Even in a gloomy economy, design remains a fantastic way to make a living. Here’s how to love your design career.
What was it that first got you excited about design? Are you still fired up by the act of creating, and do you still plunge enthusiastically into every new project? Or has the daily grind of running a business or dealing with difficult clients soured your urge to design?
If you do find that your creativity has been cramped by day-to-day pressures, you’re not alone – and help is at hand. We’ve set out to explore the ways other design and creative professionals have kept the creative spark alight.
First, we wanted to know what creative folk thought were the best things about working in a design environment. “The look on my daughter’s face when I tell her I make pretty pictures for a living,” says Alec East, digital creative director of DoTankStudios (www.dotankstudios.com, www.ukoko.com).
“I’m very fortunate – every day is different. I get fresh challenges and new things to learn all the time, so I have an official excuse to Google.”
“Anyone who’s in design is probably there for a passion in creativity and arts,” says Simon Armstrong, of animation and motion-graphics studio Tick Tock Robot (www.ticktockrobot.co.uk).
“It’s very rewarding to have a job that’s interesting, challenging, varied if you’re lucky, and often communicates to a wide audience. Personally, I still get a buzz seeing projects I’ve worked on out in the public eye, and seeing my family’s reaction when they see it too.
"I love the problem-solving side of projects as well. Looking at something and figuring out a plethora of ways in which to do it visually and sometimes technically.” Marc Peter, creative director of branding and design studio on-IDLE (www.on-idle.com), loves the freedom that working in design brings.
“You are limited only by time and your own creativity,” he says. “Every day brings something new and a different challenge. It’s an expressive way of problem-solving. Seeing your work published is always a buzz.”
Gurel Mehmet is a concept and development artist with VFX studio Double Negative (www.dneg.com).
“What I enjoy is the challenge of hitting certain creative marks that have been laid out by both the client and the team of artists that I collaborate with everyday,” he says.
“I get to paint, draw, sculpt, build sets, design environments, characters and creatures, as well as design shots. I work alongside the production’s art department, where there is a back and forth with the development of a concept.
"Other times, we’re given the task of designing key concepts from the ground up. I really enjoy all of it.”
“I love that moment when you’ve internalized a brief and have collected references but have not yet put pencil to paper,” says designer and visual artist Dale Newton, who works for leading VFX studio Framestore (www.framestore.com).
“There’s anxiety involved, and therefore urgency – sometimes it can be frantic and frustrating. But at some point the shards of ideas in your head start to come out and form a logic on the paper and then things flow more freely for a while. I like that territory of the unknown – it’s both tiring and energizing.”
Of course, there are also downsides to working in design. Most people quote the moments where you hit a creative brick wall. Another key issue is dissatisfaction with the work you’ve done, and a constant desire to improve it.
“You can never do your absolute best on a project, just the best you can within the time and budget you have,” says Simon Armstrong. “That can be very frustrating.”
“Knowing when to release an idea to the client is a process of constant refinement,” agrees Gurel Mehmet.
“Being fastidious by nature, it’s a constant push and pull for me as to when I submit work for review. Naturally, the cut-off deadline sorts that out for me.”
There’s also no way of avoiding dull projects, which can plague designers like anyone else.
“There are the jobs that pay the rent and then there are the cool funky gigs where you get to be really creative,” says Alec East.
“That doesn’t really change – ever. The people who only appear to get the cool, funky projects have either become accustomed to a low standard of living, or they keep a secret portfolio full of pharmaceutical projects, or they have a trust fund. Engineer your projects to get enough of both kinds and keep the balance.”
The creativity crunch
While the designers we contacted seem to be busy enough at the moment, the parlous state of the economy casts a shadow over everyone. “It’s filtering through now,” says Simon Armstrong.
“Jobs are scarcer, and simpler and shorter due to budget constraints. Whether you’re upbeat or downbeat about this depends on your personality, but everyone’s cautious. Though we also know this can’t last for ever.”
“Every client is trying to get the best ‘bang for their buck’ nowadays, so there is more competition for the work,” says Simon Terrey.
“The motion-graphics designers I know are now working harder and longer, with lower budgets and quicker job turnarounds.”
Framestore’s Dale Newton agrees. “Though the economic crisis has not affected me greatly yet, there is the sense of needing to go the extra mile,” he says.
“Creating something especially new or original or simply well-crafted is more important than ever.”
Keshi Bouri, creative director of creative branding agency Dragon Rouge (www.dragonrouge.co.uk), feels that economic downturns often hit designers hard.
“Marketing and communication budgets are almost always the first to get cut,” he says. “Which is why we have to work harder at showing our clients that the work we do can in actual fact help them in difficult times. When we truly partner with clients and prove our worth they are far less likely to cut our budgets first.”
He adds that, when things get tough, designers have to be flexible. “We have to be far more transparent with our costs and processes. Thinking about how we cost jobs and deliver work is vital. Just because we are working in difficult economic times, we shouldn’t try to cut corners unrealistically.
"Clients need to understand what happens behind closed doors when we are working on their projects. Involving them and sharing ideas with them helps them to see our true value.”
The daily grind
If you’re freelance or running your own studio, you’ll be familiar with the constant stream of admin tasks that have to be attended to if you’re going to turn a profit.
Handling the business side of things can get you seriously bogged down in time-consuming chores that, while they’re essential, run the risk of killing your love for the job. But how can you avoid this fate?
“If you’re running your own business, focus and delegation are essential,” says Alec East. “Focus will stop you chasing the wrong kind of projects. Delegation will keep your mind clear and uncluttered.”
Ian Bird, of Bird Studios (www.birdstudios.tv), says that it’s essential to keep on top of day-to-day chores.
“For instance, if you’re a freelancer, do your accounts regularly rather than doing everything when the tax year is up; it makes the mundane tasks much less of a chore in the long run.”
Simon Armstrong shares this view. “If it’s a job you really don’t want to do, get it done first,” he says. “For example: you have two weeks to do the accounts, which will take two days. Would you rather spend the other 12 days thinking about the boring job you have to do, or that time feeling chuffed and relieved it’s done?”
on-IDLE’s Marc Peter suggests that studio managers clearly separate creative and administrative time in their schedules.
“It really helps if you have systems in place that minimize the administrative workload,” he says.
“Having a good account or project manager can relieve a large amount of the paperwork stress.”
Of course, there will inevitably be times when the roles and workloads of studio leaders overlap, but Peter suggests you ask for help from your business partners when you need it, and be prepared to pitch in to business decisions and administrative tasks when your partners are under a lot of stress themselves.
“Don’t bury your head in the ‘creative corner’,” he adds. Keshi Bouri suggests that small studios consider collaborating with others. “During difficult times it’s important to maintain high standards and be even more cost-efficient,” he says.
“Sometimes a project that can be co-hosted or co-delivered can have amazing results. In order to do so, be sure to set clear boundaries at the very beginning to ensure everyone knows who is responsible for what.”
Getting paid on time is a perennial problem, and client cashflows are definitely slowing – which for many designers means even more creativity-sapping time spent chasing payments.
On-IDLE has tackled this by splitting payments into bite-size segments over regular intervals, which are easier for clients to meet than large, one-off invoices, explains Marc Peter.
“This works for both us and the client. Clients are definitely negotiating harder on price and pushing for more value.”
There are plenty of strategies for dealing with the negative aspects of a design career – but what about enhancing the positives? Even a recession can have its bright sides, as our creatives explained.
A downturn often means having rather more spare time to fill, especially when those jobs don’t come in when expected. Rather than wasting time panicking, Keshi Bouri advises that creatives spend downtime updating your portfolio or working on a personal project you’ve always dreamed of doing but never had the time for.
Simon Armstrong is also an advocate of personal projects as a means of keeping your creativity levels high.
“It doesn’t matter if you never actually get to do them – having that ‘carrot on a stick’ when the elusive free time comes helps you deal with those projects which aren’t perhaps as creative or stimulating to you.”
Alec East says that the ability to create great designs requires two very different elements: inspiration and research.
“Some jobs require more of one or the other, and you can change the order you add them to your design mix, but you need both ingredients and you mustn’t get them confused,” he says.
“The former is about opening up ideas, while the latter is about honing them in to a sharp edge.”
East says that the research part of design is simple, methodical, and can often be largely done online.
The creative part is more complex: “When I picture inspiration, it’s like dropping a spark into a box of fireworks. First a roman candle goes off, and that sets off a rocket, which lights a string of bangers and so on, until there’s a riotous cacophony of banging and whizzing ideas coming faster than you get them down on paper.”
He continues: “Sometimes you can’t get the fireworks going at all because your creative spark is a bit damp, so you need to liven it up a bit.”
For inspiration, East suggests stepping away from the screen and out into the real world – this could be anything from browsing second-hand bookshops to a walk in the park, or a visit to a market or museum.
“It might be right on your doorstep; the newsagent might have stained-glass typography or the ethnic food store shop might have amazing packaging or colourful spices. There’s inspiration everywhere if you look for it.”
Simon Terrey, senior motion-graphics designer at Sassy Films (www.sassyfilms.co.uk), says that it’s crucial to keep learning in order to stay fresh.
“Don’t be ashamed to search tutorial sites related to the software you use,” he says. “There’s always someone out there who has come up with a straightforward approach to the effect you are trying to achieve and, as you evolve your techniques, you always see other people designing the way you used to and realize how much you have progressed.”
“Admittedly, it has to be balanced by playing to your strengths, but for me the best way to inject a healthy dose of fun into a project is by getting the fuck out of your comfort zone,” says Mickey Stretton, design director of digital consultancy AllofUs www.allofus.com).
“It might be exploring materials you’ve never worked with, working with other creatives from completely different disciplines or even something as simple as picking up a new software application and experimenting, discovering new processes and methods of expression.
“The end product might not be what you had first pictured – and of course, you’ll make mistakes along the way – but the journey of discovery can be very rewarding, providing you with new skills and stimulating other ideas and possibilities,” he adds.
Alec East suggests injecting creativity into more mundane projects by slipping in little treats for the end user. “With interactive projects you can always have a bit of fun hiding Easter eggs in strange places,” says East.
“Sneaking a stray sound, photo or timed event into a project can have a strangely calming effect on the worst projects.”
Keshi Bouri recommends kickstarting group creativity by thinking beyond meeting rooms for your briefing and brainstorming sessions.
“Why not try holding them in random places, even if this is only in the office?” he suggests. “It can be a constant way to mix things up and stimulate new ideas or ways of thinking. Also invite random people to brainstorming sessions – it’s not just ‘creative’ people who have a monopoly on good ideas or can inject fun.”
Most of all, make it fun for yourself. “No one else is going to do it for you,” says Bouri. “Anyone who tells you that you shouldn’t be enjoying what you do is wrong. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re in the wrong business and it’s time to think about a career change.”
Love what you do
So can loving what you do help you navigate today’s business landscape? “Passion is infectious,” says Alec East.
“If you are excited about what you’re doing it will rub off on those around you. If you hate it, that will rub off too.” Marc Peter agrees.
“Everyone is in the same boat, and focusing on the negative doesn’t help you get work out,” he says.
“Keep focused, and use any downtime to add that little extra – it’s a great opportunity to produce high-quality work.”
Simon Terrey agrees that enthusiasm is hugely important, adding that it can make for a better working environment. He says that it’s important not to align yourself at work with people who dislike their jobs, as this can erode your own passion for your job.
“Also, always compliment good work when you see it,” he says. “If someone looks at your work and says ‘That looks great!’ you feel good and that makes you work harder at making the rest of the job look amazing too.”
“Loving what you do makes you work that bit harder to produce the best you possibly can,” adds Ian Bird.
“So naturally a motivated team is always going to create better work than an unmotivated one.”
“I think it’s a foregone conclusion that if you love what you do, you’ll almost certainly excel at whatever creative endeavour you choose to specialize in, as opposed to not loving it,” says Gurel Mehmet.
“I can’t imagine working in an environment where everyone is generally unhappy with their work. As for the idea of financial gain versus job satisfaction,
"I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Otherwise creative facilities would fold. It’s as simple as that.”
Keshi Bouri believes that life is too short to spend it doing something you don’t love passionately. “If you’re not enjoying what you do, be proactive and think about how you can change things for the better,” he says.
“Even the smallest of changes can have the most dramatic effects and impacts. It’s our job as creative people to lead by example, in order for change to become a positive force. We are standing at the edge of a great precipice of change, culturally, socially and politically – we just have to make sure we’re looking up, not down.”
FAVOURITE PROJECTS: DALE NEWTON, FRAMESTORE
1. Tale of Despereaux storybook
“I supervised the storybook sequence on the Tale of Despereaux at Framestore,” says Dale Newton. “Though I didn’t have a design credit on the film, the job involved working with the film’s directors and the production designer Evgeni Tomov. There was a significant creative aspect for me and was great fun.”
“These are from a commercial I designed and animated two years ago for Santos in Argentina for Lux,” says Newton.
FAVOURITE PROJECTS: MICKEY STRETTON, DESIGN DIRECTOR, ALLOFUS
“Always take the time to indulge yourself in a bit of R&D,” recommends Mickey Stretton of AllofUs. “Our most recent project is a good example. Taking a piece of technology that we had never used (a laser measuring device), a material we had never used before (concrete) and working with an artist outside of our usual circle (a musician/composer) we created an interactive digital art installation for a cultural festival in East London.
Judging by the public reaction, the end product was deemed a success. But the fun we had and knowledge we gained in developing the idea from a concept to a 100 kilogramme block of interactive concrete has been just as rewarding, and is something that we can take into the next project, too.”
FAVOURITE PROJECTS: MARC PETER, ON-IDLE
On-IDLE’s game concept and illustration for Erlbenis-Schweiz, a corporate events company in Switzerland. Co-founder Marc Peter explains: “The game encourages interaction and competitiveness between players, with the brand and also teaches players a little something about Switzerland.”
Swiss Culture Fund in Great Britain
“The Swiss Culture Fund in Great Britain (SCFB) support young artists, and the programme and flyer (right, and bottom right) for this piano concerto hosted by the Swiss Embassy London was one of my favourite pieces of work last year.”
“Online shop designs are always tricky as there’s a fine balance between design and function. Designing an integrated and interactive colour-selection tool for Sto Paints without disrupting the purchasing process was quite a challenge.”
“Service Corps are professional tradesmen with a sense of humour. With branding by Michael Wolff, it was a delight to design a playful, yet professional site.”
Double Negative’s Gurel Mehmet uses his downtime to produce soulful, ethereal sketches.
Image Jing Zhang, www.mazakii.com