You’re officially a Designer. Now what?

It seems impolite in the design industry to talk about salaries, uncool to be on a job hunt (because you know, cool designers meet people at parties or get published on Vagabomb and magically land great gigs), or admit you’re working for a corporate. In an industry that suddenly started to grow at an alarming rate, there’s hardly anything out there to help any of us map or gauge something like a “career path” as a designer. There aren’t fixed pay scales, ranks, correlations between degrees, skills and salaries, nor is there any fixed method of assessment. However this is about treating design as a career and not a cool hobby. It’s great to have it as a hobby, doing one-off projects with “cool” clients. But you can’t always be a mad creative and earn a living with the same wave of your tablet-pen. But if you’re like me, graduated and suddenly terrified to learn that you can’t earn much of a living that way (unless you have other sources of funding to fall back on), then there are a few things that are good to know.

I present to you my humble findings after a year in the industry. This isn’t nearly enough experience, and technically I shouldn’t be qualified to be inflicting my opinions on others, but maybe this might be helpful to those who have studied design in India, are just about graduating, or thinking of getting into design. As a garrulous person when I’m talking about something I’m passionate about, I’ll try to stick to the basics.

Illustration by Winona Laisram
Illustration by Winona Laisram

Be present everywhere

People don’t know where to look for designers. People don’t even know how to gauge designers. In an industry so young that people are only just discovering that they even needs designers, you need to be everywhere. isn’t uncool. It’s where the clueless HR person from a big firm is bumping around because it’s the only place he knows where to look. Don’t assume your client knows what they’re looking for. Designer jargon doesn’t make you sound cool, it makes you sound alien. Unless your interaction or interview is with a creative lead, in your communications, it may be wiser to keep it simple and help them figure out what they want.

You can’t afford to be socially anxious.

There’s the romantic notion of the shy artist, but that doesn’t ever really work. If you can’t speak your mind, if your knuckles go white at the idea of having to negotiate a salary, or work with a team, you may not last long. Despite putting the word out there and being solicited by many firms and clients, I have landed my best gigs (both satisfactory and well-paid) via people I met at pubs, parties, art galleries, café’s, and friends-of-friends. Most people don’t even know they need a designer until they meet one. Being able to banter with clients and sell yourself well at an interview may make all the difference between whether they hire you or someone with the same (if not better) qualifications.

Find out your own process, and the type of design that suites you best

There are designers who make cool, zany things out of nothing, can paint gorgeous pictures, and make a really good poster. This doesn’t mean the same designer can build an excellent brand identity, user manual, or website. And vice-versa works as well. Rather than trying to fit the imaginary mould of what you believe a designer is, try and figure out what your skillset is, what types of design suit you best, and can take you to success (whatever you define as success). I love the idea of doing one of those out-of-the-way candy-coloured social commentaries, but my  skillset lies in talking to clients, helping them understand what they need, understanding their audience, and delivering effective communications. Not very romantic, but that’s what I’m good at. My process is well suited for branding, ad campaigns, editorial work, and the like. Much as I would love to work on cultural art pieces and social-commentary type of stuff, but as someone interested in making a living off of design, at some point I need to limit myself to what I’m best at, and do the other stuff on my own time. But whatever your process is, be dedicated, diligent, punctual, and reliable.

Figure out what process works best for you

I can’t necessarily come up with charts and charts of different options for something and evolve each one. I sit down, come up with one or two or three good ideas, and take them to near-completion; some places see that as being rigid and not experimental enough, but it works for me, and I may change methods depending on the type of timeframe that I have. Depending on what your particular field of interest is, a fast and snappy style works great at marketing firms that need things done in an hour or two for real-time uploads, overnight campaigns, and clients who suddenly decide they need something designed by tomorrow morning.

In closing, don’t undersell yourself

I’m only a year into the industry as a designer, but I actively ignore places looking for freshers or interns. If you are a designer with some experience, try not to take up jobs at places that specify that they want “freshers” or “interns” because a firm that indicates this specifically is doing it for only one reason, to pay you peanuts. And if you are a fresher or an intern, always interact at length with your clients to try and gauge whether this experience is going to help you grow, or whether you’re just going to end up getting taken advantage of. Every time you quote a price that is too low, the industry takes a hit, and you and me and everyone else is devalued a little more.

Time is money, if a client pays you a certain amount, they are delivered what that amount is worth. Don’t cow down for clients who say things like “you can do it in your free time”, “if you have more time on the weekend you can do it”. I recently had a client who tried to enquire about how many other clients I had and what they were paying me, to try and persuade me to spend more time on his work. If you pay for x number of hours, you get x amount of work, not more if I have “free time”; my time isn’t “free”.

Indians love a bargain and treat the industry like a fish market. If you’re selling something at Rs.10,000, they will go to the sketchy person selling it at Rs.9,990, in search of that high they get from “getting a deal”. Don’t be afraid to lose a bad client. You’re not being a sell-out by earning a decent wage. You’ll never hear that from another designer. The people trying to tell you that are the same people who are telling you that this will “be an invaluable experience” or “look great in your portfolio”. Stick to your guns when it comes to pricing. Your education, time, and equipment are worth more than a client trying to save ten bucks.

And employers, if you’re reading this, for God’s sake, pay your designers.

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Winona Laisram

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