The Fall of the Designer: A Report From the Backwater

My point exactly Guest!

I had a friend in Florida that was a welder with just a HS diploma. I think he took a technical course in welding during HS. Anyways, he started his own business with a rusty truck and a MIG welder right after HS. After a few years he had his own workshop, 2 brand new trucks, a handful of employees and was rolling in more money than I expect to make.

Since one of the reasons I got into ID was to work with my hands, I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision.

Proves that just being a good ID’er doesn’t mean you’ll be a good business man (or woman) and I don’t mean you specifically…I mean ID’ers in general. Your HS friend obviously found a niche for himself and probably worked damn hard to get where he is today…there are somethings that really can’t be taught in school.

I can only wish design entrepreneurship was actually “hyped” on Core but if you are a regular on these boards you’ll note that aside from myself and a handful of others, all talk is about getting that design dream job, certainly not striking out on one’s own. So much for “hype”. The vast majority of designers stuck at one time or another with contract work do so by necessity rathen than of their own will or planning. Freelancing in this field is often synonymous with unemployment, but most striking is what a small percentage of designers - trained as creatives - end up as full-time entrepreneurs when compared to other educational backgrounds.

It seems IDers specifically cannot parlay their creativity and project-managing skills into creating and running their personal business model. Interior and graphic designers are far more adventurous in this sense.

I never implied entrepreneurship is the answer to all the world’s ills. In fact, in most of my posts I make it a point to warn those contemplating it that it is not an easy escape route, nor in fact an escape from anything. When the market is depressed, it is so for everyone, when there’s work to go around, small and large firms both benefit.

But your argument that working as an employee for the engineers across the hall or trying hard to please your clients is one and the same is preposterous. In fact you sound like some of the lame professors I had back in school. You can read more in magazines like FastCompany or Inc why attempting to run your business is today no less risky than trying to build a livelihood out of begging a new job every few years, but these are a few items that differentiate the two:

  1. In a business that has reached cruise altitude, you can afford to CHOOSE your clients more often than you can choose your immediate supervisor in a “stable” job. Boss hates your guts, you’re out. Client relationship not working out - he’s bound by contract to pay for work already done and others are waiting to be served, so have a nice day. Big difference here: your eggs are never in one basket as in a job.

  2. A business allows its owners to build a name for themselves in industry, that name is worth money far beyond the dollar value of company assets. A job keeps you insulated and anonymous, and if you are a star designer you will stay a “hidden gem” within that environment. When the company no longer needs you or you decide it’s time to move on to bigger things, you are worth exactly a resume and a portfolio that you have to start marketing from scratch to people who have never heard of you all these years (“so what if you were good for someone else, prove me you will be good for me”). Back to exam time, so to speak. You’re back in a pile of resumes on someone’s desk, all for the “chance” to to get boxed into yet another captive environment you hope will be better. Moral here: most design jobs today are extremely poor investments of one’s time when it comes to changing that box for another. Plan to spend your entire working life in one good design job if you’re afraid of change. I know people here enjoy deriding Karim Rashid and others like him but from a business and design longevity perspective he succeeded far beyond what most designers dream of - hence the envy. In the end his name is worth (unfortunately) more than his designs per se. But it illustrates the point. This is a field where VISIBILITY is not a luxury but a must. Accountants and lawyers will always have clients waiting at their door with little marketing effort, but designers need to develop and advertise a personal work style and brand that speaks value to potential clients. When you’re a “jobber” for too long you build a resume only, not a personal image, for lack of opportunity.

  3. Building a business you can one day SELL is called building equity and, historically speaking, it has almost always paid off long term to own your own home than renting out. Retire from a string of jobs and, if you’re very lucky, you’ll be able to end your days on some form of pension plan that barely pays for food. Sell a successful business that comes with a reputation and a stable of clients and you can often retire close to being a millionaire or actually one. Equally good to remember is that, as a business owner, you retire when YOU want, not when someone else decides it’s time for you to go back to gardening full time. In a job you are being rented out, building a business is building your second home that with time takes on its own life and value as it grows. Of course you never see all this while being kept busy in a job (happily or not) - your company likes it this way. You only realize later in life that you actually worked just as hard making someonle else rich as you could have done for yourself.

  4. Job safety, classic oxymoron. Any job is safe for a specific duration only but not all jobs lead to other or even better jobs - there’s no such mechanism in a capitalist society that guarantees a progressively better position and higher income to anyone, much less so industrial designers. And you can fail in a job as you can fail starting a business. The major difference is what happens long term when either succeeds. “Making it” as an employee guarantees your keep at the trough but “making it” on your own means two very important things: much higher income, and control. The control comes from your total freedom of thought and action, usually severely curtailed in a job. What is the price of professional freedom for you?

  5. Whoever says you remain a slave to clients in a business has never run one and shouldn’t attempt to. A client “hires” your services because they believe you an expert in what you do, i.e. you know more than they do, or else why on earth would they pay you? This implies that in such transactions, especially when your business matures, both parties are on an equal footing. You do not accept clients that do not fit your business model for whatever reason, but those you decide to take on it is normal you will try to please. Satisfaction is always derived from a job well done and a return client. But, yes, you can and should choose clients carefully to ensure your success. Any business person will confirm you that you are not a “slave” to any customer, let alone the odd bad apples, unless you allow it. In a job you are never on an equal footing with your boss so you’re always strategically disadvantaged in that you have one client alone that keeps you fed. This is scary. And even if you start off with a great boss, he/she can leave or be promoted and replaced with the classic office nemesis everyone would like to see hit by a bus or something. But I digress.

Really, running a functional business is not all that different from a job except you tend to work more at times and don’t have the immediate perks like vacations or sick days paid. But the satisfaction of being continuously sought out more than makes up for this, as are the financial advantages mentioned above, as well as taxation issues and such.

No, it’s not for everyone, and that is true of any educational background one has, but it sure beats going every day to a job or boss you hate.

One last note. I enjoy taking the time to write to younger designers and have occasionally hired some to help me out. Because I’ve been in their place I know how confusing the ID working world can be and how tough it has become. It takes as much time to write an encouraging post as it takes to write the type of general putdown you did, which provided zero value to readers. I speak for an alternative that more designers need to consider because we are trained as agents of change and change is rarely implemented from comfortable positions that privilege short term benefits over long term problem solving. Of all people, designers should be starting more ventures of all kinds, not fewer. Creativity is something to live by in all facets of your life not just at a desk from 9 to 5. As individuals who enjoy improving things, impatient with the pace of change around us when solutions exist, you sometimes have to put your money where your mouth is and set an example. Any original business, however small, pushes the envelope further by inspiring the rest to take action.

Stop whining about how the public doesn’t “understand design”. The buying, paying public doesn’t give a damn about the PROCESS but only the RESULTS. Designers care about the process but barely control the results, so why expect all that public sympathy when you’re a cog in the system? Get out there while you’re young and make a difference, a physical dent in the status quo that people will see, feel and connect to. Have the courage to scream out your differences and leave your mark. Or stay quiet, enjoy your (obviously safe) paycheck and tell yourself this is all a bad dream that will go away without you moving a finger.

Congratulations to the Toronto fellows who striked out on their own (brilliant to weld 2D and 3D services, still niche, but push the model to its limits) and others who have shared personal success stories here.

The naysayers will always be a majority, and that’s actually good because their existence is largely what keeps us, the sh*t disturbers, more motivated than ever to prove them wrong.

That is inspiring, and when it all works out you are definitly the winner, but…

I have worked for a startup manufacturer who did not win. They found a cool technology (one of PopScience products of the year in the early 2000’s), found private funding, bought the license/patents for a couple million from a larger technology company, and set up shop in a tax shelter country. They developed / produced the first working products with this technology and started trying to sell it.

They were quite intelligent and worked very very hard, but didn’t know exactly what they were doing during development and nothing sold. It had defects and design flaws that prevented 99% of the anticipated sales. Bankrupcy occurred, millions of dollars in bills were defaulted. As a result, many good people working for the vendor companies lost jobs and others fortunes were impacted. Eventually there was a hostile takeover and the owners lost their company…

I guess they are all ok now, but they lost several years of their lives and much of their savings in their venture. They look like changed men, grey hair… weary eyes… I think it was the ride of their lives while it was going well, but I don’t know if I would have wanted the same to happen to me. Still, lots of companies are started all the time and people do well with them. Just don’t forget that not everybody wins.

After reading through this thread I have decided to post following some of the greatest advice I have ever read from one designer to another, thank you Egg.

I am not sure really how to start. I am a younger designer, relatively fresh out of design school. There has been one graduating class since mine. The school I attended is considered in the top 10 designs schools in the nation. My peers that surrounded me where full of ideas and energy for design, which fueled good projects from our circle of friends while in school. We all joked of the “Rock star Design Career” but all of us knew that would only come from hard work, and definitely not directly out of school, if that was really what you where seeking. As for the alumni that would review us at the end of each semester they made it really clear, that we needed to enjoy our creative freedom now, because once we went to work for someone we would end up sacrificing our own creative ideas for the “bottom line” and “The Man”.

Our teachers were honest with us as well, saying work for someone and make them rich or work for your self Struggle/Die/or Thrive. I do not see myself working to make some else rich the rest of my career. But for right now I am in a position that allows me creative freedom everyday designing products, sketching, rendering, drafting, working in CAD and building models. I do not work in a trendy urban environment; I do not make six figures, and have no $4 latte to sip on.

I have a cubical with a window in an industrial park, but I have creative freedom, a boss who was a peer in school and hired me my senior year, and president that is teaching me the business of manufacturing and distribution. I am in the learning curve; hopefully I will be able to take what I learn from here, and from Core and from school and venture out on my own one day and stake my claim in Design.

ID is a young field. People who enter art schools as graphic designer, illustrators, painters and architects learn what it is about and decided that is the field for them. Why? Because they know how to build or they like cars or shoes or furniture, some will become good designers working for the man, or themselves. Then there are the others, which lack the sensitivity to design a well-thought out beautiful objects, scary part they will get jobs too.

I became a designer because I love to create, the love the process of design. Every designer has an Ego whether it is in your face or quietly reserved we are proud of what we do. I have always believed “Design is what you make of it”.


truly inspiring words

and Pragonetti…
You certainly know what it’s all about…gain the experience, learn from your and other peoples mistakes and suddenly one day you will wake up and everything will fall into place…you will instinctively know when you are ready to move out on your own.
But always be true to yourself, know your limits, know your expectations and be realistic. It took us a while of working late nights outside our regular jobs to understand when it would be feasible to make it a full time gig.

And never ever ever let your client dictate the price…then you screw the rest of us up!

A few posts back, “Another Guest” mentioned the “Top 5” ID schools. Can someone please share this list with me?

Your post was definitely an interesting read - I actually enjoyed it.

Right now I myself work in an actual ID job, but I face alot of the problems that you do. I hate to tell you this, but alot of these problems are not limited only to POP companies. These problems are complicated further when you work in a foreign country as I do. Last two years for me have been rather painful from professional standpoint…and when difficulties in the regular life add to the pains then you end up not having fun.

I’m hoping that perhaps in the future all this experience will somehow help me get a good job, but for now I see the following options:

  • continue down the path, get the experience and maybe get an MBA sometime in the future and then try to become a department director or manager.

  • similar as above area but instead of becoming manager, start my own company.

  • continue working…but in my private time try to develop my own product/ideas and try to sell them. One good thing about working in Asia is that I got to know a few people who have connections with factories and maybe I can get them to produce these products in return for my own cut.

Well…those are the options I see for now…but for now I’ll be a sketch and cad monkey.

Sky Arrow, it’s been two years now. How’s it going?

I started reading this post and had to stop what i was doing to make it to the end. what a read!

firstly id like to thank all the people who took this opportunity to use aninimity to take a cheap shot and kick someone who was down. Congratulations. Those Id really like to thank are those that offered support and encouragement to someone who was unhappy with their career and looking for help. that is after all why you would make such a post…

I too have been in a similar postion and i wouldnt post my problems up here to take a verbal (written) kicking from some smug design hack.

Not everyone has that golden position - and it would serve others well to remember that. I admire this guy for taking the steps to record his return back to happiness and his learning of a new skill.

We are in an industry that is constantly evolving and it pays to stay on top of your /the game - please take note.

good luck with the future fella. be good to hear how it all plays out.

props from london. :exclamation:


I actually forgot about this little rant that I threw on the boards so many moons ago, and just a moment ago when I popped onto Core, it was back on the hotlist! Nice.

Well for those who would like an update, here ya go:

After venting a lot of my professional (and personal) frustrations on the Core forums, I took stock of the situation and realized that it was really up to me to make something better happen. At the time, I had been very reluctant to dive into 3D modelling thinking it to be a waste of whatever talent I may (or may not have) possessed. However, I sucked it up and started in on learning all about the fabulous world of slick 3D renderings and exactly what it takes to produce them. After a few weeks and many, many questions emailed to the software support people, it all started to click. Before long I was rocking and rolling with the 3D render-monkey stuff. My portfolio started taking on a whole new level of sweetness and I actually found myself pretty happy with things. I just never knew being a render-monkey could be so satisfying…

Unfortunately for me, the company I was at dissolved my division and I was forced to look for new opportunities. I was upset and angry at the time (which for better or worse led me to post yet another rant on the forums that some of you may remember), but I landed right away at another company and pretty much picked right up where I left off except my renderings were getting even sharper and the projects coming in were definitely more interesting. My portfolio was looking nice! Very good right? Well, for reasons that just aren’t worth going into, that little gig only lasted for about six months and I was once again, out on the street.

As one can imagine, losing two jobs in the span of six months tends to make one do a bit of second guessing - “Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a designer” and “What is wrong with me?” etc. It leveled my professional self-esteem and so I decided to take a step back and get myself refocused.

I moved back to my hometown of Kansas City, got a clerical job with a title insurance company, and basically spent the last 13 months on a full-time design sabbatical. I’ve done the occasional freelance thing here and there and I certainly haven’t forgotten how to design a POP display, I just needed a break.

Now, having enjoyed my time off, I have actually started hitting the phones and the emails to get back into design. I’ve had time to reflect on things and I dare say I have a very different attitude than I did way back then. I am no longer looking to be a rock-star, I really don’t even care to dabble into other departments and to try and claw my way up the ladder. I just want to get paid to sit and bang out designs all day. Period.

I’m older, I’m wiser, I’m certainly more humble, and most importantly I’m ready to get back in the game. So wish me luck and if anybody knows of someone needing an experienced POP designer, please let me know.

I hope this update was worth waiting for (or at least worth the two minutes of your life that you spent reading it).

When I was managing product development at one of the top ID firms, I had a guy come by who discovered product design just a bit late. He had just graduated in engineering, but had no useful skills for our work. He had determined that he wanted one of those PD jobs and was begging for an unpaid internship. Of course I didn’t have time to waste but he insisted that I give him a list of missing skills and my suggestion of how to fill them. After I gave him more time than I had, he thanked me and left the interview.
One year later, I see the guy waiting in the lobby for me to come by. He had left that interview and learned everything on the list I told him. After some questioning, I found he sincerely took everything I told him and found a way to learn the basic skills to get started. He took several cad classes at the local community college, took a number of drawing classes, visited local manufacturers and learned as much as he could about their processes and how to design products for them, etc. He really was committed to the position, and I was impressed. I did hire him as an intern and as that was several years ago, last I heard he was sipping lattes and developing products as a senior engineer at one of the prestigious ID firms.
If you don’t get the job you want out of school, how badly do you want one of those dream jobs? If you want it badly enough to go get it, then I do think it’s possible if you try hard and don’t give up easily. If you need to, start from the bottom and prove yourself. If you can’t get into the bottom, start below that and work your way up to an internship position. Go to where the jobs are, network, build a stellar portfolio, even if you are doing them for almost free, working in the evenings, or just doing them on your own. Unless you are very talented and lucky, those jobs aren’t going to come to you. You must do what it takes to go get them. Would you commit an additional year of study to obtain an internship at your dream company - just to have the chance to prove your worth as employee material?

Industrial Designer - Nomadic Display

Senior Retail Environment Designer - Display Boys

Senior Design Engineer - Permanent Displays - The Weems Group, LLC

Retail Environments Designer - Continuum

Also, check out Chase Design, they do a lot of retail work.

Hi sorry for coming in so late.

But sky arrow you have to realistic, 10% or less of any graduating cohort only get into ID. The rest to other things. If you have done a multidisciplinary ID degree then take heart that you are well prepared for other industries.

However from reading snippets hear and there, my feeling is you might not have the skills to get into the industry at that time. You might like to blame your school, but industry evolves so fast that schools cant catch up.

Before it was getting all grads into 3D and schools could not churn them fast enough, these days it is strategic industrial design and business, and schools still produce production line graduates.

So if you are really interested to get into ID it is not too late, but you need to be smart about it. Actively market yourself, get feedback on your portfolio work, and more important of all pick up the skills required that you lack. Someone said “reinvent or die” that is so true.

I too was like you, started out in a POP industry. No body wanted to do that kind of work so I did it. I was there for 8 months literary banging out my first product. At the same time, picking all the computer skills I lack and redoing all my past portfolio work so they reflected the times.

I cold called myriad of companies, went for tons of interviews, invited designers for tea (i could not afford lunch), did freelance work, and finally got my foot in the door. I would say right place right time, but more like I engineered my own luck.

Yes you still can get into ID but you need patience, passion, perseverance, and a little luck, I don’t know if you have it, but this is some thing you have to ask yourself if you are willing to do.

Good luck.

Engineering definitely can be “drudgery” but only if you accept it. If you are lucky as I am and happen to live in one of the design capitals of the country (boston), you can most likely find a job at a design firm. It can be tough, but as long as you show the passion and have decent grades (a 3.0 w/ passion beats a 4.0 without it any day), you can land a non-soul sucking job

"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. "

Sad, but true… I am 3 months out of school working for an exhibition design company and my boss is jaded, old, lazy, and only cares about $$ and having me pump out pretty renderings of a piece of shit drawing he gives me which he describes in words. So far, my way of dealing is if i am asked to make a rendering similar to the things he’s been making for the past 15 years, I’ll try and make mine the best damn one you’ve seen. As far as creativity sap, yes, it’s draining. I know someone who works with me and has been working here for 5 years and is already drained and jaded. He tells me i need to get out. I know I need to get out. I am not going to settle. If I don’t get out soon I will quit, work hard on my portfolio until I get the job I want. I’m too young to give up.

Sky arrow,

I am definitely late in replying your post. But I think there is always ways to open up what you have learnt. ID itself can be seen as a way of living given if one understands how to use their thinking skills resourcefully. In one way I regretted doing an ID course because it opens an innovative perspective to all the things that happend and lying around you. There are many ways of applying design skills and thinking into living. I have used it and am happy to have aquired the skills during college years to do what I am doing now.

At one point I too wanted to go into engineering. But after some thought, I didn’t. It’s not wise to go into this line. Engineering, I think is more prone to being obsolete. In fact the creative skills that we acquire appears to have more bearing to keep us afloat.

The ones who are able to do thinking drawing and apply thinking development sketches and put them into real life are the ones who will be able to survive comfortably. I wouldn’t worry too much about the quantity of grads coming out. Just like the number of College grads who come out of anywhere is flooding everywhere in the world; there are only that percentage of people who are truly creative. Only the ones who think well will survive well.