What Is Success?

Filed Under: Article , Voice

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 step.

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 discourse.

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.