Good (Design) Advice Is Hard To Find

Do what you love. Work your butt off. Find time for yourself. You have to sell out at first in order to make it big.

Blah, blah, blah. You ask for career advice, and everyone has an opinion—and most of the opinions contradict all the other opinions. So how picky should you really be when selecting clients? Is it a good idea to work long hours or try getting more done in fewer? After reading a blog preaching the  glory of a fewer-than-40-hour work week, Eli Neugeboren, an illustrator, designer and retoucher living and working in Brooklyn, decided to weigh in on the good, the bad and the downright misleading with respect to design career advice. Here’s what he had to say:

There is a lot of advice out there for achieving success in any career you choose—and in life in general; areas of bookstores are devoted to the subject. There seems to be a lot of advice from designers to other designers as well. Most of it seems to say, ‘do things the way I do them, and all your dreams will come true.’

Screen shot 2013-04-10 at 9.24.18 AMThere is something dangerous about people giving mid-career advice to young people just starting out. I recently read an article by  Kyle Bragger, (tweeted by Smashing Magazine) where the author talked about not working too hard and not worrying about ’the hustle’. ‘…Pick some number under 35 and try working that many hours per week, and no more,’ he says. This is great advice from someone who has spent the previous 15 or 20 years doing exactly what they are advising against: working your butt off.

I’ve seen similar missives about taking ‘client sabbaticals’ and people like Michael Bierut and AIGA talk about not doing spec work and being picky about the clients you choose. The arguments between spec work and pro bono work have also been talked about at length elsewhere, but it is important to mention it here as well. Spec work is doing work you don’t really want to do in the hopes that it will pay off down the road, where pro bono work is for someone or something that you believe in and are okay with not getting paid.

The client-creative relationship is ideally one where both parties are interviewing each other. The worker wonders if this is someone they want to work for and the client wonders if this is someone they want to do their work. That ideal situation enables both to exist in a symbiotic collaborative relationship where everyone benefits and grows and creates something lovely.

The reality is that these relationships are based on a disparity of power and need. You are a young designer applying for a job along with 50 other recent grads, desperately trying to make yourself stand out from the pack. Your first job (and your second, and your third…) are most likely going to be applied for and taken because you need a job, not because you have found your dream job. Depending on how hard you work, how talented you are and how much people like you, you will travel down the path to client/worker equilibrium and possibly even tip the balance in your favor somewhere down the road.

Jessica Hische is the Lebron James of the design world: a wunderkind who combines the three critical elements needed to be successful: talent, drive and charisma. She is undeniably talented, but she seems to work tirelessly to improve herself and to create new and interesting things, and people around the world, (with the exception of the Gawker commentariat) really like her.

Screen shot 2013-04-10 at 9.25.17 AMOne of the most commonly asked questions from my students is ’how do I know what to charge’? Hische published an essay, ‘The Dark Art of Pricing,’ on that very topic. While incredibly generous with her time and information, she fails to account for her incredibly unique situation as an astronomically successful young designer when she penned her essay. Hische did a great thing when she lifted the veil of secrecy that normally shrouds pricing and estimating. She also put herself out there in a vulnerable position to let everyone know the kinds of prices she commands and the way she is able to live her professional life. She is living the dream; she exists as an ideal, a luminary in the field, respected and lauded, and doing so at a rare young age for this field.

Her advice is thorough, and it is rare to find something so explicit outside of the ‘Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook for Pricing’ and ‘Ethical Guidelines.’ How many illustration, design, etc. majors graduate each year and how many have agents immediately? 0.00001%? While the pricing advice and the advice towards working temperance is nice, I tend to think that Debbie Millman’s ‘The Top 10 Things I wish I Knew When I Graduated College’ Creative Mornings talk is more on the ball. She outlines how hard work and preparation are your paths to understanding and making a better creative life for yourself.

Another example of a more practical approach to this is Mike Monteiro’s book, ‘Design is a Job.’ This book is the closest thing to reality that I have found in terms of talking about the real and practical day-to-day situations you will face as a working creative.

The ’35 or under’ thesis sounds really nice: Who wouldn’t want to work fewer hours and somehow be more successful? It has a ring to it like the fact that if you sleep more than eight hours you’re going to be more alert, healthier, happier and all of those things. I think that never working for free also sounds nice, as does not working with difficult clients. I know from my own experience, however, that I have rent to pay and a family to feed. And before that family, I still had the rent, and I needed to make sure it was paid.

You may have had to work a few 60-hour weeks to get it done, but it will all be worth it if your in-house designs snag the top prize in the In-HOWse Design Awards & Competition. The deadline is May 1st, so submit your best entries today!

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