Burnt-out old fart?

It is a familiar scenario in the creative business.

A young, passionate, enthusiastic and hungry designer enters the industry, aiming to win the next D&AD and to be the next big thing since David Carson (or Non-Format). 3 years later the same designer leaves the industry and takes on lecturing full-time, or maybe starts a small design shop or an art tuition centre, or maybe starts selling unit trusts, insurance or Amway products.

A common reason cited is that the jobs had become boring and repetitive. It is even more so in mid-size local design setups with perhaps 2 or 3 main clients that provided the revenues. Assuming the clients are the average conservative types who aren’t ready to take creative risks (i.e. banking, insurance and property), it is understandable for a newbie to feel disillusioned about this industry.

I don’t really have an answer for that. Is it possible to change the clients? Is it possible to change the minds of the bosses? What if the bosses are business managers (i.e. not from a creative background) who would prefer to keep clients happy instead of agitating them with something they are not ready to take?

Maybe it is time to move on to an agency with a more open and creative culture, with an enviable list of clients who do appreciate creativity. Obviously, there aren’t many such firms in town (KL, Malaysia). Maybe one should hop over to the one-man star-designer led boutique where clients flock to because of the designer’s output. But the cycle would repeat itself – frustrations would kick in as the design boss insists on leaving his thumbprints on every piece of work that leaves the studio. Where’s the creativity in it?

I started my career at an integrated agency that survived on jobs from 1 single property developer. My next stop had only 3 major clients – one bank, and two property developers. Next was a 100% corporate communications specialist – annual reports, newsletters, financial statements, etc. Not exactly the most exciting jobs to work with. The normal descriptions apply – boring, safe, predictable, cliched-driven.

Somehow, I survived. I have been trying to reason why I am still a designer when I should have been a burnt-out old fart. Here’s why:

  • Because every job is a chance to try out something new. With an open and receptive client, it is a chance to put to test new ideas. When it is a conservative client, it still gives me a chance to try out something – a new grid system, a typeface, a graphic element, an icon navigation system or even a new way to place the page number. Look at the positive side and maybe that little well-kerned 7 point page number at the left of the page, or the neatly inserted Mrs Eaves ligature hides the frustrations away (even though I am the only one who knows about that little designer secret, i.e. shiok sendiri).
  • Because every job is a chance to build a better relationship with the client, and better relationships lead to trust. Trust is sometimes the factor that determines whether a client is willing to go with a non-conventional solution. Relationship building is a worthwhile investment that brings fruits in the long run. (Although some clients – you just know – will never be opened to a trust relationship)
  • Because every job is a chance to learn something new about a company and its operations. Doing a job for a client gives one the license to ask sensitive insider questions regarding the business – their marketing strategies, forecasts and projections, competitors, strength-weakness analysis etc etc. Company newsletters give insights into how big companies manage themselves internally. Even technical marketing brochures provide a whole lot of raw information on how a piece of everyday tool works.
  • Because every job is a chance to dig and absorb more information – from unit trusts to air-ionisers to paper-making to supply-chain management to oncology treatments. I can’t think of any other occupation where one has to know so much.
  • Because every job is a chance to learn about people outside the design industry. I find it interesting to see how business leaders make on-the-spot decisions. I have also learned much from all the corporate communication managers and brand-marketing managers whom I have worked with – not just their knowledge but also their management and organisational (or lack of) skills.
  • Because every job is a chance to know a new collaborator – a photographer, a color-separator, an illustrator, a copywriter, a printer. Over the years, some collaborators had actually become good friends.

While coming up with these reasons I also realised what drives me is not the end product – the brochure, the book or the poster. No doubt I do feel happy about a nicely printed piece of work, but the real joy is not in the final product, but the processes involved and the end result of whether the work engages its intended audience. While the final outcome could be repetitive – the many processes behind are always unique. A final printed annual report doesn’t excite me, but the intricacies of working on the annual report beyond the computer screen make me happy.

If I am that obsessive about nice annual reports and brochures I should have been burnt-out long ago. But I am not. I am still interested in design but more, in all that is not classified as design. Does this still qualify me as a designer?

I wonder.