Five Words That Might End Your Design Career
It is rare to be confronted with a truth so obvious, so devastating, that it causes you to abandon your belief system, to walk away from the thing that defines you as a person.
My design career ended when I read five words. Maybe they will end your career, too. Let’s give it a try.
Before you skip ahead, let me prime you. Think about your most valuable skill as a designer. What is it that people come to you for?
What does it mean to be a designer?
A decade ago I might have responded to this question by saying that designers take their client’s ideas and make them beautiful. Or maybe I would have said something about problem solving. Perhaps I would have talked about creativity or visual storytelling. How quaint.
My definitions dissolved when I read Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design, by Bob Gill. The whole book is good, but Bob broke my brain with the sentence, “Interesting words need boring graphics.”
Reflect on that statement and let it sink in. Can you see why these five words changed my life?
If you are the type of designer who sees yourself as a decorator, someone who takes bland ideas and makes them look nice, you’re done. Pack your bags, we have no need for you anymore.
Your job as a designer this whole time has been nothing more than deodorant. We don’t need more maskers of manure. And while you have been polishing turds you could have been doing something that actually matters.
You should have been searching for the right words, the idea that resonates. That is where the magic happens. Not in Photoshop. Not in camera or in post production. Not in the browser. Not in a custom CMS. Not in code. Not in conference rooms. Not in the selection of the right flavor of project management.
Once those five words are internalized, your sacred cows start to fall over.
There is no design for design’s sake.
You realize the futility of trends.
You stop lusting over fonts and logos.
You see how stupid arguments about flat vs skeuomorphic design really are.
Your distaste for advertising increases.
Your patience for anything that causes friction for your user becomes razor thin.
You stop striving for design awards, you let your subscription to CA expire.
You separate yourself from the work, sacrificing portfolio-worthy eye candy for simpler, less sexy solutions.
Design becomes a quest to dissolve itself.
You spend less and less time in Photoshop.
Instead of imagining visuals that could compensate for weak ideas, you redefine the requirements of work that gets assigned to you.
Things that once bored you — reading, writing, research, psychology, philosophy — become central to your process.
While your title might still contains the word designer, your goal becomes to do as little design as possible.
My design career ended when I accepted the truth that interesting words need boring graphics. I left the agency world and moved in-house to get closer to the metal. And when my day job forces me back into the role of designer/decorator (and that is probably inevitable) I collect my paycheck and fulfill my deeper needs with personal projects. I write. I make apps. I search for the ideas that might make a difference.
Like Buckminster Fuller said, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
Thanks for following my writing. If you enjoyed this story, here is some recommended reading: