In-house Interpersonal: Designers & Fine Wines

Too Old To Be A Designer?


Recently on the Creative Freelancer Blog, designer, Laurel Black, wrote a post, Too Old To Be A Designer? in which she worried aloud whether, at 61, she could continue to get work as a designer. She pointed to a youth bias in the design and marketing professions and wondered why experience isn’t always valued by the people who hire designers, whether for freelance or salaried positions.


Black is not alone in her worries; she clearly struck a nerve. Her blog post received more comments than any other post in the history of the blog (and they’re still coming)! Most were long and thoughtful, some optimistic, others plaintive. They came from across the spectrum, from designers who had recently lost their jobs, from those who’ve recently gone back to school for design and from independent or freelance designers who can’t imagine retiring but, like Laurel, worry about the “youngins” taking their place.

In the comments, there are lots of tips about how to position yourself with the competitive edge of maturity. But one question rises to the top: what can be done to educate the people who hire designers, about the value of experience? Also in the comments, Laurel reframes her main concern as follows:

I think that designers are often selected for their ability to embody how the client wishes to view him/herself, rather than for straight-up design competency. If the client wishes to feel hip, cool, cutting-edge, etc. and associates those attributes with youth, the client will justify this unconscious criteria by citing all the reasons why geezers can’t cut it in youth-oriented markets. Never mind that the bulk of buying power rests with boomers. (This whole issue is a bit ironic since the youth cult started with us and now we are reaping its results.)

So here’s my question to all of you: how do we counter these unconscious purchasing criteria when they occur? Or do we? Is it best to just shrug and figure that you aren’t going to sell everyone you pitch for a variety of reasons?

What’s your take?

6 thoughts on “In-house Interpersonal: Designers & Fine Wines

  1. Jessica

    I firmly believe there should be a concerted effort to counter the age-bias associated with the desire for cutting-edge design. The notion that youth inherently possess a flare for the hip and cutting-edge, moreso than their predecessors is pure myth. Creatives who have prospered through their careers through to Laurel’s age have clearly displayed a pronounced ability to “move with the times,” and keep up with design trends and ideals. They’re the Madonnas of the design world. Otherwise, her career would have plummeted when clients started to feel that her designs weren’t neo-retro… just retro.
    Certainly there will be many clients who will ignore straight facts and opt for the “youngin” regardless… but maybe the best route is an upfront hard sell to the benefits of experience and all that that entails; time and project management, efficiency, developed understanding of design function and principles, and the confidence and interpersonal skills that come from 30+ years in the business. Back that up with a hip, cool and cutting-edge portfolio, and what has the client got to lose?

    Granted, being in my early 20s, I’m batting for the wrong side here, but I’ll be the first person to suggest that in many cases, experience is going to trump someone who’s still working out their own personal design process. Besides, when I’m in Laurel’s position, no way am I going to let some little pissant like me get the upper hand. 😉

  2. Sean Collins

    As a graphic designer who’s been looking for a new design job with little success and now looking to turn my part-time freelance status into a full-time status, I can say my age may be a factor (39). But I also believe there is another factor: salary requirement. Those of us with more experience tend to be older and demanding more money. So it’s very common for companies to “say” they’re looking for hipper when they really mean cheaper. Young and fresh is better than old and unoriginal, but less money will get you in the door as long as you’ve got the design chops.
    That being said, if you can design cool and cutting edge pieces at 70, then your age shouldn’t get in the way. Your work should always trump your age. Now if you have a style you’re comfortable with and you’re not a person who likes changes, then you shouldn’t be sending a resume to the hippest companies. Look for companies or clients that seem more traditional. They may be a better fit.
    Remember, not every company wants the cool, cutting-edge look. The retro look and even the really old look is coming back with a lot of the “all natural” products.
    Just my thoughts.

  3. Laurel Black

    Laurel here:
    @Jessica: Extremely well put! You’re wise beyond your years (and possibly mine). Do the world a favor and clone yourself. I can’t believe you’re really a pissant.
    @Sean: The salary issue you describe has been mentioned on the CFC blog. That one hadn’t occurred to me, having almost zero agency experience and none in-house. I have felt client pressure to lower my fees, either by an outright hourly decrease or by demands for more work at the same amount of money, but I ascribed that to the economy, not age. Your insight shows how the two issues (age and economy) are related. Do you think that has a bearing on how to deal with the problem(s)? And yes, work should always trump age. But experience does seem to be equated more often with expensive.

    1. Steve Teare

      I also believe it’s price not age. I’m 56 and have been freelancing for 14 years. I work for various clients –but with one major client on an annual contract. I voluntarily discounted my prices by 30% this year. That was no small chunk of change. They naturally asked, “Why?”

      I told them these are hard times and I’d like to keep their business. I also asked if they would be willing to do the same. 🙂 I didn’t want to be blown out of the water by some college kid. This was incredible to them. I took a voluntary reduction. They didn’t even ask for or hint about it. There business is not in trouble –yet.

      They have given me additional extra work this year and my overall income will be above the previous year. I lost nothing by this act. It’s the Reciprocity Effect at it’s finest. Sure I’m working harder. Who cares? I’m doing what I love and not flipping burgers. I’m still making money and keeping my head above water. Reduce your expectations and price yourself like a hungry young designer. You’ll get work.

      I didn’t do this as a mere trick. I sincerely wanted to work with them even if it meant taking a cut. I had no expectations or strings attached.

      How many boomers have tried this move? Do you really think you are worth more than other humans because you’re now older and paid your dues? Uh, no. Whoever solves the problem will get the job. Business are having pain. Adapt. Be creative.

      1. Laurel Black

        @Steve: Yes, you’re right that price is important. But do you really think you’re worth less now than you were when you started? Do you really think that the only reason more experienced designers charge more is because they’re “older and have paid their dues”? Uh, no – it’s because the WORK is usually better. Granted, that’s not always the case, but it’s certainly true for me and probably also for you. I can do better work faster than I could a decade ago. Why should I penalize myself for the effort it took to get there?

        I find it bizarre that you offered a 30% discount to a business who you say is not in trouble, was happy with your work and hadn’t asked for a break. It sounds more like you just sent a big message that you’ve been overcharging up to now. What happens when the economy gets better? Do you think they’ll come to you and say, “Gee, Steve, we think we should pay you more for the same work”? I wouldn’t hold my breath. Once you devalue yourself, it’s very hard to go back. And implying that older designers charge more because of a sense of entitlement is a pretty insulting assumption, unless you were only referring to yourself.

        @Geoff: “No one can deny your passion because of your age, unless you allow them to. We are all as young as we choose to be each day.” So true. That attitude coupled with all the ongoing work it takes to stay current and skilled appears to be the route to the Endless Career. Here’s hoping it pays off.

  4. Geoff Godfrey

    Some creative schools of thought seem to believe that once you’re over thirty five your best creative has been spent. Creativity never stops, it’s all a matter of how you let it continue to percolate. Yes the creative industry, as with most, subscribes to age bias. For some strange reason if you are young, you are fresh with creative but if you are older you can’t possibly have a creative thought? It’s time to dump that batch of punch. If you’re a creative type and LOVE what you do, you are still reading design magazines [possibly on your iPad], studying the ever changing digital media, tapping into as many design blogs and groups as possible while also noting ever-changing trends that influence design such as Word of Mouth Advertising, PopUp Marketing, Social Media, etc. And probably still feel like you can’t keep up. Age and experience does however give us some edges — we’ve learned from mistakes that only time can reward. The bad paper call, the rushed varnish technique that wouldn’t dry or the photo shoot that really needed models but you caved for the president’s kids instead. Yes there is something to be said for age and experience and I still believe there are folks that want and respect that type of design guidance. The other key is reinvention. I’m 51 and totally rebranding my design firm with a look and approach that doesn’t remotely look like my typical “conservative” corporate client that I’ve been indentured to for years. I feel there can be a balance. Let’s face it nobody wants old people that bring old thoughts. We all want to feel hip and we can be. You can look creative and hip but still dress age appropriate and be respected by your clients and bottom line, viewed as an asset to their business. And the other thing, stay young in thought by surrounding yourself with creatives of different generations, keep the doors open. They keep us balanced and vice versa. The young ones who are worth their salt and will endure still respect the older gang because they know we can all bring something fresh to the table. Keep reading. Keep exploring. Keep being a Kid. Don’t forget to have foolish fun. Keep making mistakes. Learn from your mistakes. And follow your heart, even if it means reinventing yourself. A little scary yes, but once you immerse yourself in it you really will gain a new sense of freedom, awareness and determination. Don’t let yourself become an island. Build yourself a team if for nothing more than to bounce ideas. Keep learning. No one can deny your passion because of your age, unless you allow them to. We are all as young as we choose to be each day.