Being a Graphic Designer Kind of Sucks

By Dempsey Ewan

I met Eric and Todd at an end-of-semester portfolio review. I don’t fully remember the conversation I had with them, but I remember mentioning that I was unsure whether I really liked graphic design and that I didn’t want an internship, but I needed one for credit. I’m fairly certain both these comments should be avoided when talking to someone who could hire you. To be fair, I didn’t think they’d be interested in hiring me. For the first time in my school career, I was producing design work I actually liked, but it never seemed to please my professors. I felt like I was only ever missing the mark. My exposure to design was still so small that I had yet to see anyone producing the kind of work I was interested in. Ever so slowly, I began to feel like being a designer kind of sucked and maybe I should have pursued a completely different career.

Somewhere inside a designer’s mind, there is this Little Fear that stomps around and yells at you, trying to make you believe that your identity is tied up in your work. If you make something that isn’t very good or isn’t validated by professors or a client, well… you’re just not worth your salt. The designer tries to respond to this Little Fear by saying, “I can prove that my work is good! Then I can feel good about myself!”. They try to give their work value by sharing it on social media, but validation through social media is unreliable and always disappointing. So the designer works harder to prove themselves even more—constantly caught in a never-ending loop. As a result, the designer’s personality, work, and identity all become a big tangled mess and they start to think external validation is the true gauge of their value. 

This cycle isn’t a healthy way to work or live. It leads to unhappiness and burnout like I had been experiencing already, while still in school. As students, we often learn through imitation of others. If professors are not aware of this way of thinking, they can accidentally encourage students to seek only external validation for their work. Even designers who are long past college still seem to work only for the affirmation of other designers.

It was refreshing for me to be an intern at Eric&Todd last summer, because there’s something special about the relationship this team of designers has with design. I see it in the way Eric and Todd interact with clients, I see it in the way they talk about design, and I see it in their friendship. They genuinely believe design should be fun and that attitude is infectious. Their work stays fresh because of the motivation behind it: to have fun when creating. And although most designers would probably say they want to have fun, I think it rarely shows in their design.

In addition to being motivated by the notion of enjoying their work, I’ve also seen Eric and Todd be motivated by their own desire to be contrary (which happens more often than they would probably admit). I have seen few people who take as much joy in doing the opposite of what is popular just because it is not what their peers are doing. 

Occasionally I get to see Eric and Todd tackle the designer’s Little Fear of external validation. It’s still easy to get caught up in the lie, even if you’re mostly free from it. This can look like arguing loudly every once in a while, but it always ends with them reminding each other of what their goals really are. Sometimes you need other people you can raise your voice with until you remember what actually matters. 

When I’m ready to present some designs to the team, Eric or Todd usually ask “is it good?”. That question seemed like a joke to me for a while, but became extremely beneficial. The most important thing is being aware enough of your own work to know whether it is successful in accomplishing what it was intended to do. Then you can hold your personal standards up against what the rest of the world might tell you and realize the latter is worthless.

So, on the other side of my time as an E&T intern, and as a design student, there are a few things I’ve realized:

First, to be a capital D Designer, you don’t have to sell your soul and tattoo an ampersand on your arm. We need to stop with this weird idea that being a successful designer involves you making yourself into a minor social media influencer. At least, that’s the dream I saw encouraged in design students. Subconsciously, I thought my success was determined by my participation in social media design challenges, like 36 Days of Type. Did I want to participate? No, but it was the stereotype of being a designer that was sold to me by my school and the rest of the “design community”. But, shocker, some of the best designers don’t give a shit about their social media presence. Why? Because they’re too busy working.

Second, graphic design doesn’t really matter that much. Yes, it matters to an extent. Can it help with communication and organization? Of course. But if design studios disappeared tomorrow and we all woke up without trendy ads for razors and suitcases on our Instagram feeds, would the world suffer that much??

Third (this could be an incredibly profound revelation but most likely it’s just a hot take), I believe that when it comes to design, something that only looks good is disposable. Thoughts and ideas–the profound ones, the new ones, the unpopular ones, the tried-and-true ones–are the things that are increasingly valuable and rare. They are the real driving force behind design.

What most people want at the end of the day is to have fun. They don’t want pretentious design, they don’t want just pretty design. They want something they can enjoy and take part in and smile at; that is what Eric&Todd are good at and what I intend to carry with me as a designer. 

Do I still feel like being a graphic designer sucks? Yes, some days I do. But I also know now that what makes it suck is when I start forgetting what my own standards are and look to external sources for validation. In the end, I should only worry about doing the work and making it good.