Stuck: When the superpower is the Kryptonite.

“I feel stuck”

In my recent recruitment exercise, I actively engaged with experienced designers who were seeking a change. The one word that keeps coming up is “stuck”. 

The group of designers I spoke to had at least 3 years of experience. Some had above 10, although the story is more or less similar. 

One starts a career at some studio and over time, acquired the knowledge and skillsets to become good in a particular domain. He/she has become a mini domain expert, and hence the next job comes knocking with a nice pay rise. And perhaps the next job too, with a bigger pay cheque and a nicer job title (head of art, associate creative director, etc etc).


Designer A started as an intern in Agency 1. Got assigned the account of Neutrogena. In the short 3 months did a few packaging and social media stuff. His internship got over and landed another job in another agency, based on his internship portfolio and experience. His main account in the new agency? Dove. 2 years went by, and another agency comes knocking, with another significant pay rise. The reason for hiring is to add to the Pears team, an account they just won. Soon 5 years have gone by, and while the money was good, Designer A says he is stuck.

Similar stories are told. One designer started off as an intern and was assigned a paints brand. Next stop? An agency, another paints brand. And the next stop after this? She joined an agency that promised her a chance to work on some accounts. At the end of her tenure, she has pretty much worked only on one brand – a paints brand. In the end, she left the agencies’ network to start all over again at boutique design studios. “I don’t want to be stuck”.

Another person, who rose to the rank of Creative Director, after moving around in the advertising agency circuit. His expertise? Property advertising. I swear he could close his eyes and still execute a perfectly crafted property campaign that sells “exclusivity in location, access to modern lifestyle, and meets the aspirations of the emerging luxury class”. Being an expert definitely pays well, but doesn’t give him any satisfaction. The reality check: after weighing the commitments in life, he is no longer in a position to quit his comfort zone, and try something new. 

Somewhere out there, a motion designer wants to try UI/UX. A brand designer wants to try her hand at editorial and book design. An editorial designer wants to try space and experience design. There are opportunities out there, but while some employers are willing to give the opportunity, they are reluctant to match the current pay.

If the choice is between a freshie and an experienced individual, should they be paying 3 times more for a designer with limited knowledge? 

Type design is one of the niche and highly admired area in design – it seems like most graphic designers have at some point, tried their hand at designing typefaces. Some may have even wanted to pursue doing it full-time. I asked the multi-award-winning type designer, Sarang of Ek Type, how does he deal with applicants?

“They have to start as interns”. Apparently wanting to try is different from being totally committed. “9 out of 10 applicants are not sure. They just want to try it out, and that’s a reaction to feeling suffocated in whatever they are doing currently. Only 1 person would be very sure he/she wants to do type design”. 

“Even if they want to start as interns, they have to at least show some self-initiated efforts in type design in their portfolios”. Ie. a 10-year-experience in UX/UI leads to nothing when one is venturing into something new.

It takes a lot of commitment to be good at one thing, especially if it involves switching from one domain to another. Sarang knows it well, since he went into type design professionally after many years of practising as a graphic designer. 

Which begs the question – start at the intern level? How many are ready to go all-in?

Years ago an ad man left his position as the top guy in a huge network agency to start his own shop. He pitched this to me – “Advertising is changing. I want to be focussing on innovation and design, and not just rolling out campaigns.” Like Ideo. Like Frog. Like Fahrenheit 212. Like Accenture.

I’m not sure if he remembered what I told him – that he will be back to doing campaigns, because that’s where he built his reputation, and that’s what clients will want from him. He said No. He wanted to change the way marketing communications are conducted. 

Today, his agency is doing very well. While innovation and design work has taken place, he still does a lot of campaign work. 

That’s where the money is. That’s where the comfort zone is.

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