomms cable mount / holder only to be rejected by my supervisors due to the fact that altough it was feasible as a design and in productivity it was far too futuristic for our clients. Not to mention that I never had any briefing on aesthetics etc… in Greece we work based on tradition, thus design briefs, specs and all vital are simply the ommited parts. We’d go for a quick dip for the cash rather than offer a product of substancial wholistic value. Keep in mind that we are talking about a country that barely produces any industrial product at all, the highest production batch I ever saw on this plant was 5,000 pieces of a mechanical cable connector!!! In Greece most firms import products from abroad and sell’em domestically, no design, no development, just sales and marketing. What is really bugging is that the firms realise that they do need the services of an industrial designer just to make some tech drawings, so they simply hire cad operators instead for half the cost.

On a typical basis my everyday at work is 95% doing all things imaginable (logistics, product management, supplies etc) and 5% design… correction: 5% technical draughting. Simply because there’s no need for design, at least industrial design. The worst of it all is that everyday that passes it gets you more down. To make it simple for you, 5 years ago my concepts were cracking stuff and came in spontaneously. Nowadays, I spend huge amounts of time looking on that white piece of paper in front of me, struggling to get something useful out.

You’ve mentioned 3D skills. I do believe these are of top importance in the industry field today. To put it very simply, you can easily get a model out of your pc and take it to a CNC machine to produce it on the spot, thus eliminating development costs and errors to a minimum. That’s the most important thing for firms, to lower the developing costs and to make the most efficient production. Of course you can do nice renderings to impress people clients etc, but the core of 3D lies in computer controlled production, which is a global trend nowadays. Surely the ability to sketch and draw exceptionally gets you there, but definately it is not the most valuable ingredient of the cake. I would strongly suggest that if you’re to continue on this route you should re-evaluate 3D modelling. try to think that apart from work, you can also model something you really like! I see no excitement at all in modelling nuts and bolts and metal mountings, but, I love modelling road vehicles and aircrafts!

Regarding your future options, these are my thoughts: about engineering you’ll be embedded in environments and situations where cad systems and draughting is vital. So if you don’t like 3D modelling chances are that you’ll find tech draughting equally if not even more boring. I’m personally fed up with it and I can barely keep myself from falling asleep when doing a tech drawing of a part :smiley:

Career change: maybe, think about it yourself. What else would you like to do? This is the option I’m looking seriously on right now and just begun to collect info and looking at options and possibilities on becoming an airline commercial pilot (well at least I can dream of becoming one can’t I?).

Working abroad: Well, that’s one option I’ve spent all my endeavor during the last 3 years and after some 2000 applications I came up with nada! Not even a single interview! The pack of rejection letters is amazingly huge! It seems that Greek designers are a big no-no for design consultancies of the civilised world! Can’t blame them really, maybe they know something more than we do!

Alot of countries that have a poor manufacturing base bought into the theory that IDers will build manufacturing. A kind of field of dreams attitude to economic policy. What’s happened is that there are now loads of good IDers wandering around doing technical drafting at best, or filling a tourist’s martini at worst. It’s not just Greece either, but counries like Canada, the Netherlands, Britain. On the more international forums I’m on, I see the same story from around the world.

On an email forum, we recently had this same debate, have our schools sold ID students on an unrealistic dream?

Yesterday, I finally watched that West Wing debate episode. Alan Alda plays a Republican presidential canadite who says, “not everyone should go to university”. The audience sits stunned after such a comment, but he’s right. We’ve bought the idea that we could have 100% employment with everyone having a university degree and sitting in an office. It’s a wider problem than just ID.

At the risk of sounding like a total jag-

“The world needs ditch diggers too”

It true that we cannot have a self-sufficient society / economy without a traditional labor force. They may be considered low-end jobs by many of those with college degrees, but I think as IDers, we know all too well how critical they are.

I think that we are seeing a shift in our economy right now. We have had things so good for so long, that we have gotten fat and unwieldy. The time is ripe for up-and-coming nations such as China and India to really start coming into their own in world marketplace. We have gotten fat and bored while they are lean and hungry.

On a global scale, I think it’s a good thing that we have to endure this storm. By other nations coming to the forefront, global wealth can be more evenly distributed and I think that can be a very positive thing for everyone in the long run.

Just my opinion though.