Q: I love what I do, but it frustrates me
that because I design for a living I
don’t feel like I get much respect.
Corporate colleagues, clients and
even some of my non-designer
friends act like my career isn’t a
“real job.” What do I need to do to
gain some credibility?
The problem you’ve identified isn’t exclusive to
graphic designers. It’s a common complaint among
people who make their livelihood by leveraging their
own creative abilities. Think of the 1980s song by
Dire Straits, "Money For Nothing":
Now look at them yo-yos, that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free
The song’s lyrics are written from the point of
view of a blue-collar worker watching music videos.
And—just like the couch potato who assumes that
any activity that doesn’t generate sweat isn’t really
work at all—many people are of the opinion that
creatives have it pretty easy.
The reality, of course, is that the pressures
brought on by your creative gifts and talents can be
enormous. In all likelihood, you work some very long
hours—well beyond those actually spent at the office
as you doodle and noodle over projects, or wake up
terrified that you sent the printer a wrong file. The
perception other people hold about your livelihood is
a lot more glamorous. They see the beautiful results
of your blood, sweat and tears but not what it took
to produce those results. They notice the awards on
your wall and the fun toys in your office. They may
see you as you fly off to a remote photo shoot, get
wined and dined by vendors and come into the office
late (not knowing of your third-shift press check). To
them, that ain’t working.
So what can you do to correct any misperceptions
and ultimately garner a little more respect? For starters, let’s take a look at where others’ assessments
come from. In a corporate setting, you may be part
of a “creative services team” or a “communications
department.” You’re a piece of a larger whole that is
in the serious business of selling something and—
unless you’re working for the government—your
employer has to make a profit. In that context, you
may be seen as overhead; in most cases you and
your colleagues are not directly generating income
and in fact the activities of your department are on
the other side of the balance sheet.
Now consider all the people who are directly
involved in the generation of your company’s revenue:
the salespeople, agents, managers, accountants
and others. Think about their workday, what concerns
they have, the problems they face and even
their work environments. Odds are good that their
roles and work lives are a lot different from yours.
Right or wrong, they may believe—because they did
take an art class, after all—that your job isn’t really
all that demanding. If you’re working within an
agency or design firm that has account executives,
you might sometimes face a similar attitude.
Here are a few things you can do to help
advance your own cause and maybe even help the
rest of us “yo-yos” in the process.
1. Be a professional. Early in your career you
were certainly conscious about what was expected
in terms of procedures to be followed. You probably
made it a point to be at meetings on time or
even early. Maybe you volunteered for extra work
or assignments. You may have dressed carefully for
work each morning. For some people, an unconscious
erosion of these standards over time has compromised
how they are viewed by others. This is not
meant to suggest that designers must wear neckties
or high heels to be well received by non-designer
colleagues, but by being sensitive to the cultural
norms in your work environment, you can do much
to enhance your own standing. Look at how your
colleagues in other departments conduct themselves
and evaluate whether your own manner serves you.
2. Know the business. If you work for a financial
services organization, for example, it is critical that
you know more than just a little about financial
services. The greater your knowledge, the more you
can offer in terms of communication and perhaps
even business strategies, and the more credibility
you’ll have. Keep current by reading trade publications,
go to an industry association meeting or ask
a colleague to suggest a good book. The insight you
gain can go far not only in enhancing your own
standing, but could also help you develop more
effective design solutions.
3. Share your world. While you’re brushing up
on product knowledge and learning more about
the business climate of the industry you work for,
make it a point to share a bit of the design world
with your colleagues. Invite your associates to hear
a speaker at a local art directors club or AIGA
chapter meeting. Clip articles from trade publications
and share them with others. Take your nondesigner colleagues to an awards presentation or circulate awards annuals so they can see the design
work being done for other industries. In short, help
others to see design as a true profession, complete
with ethical standards and expectations, professional
associations and opportunities for continued
growth and development.
Finally, when you’re thinking about perceptions
held by others, acknowledge human nature. It
is common to judge, and people do it without even
thinking about it—to take one look and summarize a
whole person (or profession) based on limited information.
This habit comes from the mind’s need to
categorize the world in order to be able to function
without becoming overwhelmed. If you feel you’re
not being taken seriously, might it be in part because
you act flip or cavalier? Does the way you act send a
message that you don’t care what others think? Are
you doing all that you can to position design as a
Look at yourself through the eyes of others.
Then you can decide whether what you’re putting
forth is what you want to project.