The Wide, Wide World of Graphic Design

For the past dozen years, I've been immersed in the world of graphic design—first as a student, then as a designer, and now as a design educator. Through each experience navigating this incredible field I have gained a new perspective—and at one point got a rather rude awakening.

A navigational compass on top of a road map.

Finding a design path. (iStock: EdgeofReason)

As a design student, my experience was fairly typical. My portfolio included the regular stable of work: flashy logos, posters, magazine covers, self-promotional pieces, packaging, wine bottles, experimental typography. From concept to execution, I was given free reign to be boundlessly creative with each assignment, all the while consciously developing and honing my own “signature” style.

It was a heady time for me. I found my passion, doing what I loved to do, while at the same time preparing for a soul-satisfying career as a graphic designer with limitless latitude to experiment. Or so I thought!

Then I graduated.

The first job I landed was designing a publication that presented a detailed school curriculum. Long text columns, bullets and charts, gray-scale stock photos. Fancy typography and Photoshop skills weren't called for.

My next job was designing medical templates. Dry, colorless pages of medical text and flat anatomical figures. Experimentation was not solicited.

Next I was hired to help design the interface of radiology software. X-ray images of diseased body parts, endless medical facts, copious content squeezed into tight spaces. No one cared for my unique “signature” style.

Was this the career world of graphic design? Where could I use my imagination and creativity, my talent for color, my love of avant-garde typography? How could I demonstrate my personal aesthetic? Why had I spent so much time and money developing skills that didn't seem to be called for in my chosen profession?

Over time I migrated back to the academic world, but this time on the teaching side. As a graphic design instructor in the Fine Arts department of the New York Institute of Technology for the past eight years, I've had the opportunity to use my creativity and skills, as well as develop new ones. I get to grow constantly on the job. Though not the career I originally aimed for, it has turned out to be a satisfying one.

Part of my role as a design educator is to help students see the whole spectrum of the design world, not attract them to one slice of it.

So I have no regrets—but still, my experiences have gotten me thinking. What's at fault when design students' dreams and expectations aren't fulfilled in the real world?

Like me, most of my students are the artsy type. They're driven by an urge to be creative and express themselves. They love beauty, or at times ugliness—as long as whatever they create makes a statement, draws attention and evokes a strong response.

I understand my students' hopes and dreams. But I also know that few of them will be able to make a living based solely on unbridled creativity and self-expression. Part of my role as a design educator is to help students see the whole spectrum of the design world, not attract them to one slice of it with a course-load that's too heavy on excitement and glamour.

Whatever such work may lack in freedom and intrigue it gains by giving the designer an additional sense of purpose and the satisfaction of helping solve important problems that affect us all.

Looking back now at those initial jobs after graduation, I realize that I made important contributions to the curriculum publication and the medical templates and software I helped design. Teachers and students probably benefited by having a more clear and usable resource. Doctors must have found the templates and software easier to use, and who knows how many patients my designs may have helped.

My disappointment at the time stemmed largely from narrow expectations. I now look on the design projects of my student days—the glitzy logos, posters, wine bottles and such—as a tasty, frothy dessert. What I really needed was the complete nourishment of a well-balanced meal.