Age + Design: Staying Relevant in This Crazy, Digital World

I am creeping up on the ripe old age of 42, and despite hearing how “50 is the new 30,” I cringe when I’m reminded that I’m now much closer to 50 than 30. Yeah. Thanks for that. Yet, at the same time, I’m friends with many great people who’ve surpassed 50 with style. Many of them are successful in their careers and are an inspiration to me. I’m sure that they look at me as a kid, still young in the game. But I have to be honest—I worry that as I get older, at some point, the ball is going to drop and everything I’ve worked so hard for could be lost. Why? Because I also have other older friends who’ve had frustrations maintaining their career after a job loss and have felt that their age played a role. The struggle is real.

I’ve thought a lot about the total time that I’ve put in with my company. I’ve been there for almost 14 years. Do I want to spend my entire career there? I’m not as young as I used to be, and sometimes I worry about missed opportunities because I’ve stayed there as long as I have. Am I holding myself back due to complacency? What if I don’t have the skills to go elsewhere? Maybe someone will discover that I’m a fraud and I can’t measure up to the expectations that employers have for designers these days. All of these thoughts creep into my mind and keep me up at night sometimes.

I’m lucky to have a job. However, the reality is that while I do have a steady paycheck at the moment, my pink slip may arrive when I least expect it. So what sort of steps should I take to be proactive about the fate of my career, of my future? What can I do to stay relevant in this digital age, staying competitive and adding value as an employee and potential job-candidate … especially as I’m now considered a “mature” candidate?

For those of you in the same boat, here’s what I think we should do.

1. Put Yourself Out There

Graphic designers at HOW Design Live

You need to get outside of your comfort level and learn to try new things. This can be attending a networking event or learning a new skill through HOW Design University, Skillshare, or Take a glass-blowing class. Try improv. Join your local Toastmaster’s or volunteer for a good but humble cause. Let your passions guide you. Reach out to people who are doing what you want to be doing. I’ve been told by some that they love it when people reach out to them and ask questions. They love talking to others about what they’re passionate about. They love sharing that passion with others!

2. Exercise Your Mind

Read trade articles. Read about things you’re interested in. Listen to audiobooks. Watch TED talks. Listen to podcasts. It improves your vocabulary and expands your mind. It can help add diversity to your thinking, reduces stress and can increase thought development. Do crossword puzzles as it helps keep your brain sharp and focused. Keep a journal and write in it every day. All of these things are great for your brain, to keep it fit and focused. #brainfood

3. Get Connected

graphic designers meeting Chip Kidd at HOW Design Live 2016

Go to conferences and conventions. Take in some workshops. Talk to industry leaders. AIGA offers a lot of different mixers year-round. If you are able to, take advantage of them. Stay in contact with former clients and co-workers. Keep your LinkedIn profile current. Get familiar with social media and learn the lingo. Establish yourself online as an expert in your field. Start a blog. Instagram the crap out of the sidework that you’re doing. Create Pinterest boards that will help generate ideas and organize information. There’s a wealth of information to tap into there! Utilize information shared by others. Have conversations. Keep it going. Communication is key in this digital world!

4. Do Some Digging

Learn everything you can about a company that you’re interested in working for. Ask questions and find out what pain points they might be experiencing. Check out their competitors to see what they’re up against. Offer solutions to those points, and give employers a reason to hire you. Talk about process. Show your work. But make sure that you go into any interview with the perspective that it’s about them and not you. If you show them how you can apply your experience, skills and expertise to benefit them, the more you’ll stand out and the less likely you are to be compared to other applicants.

5. Be Like the Terminator

At Christmas time, my dad kept quoting the Terminator: “I’m old, but not obsolete.” I haven’t been able to shake the depth of that quote from my mind, even though my dad thought he was being funny. Just because we’re getting older doesn’t mean that we’re less valuable. We offer a wealth of knowledge and experience. We have dealt with conflict resolution. We’ve built up our presentation skills. We know what works and what doesn’t—and why. But in order to be forward-thinking, we need to be open-minded to new opportunities. There are a lot of things we can learn to do and a wealth of information to share. A great mentorship is a two-way street.

6. Find Your Tribe

graphic designers at HOW Design Live 2016

When you put yourself out there and attend networking events, conferences and other professional mixers, you may discover you’re surrounded by people who inspire you to be a better version of yourself. They support your ideas, can offer honest feedback and help guide you. My friend, Justin Ahrens of Rule29 Creative, has mentioned the value of collecting a team of “ambassadors” to help you maintain balance within your personal and professional life. His book, Life Kerning, is full of great insight on this subject. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy if you don’t already have one.

Think about the people that you can rely on when you need professional guidance. Are they challenging you to improve your game, patronizing you because they’re biased, or are they obstacles getting in the way? Choose the ones who will not only challenge you but will call you out when you’re slacking.

7. Quit Comparing Yourself to Others

graphic designers having fun at HOW Design Live 2016 closing party

Whatever generation you find yourself in, remember that you are unique and add value differently than the next person. It has nothing to do with age. It has everything to do with your interests, attitude, motivation and willingness to contribute in a meaningful way. The competition is real, but step away from letting age be a factor in your career. Help to be a part of the solution, not the problem.

The fact is, no one can control their age. NO ONE. Not even Kim Kardashian. Getting older is a natural part of life. With age comes experience, both the good and the bad and yes … even the ugly. All of those experiences help mold us into the people we are today. What we do with it is up to us. So what’s your next move?


One thought on “Age + Design: Staying Relevant in This Crazy, Digital World

  1. Designfacet

    Anyone applying for work who is in their mid 40’s 50’s are called overqualified and rarely get a position. Agencies rather hire two junior designers for 25k each with no life attachments/expenses. There is an expiry date on being a graphic designer and once past that one has to start their own business.