The Young and Not So Restless
During the late ’80s, a (small albeit longstanding) film craze erupted giving birth to the body swap genre: where unequivocally unhappy pairs of middle-aged dads/moms and teenager sons/daughters switch bodies, live each other’s lives for a few days until they realize they were better off originally. Magic potions or strange occurrences usually trigger these switches, whether a brain transference syrup that turned Dudley Moore into a bumbling teenager; a hunted antique that made Fred Savage a (convincing) jerk of an adult; or the Zoltar machine that changed Tom Hanks into a highly-paid toy expert, these films morale was clear: accept your age and what comes with it at every stage of your life.
I watched those movies right before my first teenage year, and sometimes wished to wake up 30, even 40, years older not having to worry about phys ed, Bar Mitzvah studies or pimples. Truth be told, I was constantly the young one. From elementary school to high school: a year younger. In college: two years behind everybody. At my first job: barely of legal drinking age. As a faculty member at Portfolio Center: a plump 23 year-old. Today: still youthful but comforted by facial hair that adds a good five years to my appearance. Yet, it’s clear to me that I don’t quite accept my constantly trailing age—so, father time better catch up.
Being a young graphic designer is not easy, physically or emotionally. We enter the field with talent, potential and personality as our primary assets at an age (average of 23) where we are not exactly kids anymore but surely not responsible adults yet.
As Junior Designers—the common launching pad for designers—we are expected to pay our dues by working long hours on thankless work, that in our view poses no real professional challenge, while learning the ropes in the shadows of Senior Designers, Creative Directors and Principals. It has worked for decades (centuries even) but if we are lucky to land a job with a prominent designer we can call it an apprenticeship and look back fondly on the experience. (You can tell I’m still young, there is that bitterness in my voice remnant of years not far gone of paying dues.)
The most discouraging part of being a young designer is that we are rarely handed a project to bring to fruition on our own—with good reason. We are not ready, yet with time we learn (trust us on this one). Slowly, we are given more responsibility and are less directed by those whose job is to direct. Our confidence grows and so does our portfolio—egos can experience parallel growth at this point. We celebrate these accomplishments with a long list of publications that laud young designers’ creativity. Print magazine annually selects 20 visual artists under 30; Graphis publishes a New Talent annual; the Art Directors Club’s Young Guns is a competition that strives to represent the world’s “most wanted” new talent; HOW and STEP magazine constantly grapple with showcasing young designers. Interestingly, most of these publications list a limit of 30 years as a requirement to enter and consequently establish it as the breaking point for youth in graphic design—after that, you are old my friend... and not to be trusted anymore, as the old adage claims.
In these efforts to applaud youth it must be noted that a lot of the work allowed and included is personal and client-free. It is common, then, for these celebratory journals to showcase work that is highly expressive in its execution—hand-drawn sketchiness, computer-generated craziness or typographic randomness—as if to be young means to be visually explosive. The problem here is that style is presented and credited as a measure of youngsters’ ability as graphic designers. Those included might not find this problematic, however, wannabe rising designers see this as an example and long to be part of the feted, under-30 club based on execution prowess alone. This is simply part of the celebratory culture of graphic design where leadership in our field is determined by number of awards, publications and the occasional (and lofty) museum exhibition. Fostering this from the start of young designers’ careers does not help offset the navel-gazing graphic design is known for.
Caught in nature’s slow-moving cycle of life I have yet to reach the proverbial age of 30, which I expect to celebrate with the obligatory freak-out that comes with every turn of decade and the realization of adulthood. As a graphic designer I expect to magically—just like in the body swap movies—shed the young gun qualities (distrust from supervisors, inexperience and naiveté among others) that traditionally hinder young designers’ ability and opportunity to grow faster and earlier on—we can only grow as quickly as allowed. One personal perk I expect is that I won’t blush when asked my age, a problem more common for middle-aged people. My dues, I think, are almost paid. I still have a few years to make it into one of these publications (doubtful since most of my work has an unexciting simplicity). And unless I wake up tomorrow in Dudley Moore’s body (God, please no!) I must patiently wait to grow up and, for now, accept my age.