Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Can anyone REALLY be a Designer?

If I had a nickel for every person who woke up and decided to become a "Designer" I would probably be rich. It wasn't enough that all of these musicians and actresses decided to start clothing lines and call themselves 'fashion designers'. Now we have dozens and dozens of TV shows featuring mock creatives with no relative experience doing anything from cutting hair to flipping houses. Reality TV has empowered networks and individuals to realize their dreams in new professions for which they have zero training. Last night, while watching one such program, I wondered if it were really true: "Can anyone really call themselves a designer?"

Now before someone gets all offended, I am not discounting the fact that there have been MANY great design professionals who stumbled into it without any premeditation. Many of my friends ended up in a design profession because of something that started as a hobby. I'm not saying that all of these people are not talented. They are. But while many design professionals are struggling, there are others scooping up commissions because they are cheap and their qualifications are never checked. Let me give you an example.

A friend of mine lost their job doing graphic design at a boring corporate company because the company's marketing budget had been cut due to the economy. That company cut three staff positions, but still had a modest amount of layout and design work to do. A senior person at that company suggested that they use a freelance designer to get them by. Unfortunately, they did not offer the freelance position to any of the designers that they had just laid off, despite their familiarity with the material and the company. They thought it would be simpler to place an add on Craigslist where they could dictate the pay and the terms of the position. They ended up hiring a person who was not a graphic designer, but successfully marketed themselves as such. This person was just someone who needed some extra money and was looking for a part time gig to supplement their income as an accountant. Apparently, they knew the software very well and had a great portfolio of personal work that they marketed as 'freelance'. The accountant designer was hired and everything was moving along. One day the freelancer was asked to design a logo for a new project that the company was starting. The freelancer tried to step up to the occasion but unfortunately spent the entire schedule producing some of the worst logos ever made. The company was under a deadline and needed more. They called my friend up and said they were in a tough spot and asked for help. Apparently my friend was not talented enough to retain as an employee, but talented enough to bail this company out of a jam. My friend politely declined and then proceeded to call me up and vent about it.

I'm sure you have all heard similar stories. I recently had a friend who wanted to redesign their apartment and hired a total stranger that had been referred to them. When I asked what their credentials were, I was told that this person had 'a good eye' for style. I asked my friend if they had seen any of their work, and was told that they really hadn't done much. When I probed a little further it turned out this person was unemployed and was doing 'interior design'
for fees that were well below market rates. My friend had not even considered engaging my help because he felt that I would have been too expensive. At the end of the day, this person painted a few walls and went shopping at a big box store for my friend's apartment. The result was average at best.

Now, I'm not saying all this to discourage people from doing any profession they choose. I'm sure that there are many people out there with real talent and potential. What I'm asking for is this: If you really do feel that you have a real passion for a creative profession, then respect the profession and the professionals who rely on quality work to make a living at it. Sure, it makes for good TV to watch people fall on their face during a home renovation. But in real life, a bad project hurts the entire profession and one's ability to get new work. Those who have been burned or ripped off go around telling people what a waste of money it was to spend it on design fees. For every company selling a $99 logo, there are really talented designers scraping by because no one will pay them what their time is really worth.

Finally, let me say this about 'self-taught' Designers. Many of you have genuine talent. There is no arguing that. But talent alone is not enough. You have to apply that talent in education, apprenticeship, and respect of the profession. You also have to be honest with your clients about your abilities and your experiences. Many design professions (particularly those related to Building and Construction) have serious legal ramifications for mis-representing yourself. So before you go around calling yourself a "Designer" make sure that you are ready to put in the work and respect your peers. Get yourself an internship and invest in learning anything anyone will teach you, even if it's what not to do. Once you make this investment, you will likely not give away your time so cheaply (unless it's for volunteer work) and your work will improve. In the end, your work will speak for itself no matter what title you put on a business card.

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