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Should I be a designer?

OK, probably a bit late for me to be asking that given that it’s been my job for the last 26 years! 

I recently got interviewed by a 9 year old for her school project and that’s the first question she asked me, "Should I be a designer?" Sophie’s teacher set their class an assignment for the school holidays to get them thinking about potential careers. Their homework was to talk to people from different industries and find out the good and bad points of their job. Sophie came armed with a clipboard and a lot of questions. I came armed with a bag of Haribo. There’s a prize for the best assignment at stake and it’s got Sophie's name on it.

She started me off with an easy question.

Did you always want to be a designer?

Yes, I never really thought of doing anything else. According to my family, from as soon as I could hold a crayon I would be drawing or colouring. I loved copying cartoon characters; The Flumps were my speciality*. Google Grandpa Flump and his flumpet if you are too young to remember them. Going to art college and becoming a designer was just a natural progression from drawing Flumps.

What's the best part of your job?

It’s hard to boil it down to one thing but I guess I just basically love creating stuff. Taking a brief and bringing it to life. Then Sophie asked what a brief was. As she glazed over and reached for more Haribo I realised I needed another way to explain.

Turns out Sophie loves drawing Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. I asked her if she would like to see one of her drawings put up on my wall? And what about at the bus stop where she catches the school bus? Or on the side of a lorry? Or on t-shirts that all her friends wear? "That would be so cool," she said. Well, that’s the best bit of my job. Seeing something I designed, out in the world doing its job.

I still get a kick out of seeing the logo I created on a bit of signage. Or an ad I’ve dreamed up printed in the newspaper. I’ll never grow tired of that. Sophie also thought this sounded cool until we hit a stumbling block. "Do you get to put your name on it?" she asked. No. "So how does anyone know you did it then?" Erm…

What’s the worst part of your job?

Chasing money. Since going freelance I have a new respect for the accounts folk at all the design agencies I used to work at. I love designing and I’m crazy organised so project management is no big deal. But badgering people to pay my invoices and being endlessly polite about it, that’s a chore. "Why don’t people just pay you?" asks Sophie. "I would make them". Sophie is now in charge of my accounts. Late payers beware!

We talked about loads of other stuff but she saved the best question until the end. I'm sure her teacher had a hand in this one. 

What have you learned in your career that you wished you had known when you started out and what advice would you give me?

I wish I had known that things would turn out OK in the end. I’ve worked at quite a few design agencies in my career. Some I loved, some made me kinda miserable. But at all of them, I was able to work with some great clients, make good friends, work on cool projects and learn new stuff. And that’s what I have taken away from all my jobs. It’s really about the people. Your boss may be an amazing designer but that doesn’t always make them a great leader. You may be working at a top-notch agency, but if the company culture pits colleagues against each other, don’t expect to make too many friends.

My best piece of advice would be to know when to walk away. Not every designer is right for every agency. That’s not necessarily a reflection on either party. If you don’t fit in, or your design abilities are not being used to their fullest, don’t settle. Have the courage to carry on looking until you find a job that makes you happy and lets you do good work.

Oh, and always be professional. Leave the creative tantrums at home. I’m reaping the rewards of that now that I freelance. Some of my best clients are people I worked with more than 15 years ago. Being a good designer will only get you so far. You also need to be a good colleague, a good communicator and good at making the tea and buying the biscuits.

So Sophie, do you think you would like to be a designer one day? I ask. "Not if I can’t put my name on things," she said. And there ends the design aspirations of Sophie, aged 9 1/4.

If you have any great advice or insights for Sophie, I'll happily pass them on a she's not quite old enough for her own LinkedIn profile yet.

*This whole article has been a shameless excuse for me to draw Flumps again!


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