The design field is one that tons of people want to be a part of, and yet the turnover rate is incredibly high. Many good designers don’t make it more than ten years. For a very sought after field that seems a little odd. Here are some of the many reasons why designers leave the design field.
I started thinking about this topic after reading Jennifer Moline’s article Why I Left the Design World, which you should take a look at if you haven’t yet.
It isn’t just the design industry, all highly sought after jobs pay very little, or even nothing at all.
But you might say, “What about CEOs or professional basketball players?” Well with CEOs, most people want the salary but not the responsibility. But some people even want that. And guess what they become? Middle management.
Which brings me back to the professional basketball players. Only a tiny faction of the millions of people who play the sport ever make a dime at it. Just like only a tiny fraction of people ever become a CEO. There is tons of hard work and personal sacrifice, as well as mental and physical limitations which automatically eliminate the vast majority of people from ever getting these highly sought after positions.
But design is somewhat different. Yes, most of the people who try to get into design end up taking a career in something else, or wash out quickly. But because of the constant stream of applicants and the high turnover rate, design careers never end up paying very much. The difference between the best designer in the world and a good designer is not millions of dollars in salary. It might only be $5,000 to $10,000 a year different.
We chose this field because we wanted to be creative, but if we cannot support ourselves and our families in the way that we wish, then we have to look to other areas.
To make more money as a designer, you can choose to either work for yourself, start a firm, or climb the ladder at your current company. In each of these cases the pay can go up, but the amount of time spent designing is reduced, sometimes to a point were you no longer do any design work at all.
If you look at a lot of seasoned art directors, they probably couldn’t work their way around Photoshop if their lives depended on it. Not to say they are lazy, or not still learning, but staying current on the latest design software can become a low priority, when there are cheaper workers who can take care of those tasks.
Freelancers and people who build their own design firm are stuck handling the business side of things. If you left your job because you wanted to make more money, working harder at the business side is the best way to do that. So design begins to take a backseat to day-to-day business operations.
Some freelancers manage to outsource a lot of the billing but still, dealing with phone calls, emails, promotion, potential client meetings, and drafting up proposals, the amount of time actually designing can be a fraction of the day.
A lot of careers are dangerous but being a designer has it’s own, very real, negative impacts on your health that will creep up on you. Namely caused by being sedentary for long stretches of time.
Being a designer means sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen for 8 hours a day. If you do other work on the side, blog, want to stay current in the field or better your design skills, you can be spending even longer in from of a computer.
I have been doing design work for about five years plus the time I spent in school. Where my wrist meets my right arm there is a large callus from dragging my hand around the table, moving the mouse. My eyesight is OK but has been progressively getting worse (more nearsighted). I’ve noticed I lean to my right (mouse side) when I sit at my desk, and it has begun to cause me to lean that way all the time. I am not seriously overweight but I am not skinny either.
None of these things are cause for alarm yet, but 10, 20, 30 years down the road, if I am still in the same job, I am going to be an obese, blind man, walking in circles.
Working at a desk in front of a computer all day is just not sustainable in the long run.
There are of course some thing you can do like working on your posture, exercising, and eating right outside of work, but they cannot prevent all the damage. And I didn’t even mention carpal tunnel, another design career ender.
There are jobs where the employees are at odds with management but nothing that I can think of quite like the designer-client relationship. In which case, the designer has to dissuade the personal paying them from sabotaging their own project. It can be a stressful and precarious position, especially if you take your job seriously.
How many times can you tell clients why they don’t need their logo to be any bigger or why Comic Sans is not a good font choice. Some clients try to sabotage their own projects with their terrible design sense at every opportunity. And if you are a designer who really cares about the work you do, this can break your heart.
Everyone thinks they are a designer. One of the essential functions of the human brain is comparing two things and determining which is better. So it is hard for people to understand that their instincts and incites can be wrong. That the designer they are paying lots of money and who has lots of experience, is actually right.
A lot of designer just give up and give in to their clients wishes. But if you really care about design you will try to fight it. These little battles, strung out over years can lead to burnout and/or disillusionment. Aside from maybe politics, or hostage negotiation, no other professions have so much struggle, conflict and give-and-take between the client and the worker.
It is hard to always be creative. If you are sick, didn’t get enough sleep, or are just having a bad day, you cannot struggle through it like say a person who mows lawns can, because they don’t have to think critically about the work they are doing. If you cannot get your mind to function clearly you cannot product good work. Having to be clear and sharp every day can take it’s tole on some people.
Others get disillusioned by the design process. It can be hard letting people who know nothing about design make important design decisions. Designers can often feel or really become “Pixel Jockeys” just shuffling design elements around the page at their clients will. “Need a rainbow gradient on that? Will do. Want all the fonts bold and italic? Sure, no problem.”
The other side of the coin is a lack of creativity. After being in a job for a while, all of the projects can start to look and feel the same. Especially if you work in-house or with a handful of clients regularly. The chances to be creative can be few and far between.
Not every one of these reasons has to be a negative one. Design positions are rank and file ones, and when you excel at design, eventually you will be promoted to a project manager or art director. Which can be good things, but again your design time is cut back dramatically or completely. Personally, I like making design decisions but if I have to give up creating my own design work, I’m sure I will miss it after a short time.
For you old-timers out there, what is it that kept you designing for as long as you have?