Lately, I've been talking about success with design students
both at the school where I teach and at other programs that I
visit. When I ask, “What is success?” the first response is,
invariably, “Getting a job and making money.” It takes some
searching to arrive at a richer (so to speak) answer.
Students are rightly concerned about money and employment; that
same uncertainty worried me as a young art student in the
mid-1980s. College is a huge investment, and with national
attention now turning to the predatory student loan industry,
everyone is acutely aware of the financial obligations ahead for
students. Indeed, getting paid is a baseline for success in any
field. Putting this criterion on the table is a first and necessary
But then what? The salary of an entry-level
graphic designer will be similar to that of a teacher, tax
collector or candlestick maker. (A young person who wants to earn
serious money should be looking altogether elsewhere, such as Wall
Street or arms dealing.) Many people are drawn to design because it
is an artistic field whose career path is more reliable than the
fine arts. Artists know they are headed into unknown economic
territory; they expect to use diverse forms of employment to
support their practice. Painters or sculptors might define their
initial success differently from designers. The most important
thing for them may be to participate in exhibitions—getting their
work noticed and talked about, being part of a scene and
participating in a community of other artists.
Graphic design students, however, tend to be more conservative.
When I ask them to talk about what makes design different from the
fine arts, they gravitate towards the role of the client. Designers
serve clients, or so the logic goes, whereas artists serve
themselves. Designers would like to do work “just for themselves,”
students sometimes say, but designers need clients to survive.
Although it is true that designers generally rely on clients,
pleasing them is not the ultimate purpose of our work. What
designers share with our clients is a public, an audience. Our
clients wouldn't need us at all if we weren't helping them reach
that public. Our broader responsibility is to the ultimate users of
our work. Doctors need hospitals and insurance companies to do
their business, but patients are the ones they really serve.
Designers make things that are out there in the world, being seen,
read, understood and acted on by other human beings.
Part of success is having your work seen by the public. That
public may be large or small, local or global. The public may never
know who designed the coffee cup they're holding, the magazine
they're reading or the sign that's showing them where to go. But
they're seeing it, and some of them might, at some level, have
their lives enlivened, simplified or otherwise enhanced by it. One
way to think about success is asking whether your work gets seen or
used, and if so, whether using it enhances people's lives.
Getting noticed by other designers is another aspect of being
seen—and finding success. Again, consider how doctors work: in
addition to serving patients, a doctor works in a community of
other doctors, and success in her field will consist not only of
serving patients and serving them well, but also helping advance
the levels of knowledge within her field. Some doctors choose to
teach, deliver lectures, attend seminars, publish papers, and so
on, and their ability to do this is another measure of success. It
is likewise for artists, who often create work with not only the
general viewer in mind, but also a community of peers—including
curators, critics and fellow artists.
Designers have many ways to contribute to their profession and
to see and be seen in the design world. One is entering
competitions and submitting work to annuals and exhibitions.
Another is participating in the design community—going to events,
lectures and conferences, and helping to organize them, too. Yet
another involves reading and writing. Blogs and online journals
like this one enable any designer to have a voice and share ideas.
Staying informed about issues connects designers to a larger
Success is more than going to work every day and getting paid.
Success means finding personal satisfaction in your work and loving
what you do. And it means engaging with a social world: a world of
clients and employers, but also of readers, users and other
designers. It is those things that make us rich.
Doughnut “prose painting” by Ellen Lupton.
Are you making good use of your time? Barringer offers advice on managing the arc of your career for success today and in the long run.
Section: Inspiration -
career, design thinking, Voice
Is it the fate of freelance designers to feel permanently squeezed? Barringer extracts meaning from his own stretched-thin life.
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freelancing, personal essay, Voice
Not every project will be your “golden ticket,” so it’s up to you to create your own opportunities.
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graphic design, personal essay, mentoring, students
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