Students, Don’t Do As I Have Done

The Canadian graphic design organization RGD Ontario was kind enough to invite me to speak at their annual Design Thinkers conference in Toronto last week. It was a quick trip for me — I flew in and out of the city on the same day — but they made it really fun. In addition to a lecture I gave about the difficulties that the practice of art direction has in finding a place in digital media (I’ll post some notes from that talk in a few days), I also appeared on a question-and-answer panel for design students, the theme of which was providing advice on ‘making it’ in the design world.

In that session, I heard from another of the panelists that, due to inexperience, newly minted designers should understand that their productivity will barely cover the cost of employing them. It was his belief that businesses who hire fresh graduates essentially sign up to provide a kind of on-the-job training — at a loss to the business. He didn’t put it in so many words, but the inference I made was that employment is a kind of favor bestowed by the company on new entrants to the job market.

What’s more, this person insisted that these freshly graduated professionals should be prepared to work for very little and for very long hours, that they should dedicate themselves to their work in tireless fashion, potentially at the expense of many other priorities in their lives.

I have a hard time with this advice, but for complicated reasons. It’s not that I think that the advice is not valid. On the contrary, I think this is an accurate reflection of the way the design industry ingests new talent. Rather, my quarrel is that I think this advice makes some unfortunate assumptions about what the quality of life within a design organization should be.

Pay Your Way

First, I’ll say that the graduates that I’ve hired straight out of college have been bargains. They’ve been incredibly talented, driven and very, very productive. In fact, I once hired a very inexperienced designer straight out of high school, and he was one of the most productive people I’ve ever worked with. More importantly, these people brought an enthusiasm and alacrity to their work that lifted the energy of the workplace, that contributed meaningfully to the quality of life for their colleagues. That’s gold.

I acknowledge that this won’t be the experience of every employer. Many designers hired straight out of school are all talent and no skill, and employers who take those folks on are in fact signing up to provide a significant level of training. But it hasn’t been my habit to hire people like that, because I think it makes for a poor work culture. I’m a capitalist and maybe a bit of an Objectivist in that I don’t think granting employment to an unqualified applicant is a favor to anyone.

There’s some amount of necessary training that comes with hiring every new addition to a team, of course, and in the past I’ve been willing to bring on inexperienced designers who need a modicum of extra training, but never so much that the training outweighs their usefulness to the operation. Having folks on your team who can’t pull their own weight — regardless of how much college loan debt they own — is a surefire way to create an unhappy workplace (more on that later) and makes for bad business. A company that hires anyone who can’t effectively pay their own keep through productivity is probably a sweatshop or not a very good place to work.

Nights and Weekends

Regarding the issue of long hours for little pay, I’m more conflicted. I can’t argue that countless hours of unpaid overtime directly contributed to my own modest professional success. At the same time, I think the prevailing thinking that life for twenty-something designers should be spent at the office first and foremost is bad advice. It might make good business sense for an employer, but it’s bad life advice.

Looking back on all of those overtime nights and weekends from my first decade as a designer, I would say that at least a third of that time was unnecessary. For me there was a romantic allure to the idea of toiling away on the work that you so desperately want a chance to prove yourself worthy of. I wanted to be at the office more than I truly needed to be there. This romantic ideal can be consuming; when you’re trying to make a name for yourself, it can dominate a disproportionate amount of your worldview. In my twenties, I clearly overdid it by creating the expectation among my peers and superiors — and within myself — that I would stay at the office as long as it took to create the impression of enormous sacrifice for my ‘art.’

Meanwhile, I missed out on so much. I had no meaningful equity stake in most of those employment situations, so all that overtime was true foolishness, was tantamount to throwing money down a well. More importantly, I was oblivious to a lot of what was going on around me — friends, family, relationships. Working late nights and weekends made me an unpleasant person. I spent years like that, and in retrospect it held me back more than it propelled me forward. That is, whatever success I have today, I feel like I have it in spite of the unhealthily skewed perspective on the importance of work that I held so tightly. I’d have gotten much further — not just personally but professionally — if I’d taken a bit more time out of the office.

Quality of Life

That’s why I bristle when I hear established designers and employers preaching this line. When I had my own design team I never had any qualms about asking an employee to stay late if I thought it was truly necessary, but I also felt it was my responsibility to make sure they got out of the office regularly more often than not. I wanted them to experience nightlife, to go on road trips, to indulge outside interests and even outside clients, and to start families when the time was right for them.

I wanted people who would bring a diversity of experience back to their work, but more to the point I wanted people who liked themselves enough so that they contributed their demeanors to a pleasant work environment, one free of negativity, backbiting and petulance. If they were there late day in and day out, I regarded it as an indication I wasn’t doing my own job. Among a design director’s unique responsibilities is fostering the conditions for great design; if your team is overworked and unhappy, you’re not doing that job.

  1. You have absolutely hit the mark with these comments, Khoi. I can remember quite a few 12 or 16 hour days in ‘salaried’ positions. I once worked from 7am on a Sunday to 6pm on a Monday (albeit for two different employers).

    I believe, for me, the breaking point was an employer informing a staff of 5 that he would be passing on a portion of the account handling (which he usually did) to each of us, thereby adding between 10% and 20% more time to every task. When we complained, he said ‘It’s fine, we charge the client by the hour.’ Of course, us salary-earners didn’t see any of that extra cash.

    I think it is important to be taken advantage of a little by your employers, especially in the early days of your career. I have learned over time to promise a realistic quality of work by a realistic deadline, and now I can get all my work done within office hours, without overtime, paid or unpaid.

    I have also learned to say ‘no’ when something cannot be delivered, especially when the terms are unreasonable. This is one of the scariest things to learn for young employees and it only comes with age and experience. (The other is happily admitting you don’t know something when asked in an interview situation, rather than trying to bluff it)

    That said, it’s important not to be a clock-watcher. If a deadline approaches and an extra 30 minutes’ work will make everybody happy, it’s unreasonable to say ‘Tough, it’s 5pm and I’m out of here.’ But if that 30 minutes extra occurs every day, something’s not right.

    Even now I will sometimes willingly give up time to make an assignment that little bit closer to perfect, but that’s because I learned to grade jobs in my mind before starting, and only do it when I will benefit also.

    Looking back over my last 13 years in the web industry, I can say that some of the worst jobs I had gave me the best experiences I pushed me the furthest, but I have no desire to experience those situations again.

    Without those unreasonable jobs I would not be where I am today, but I would have been quite upset to discover my employers were expecting us to work under those conditions as a matter of course.

  2. Some excellent points and advice here. Very thought provoking. Although, I do have to wonder where the responsibility lies in these situations:

    Is the onus on the employer to respect their workforce and grant them a reasonable amount of free time and autonomy outside of work, or is it on the designer to stand up for their personal life and not let themselves be consumed by their job, even at an early, hungry age?

    I think it’s a complicated issue because in the creative field, especially, employers realize they are many times offering something of more value to the employee than the employee is offering them: the chance to work at their “dream” and do what they love. What an employer pays in money can fall far short of what the employee pays in time and personal sacrifice to be a part of that work environment, and yet we only seem to see cost in terms of dollars-per-hour. The unfortunate fact is that many companies do take egregious advantage of their young employees and justify it under the idea of “paying their dues.”

    In the two years since leaving art school, I’d say at least half of the friends I graduated with are now fed up with their jobs and wish to return to school to major in completely different fields. For some, it’s the realization that this was never what they wanted to do in the first place, for others, the discovery that even if this was their passion at one time, the realities of the work place and the real world snuffed out the joy they once had for it.

    I’m fortunate enough now to work for a great company that takes good care of me and respects my personal time, but it’s somewhat ironic I only accomplished this after switching to a field (design) that was not at all related to my major (film), and also by working a lot harder in my new arena than I ever did in my old one.

    Either way, I don’t think any worker, regardless of what stage of their career they’re in, should be a doormat. Work hard, do what you have to, and take the job seriously, but be an individual and the company will respect you a lot more than if you just roll over and go limp. If they don’t, then the job probably isn’t worth it.

  3. “Look, Gail.” Roark got up, reached out, tore a thick branch off a tree, held it in both hands, one fist closed at each end; then, his wrists and knuckles tensed against the resistance, he bent the branch slowly into an arc.

    “Now I can make what I want of it: a bow, a spear, a cane, a railing.
    That’s the meaning of life.”
    “Your strength?”
    “Your work.”
    He tossed the branch aside.
    “The material the earth offers you
    and what you make of itЁ

    — The Fountainhead / Ayn Rand.

  4. I’ve always felt that trading passion and hard work for experience and a chance to put your destiny in your own hands is a pretty good deal. To me, where it goes wrong is when directors don’t have a vision for what they want to see, thus making it the job of the designer to provide the vision for his boss through endless and open-ended repetition.

    When the director and his team are working towards the same goal, everyone knows what effort is needed to accomplish the task. If there is a question, it’s the director’s job to make it clear. But chasing the whims of a boss who hasn’t given proper direction, and expecting the designer to pick up the slack in hours and frustration, isn’t fair, nor it conducive to good work.

  5. I was one of the students in attendance of that panel and found it very refreshing to hear what you had said. I especially want to thank you for posting it here so that I may pass it on to my peers who weren’t in attendance.

    As a mature student (I’m 26 years old, compared to most other students in my class who are 19), I find an extreme pressure on me to spend countless hours and to sacrifice social aspects of my life in order to establish myself as being desirable to employers. I felt that because I was coming into the graphic design profession later than my peers, that I was at a disadvantage. I also felt that based on the current way that the design industry acquires and uses new talent, that because of my age, I wouldn’t be considered “fresh” so to speak.

    Although in the back of my mind I still somewhat feel that way, your talk was inspirational in the sense that as students of design, we do still hold some power, and that although we are still blooming we should not be considered a loss or a burden to our employer.

  6. Khoi,

    Many thanks for your sage advice, as it’s always well-written and graciously appreciated.

    As a 2009 design graduate, I fall into the very category you write about. After months of job searching and networking (including attending your summer 2009 CreativeMorning lecture), I found a great job in February of this year and have been there since. I’m very fortunate to have found such an amazing job for my first one, and I’m continually reminded of how lucky I truly am. I’ve definitely put in my share of overtime hours, though in fairness of full disclosure, I’m currently a permalancer paid hourly so presently there is a financial benefit to working overtime. I hope to be hired full time soon, and I’ll still work overtime because I love my company, and I’m excited at the constant innovating we’re doing.

    I think a hidden variable that is missing from the conversation is company culture and enjoyment of one’s job. I have no problem working long and hard for a company I’m excited about; maybe that’s young naivety or simply a luxury I have right now, but I think it matters in the larger conversation. It would be a lot harder for me to work a 15 hour day for a company I’m not excited about. Obviously, enjoyment of a job is a personal value – I’d be endlessly bored perfecting a logo over three months, whereas many of my design friends are fantastic branding designers. I’m much better situated in UX/UI design, and that’s what I’m doing now.

  7. I won’t lie, I learned more in my first year as an employed designer at a small publishing company than I did in four years of college (though of course those four years were foundational for the later learning).

    I didn’t make a ton, but I was willing to drive over an hour to have that experience and because the job is important to me, I was willing to move farther from my family and friends to be closer to work.

    And it’s been worth it. My boss has handed me all kinds of opportunities that would have taken me a lot longer to get on my own. I don’t regret a second.

    But I get paid overtime, because my boss knows that everyone’s time is too valuable to ask them to give it up for free.

    He respects that I have a life outside of this office and even at our busiest I’ve never felt burnt out.

  8. I think there are a couple of other nuances here, both linked to long term sustainability of the team:

    Firstly – if your team members don’t get the time to free themselves from the sitting down, staring at the task work, then they’ll start thinking in simplistic, constrained ways. The dreaming thought and lateral experience reservoirs just won’t be there that the creative output needs to draw on.

    Secondly – anyone working excessive hours for any period will burn out. Yes, it’s fair for people to invest in their own growth, and important to be able to respond to emergency situations, but a key management responsibility is to rein in the urge to work all hours, and to resist attempts to make excessive hours normal practise or indeed plan on the assumption that it’ll be there. Overtime (beyond an hour or two a day) is there as your contingency anyway – give it away through planning, and you’ve nothing left for the emergency.

    Thirdly – any self-sustaining team needs to have people at all levels of experience, including some freshers who can’t (yet) fully pay for themselves. This is your investment for the future, to replace your more experienced people when they leave (move, or retire). In the old world, this was well acknowledged through apprenticeships. Training your own is going to be much cheaper in the long run than buying experience in – even experienced people new to your business will take time to settle in and be fully productive, and you’re paying them a premium while they do it. So yes, the Objectivist analysis is correct, but it needs to take a long-term view: will the investment we make in this person produce a return over the lifetime of their employment?

    (Background: I don’t do creative design (any more), having moved via web dev to hard core functional work, I run a team of 45 developers of varying skill levels delivering into client projects. I’m not self-employed, but it is a bit like running a small business in that I need to be concerned with long-term sustainability)

  9. Thank you for this post. As someone who has interned at magazine and then worked in public relations (now I’m back at school studying design), I know to well about the stereotypical intern/junior level worker..they are young, naive, hardworking and easy to please (aka they are doormats ready to be stepped on). I know because I was one of them.

    And I have to admit, I’ve been in a dilemma for the past year wondering if its all worth it. Every well known designer says pretty much the same thing which is work hard and make sacrifices for your art. Heck even one of the design monographs out there is titled “Never Sleep.” But what happens when you start developing carpal tunnel and a rash in the nether regions of your body at the age of 26 because your working too hard.

    That is sort of where I am right now and even though becoming a designer has been a dream of mine for god knows how long, I feel like I need to question the direction of my life.

    So yes, it’s quite refreshing to read a post like this since it reaffirms what I’ve been feeling of late.

  10. I too spent much of my twenties working late at the office until one of my employers forced all of us to take a time management class. I was skeptical at first, but the effect was like flipping a switch. You cannot be a truly effective person until you acknowledge that time is a limited resource and treat it accordingly. Most of us took this to heart. One man didn’t and was hospitalized with a serious illness that paralyzed half his face. Martyrs no longer impress me. Working late is a sign of ineffective time management and/or an uninspired personal life.

  11. You are so right that the only thing I can say is:

    Is there any vacancy for an spanish architect in your team? Just kidding, but I wish your ideas about this topic would be the general rule.

  12. I agree totally, but wanted to expand on what management can do about this.

    This is what CDs are for. To direct not just the creative aspects of a project, but to develop, foster and use most appropriately the creative resources themselves.

    If the CD isn’t using people the right way, explicitly educating them, and making sure they are doing useful work, he’s not directing very well.

    I have become not-awful at this, and get really, really good work from most of my interns and juniors. And I’ve worked lately with teams where the CD so cannot be bothered that medium-experienced guys spend 60% of their time (including lots of overnights and weekends) doing work that is pointless, at conflict with others on the team, etc.

    This is wasteful of company resources, blows timelines, and frustrates the employees. Think how much lower turnover would be with good management; then you aren’t wasting all the time you put into that junior designer.

    Manage your damned people like you care about them, and you’ll get payoff.

  13. In any business hiring right out of college requires training the associates. Creative is not different the any other job. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, truck drivers, all require a training and experience to do their jobs well.

    What I look for newly minted college graduates is enthusiasm and talent. I can teach skills and client management and I can coach talent. I can’t make some more talented than they are, and I can’t make the glass half full. This is a hard business and every client who took an art history class thinks they are a latent art director. Keeping young talented individuals focus on what matters will pay huge dividends to your business.

    Work life balance is coachable, the key is setting expectations. Our industry is notoriously bad a setting expectations, we underestimating how long good creative takes. Fast rarely equals good; good equals good.

    I constantly remind associates to set realistic expectations and to remember “It is not my job to ensure you spend time with your family, it’s yours.”

  14. Hi Khoi,

    I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now and I think you’ve stumbled on a lesson a lot of my fellow 20-something designers haven’t learned, or for some, will never learn.

    During my last year of design school, I created the best work of my design school career and it was also the year I got the most sleep, was healthiest and had a life outside my work. When I graduated from school, I took on a job at a start-up company who had expectations that I would work hard, be paid very low wages and would spend more time on the work than I was paid for. Not because there were looming deadlines, but because they just wanted cheap labour. Refusing to do so, I was fired.

    Now that I am older and I have had more experience, I am more apt to let my students and my junior designers have more of a work-life balance, not only for their sake, but also for mine. I can understand and appreciate that good work comes when you have a team of people who have mutual respect for each other and are treated with dignity. Only in those environments can true creativity and talent be fostered, and only then can good work, work that you care about, can be created. And yes, sometimes that may translate to overtime hours, but as long as the designer makes the choice to be there, and is not forced to be, then that says something.

    So thank you for these words and for a tough lesson that some might not ever learn.


  15. It’s always nice to hear your thoughts echoed through someone else’s words. Now I know I’m not the only one who think’s this way. Wonderful post. Thank you.

  16. As a future designer, I want to thank you for sharing this wisdom online, like Justin said. Great article, but could do without the Ayn Rand reference.

  17. The saddest part is the number of people recognising the situation and agreeing with you here in the comments.

    As there are so many designers about (good and bad designers) part of me thinks this extra hard work may pay off as it’s all self-improvement, but my twenties are turning into a sad mush of working every evening and weekend, and I don’t want to regret it.

    Still, you are definitely correct. It’s good food for thought, so thank you for bringing it up.

  18. As a soon-to-be graduate of a design program, and someone who gets the most sleep and probably spends the most time outside of the studio, I totally agree with this article. I truly value the time I spend both designing and doing things outside of design. I don’t think that this will make me a worse designer (hopefully), and these experiences help me to steer away from the cliche designs that come from a design program that obviously spends too much time together.

    Thanks for the thoughts, and for making me realize that I’m not spending too much time outside the studio.

  19. Khoi,

    This is some of the most sound advice and also some of the most refreshing words I have read in a while on the same topic. As an aspiring visual journalist, I am certainly willing to give it my all to make a beautiful, final product, but my friends can attest to the fact that sometimes I just shut the lid of my laptop and call it a night because efficiency dips quickly in the early hours of the morning.

    I hope employers, employees and future designers read this post and take it to heart. It’s unfortunate that we choose to repeat this vicious cycle when it’s not always necessary.

    Thanks for your post.

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