Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

The Design Career Mortality

Random, dislocated thoughts on failure and success as a designer. What defines success? What constitutes failure? Why do designers leave the field? Read on to discover that I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

Lately I have been thinking about the mortality of my design career. I’m not yet ready to stop designing, but I am wondering how long I will walk the same career path and what I will be doing farther down the road.

The way I see it, I am going to wake up one morning and realize one of the following:

  1. I have succeeded as a designer
  2. I no longer make a living as a designer
  3. I have failed as a designer

Succeeding as a Designer

Succeeding. What does this mean? I don’t know—I’m not there yet myself. I suppose you’d get 100 different answers from 100 different designers. Some possibilities:

  • Getting work published in an annual
  • Winning some award at some show
  • Getting promoted to creative director
  • Publishing a book
  • Securing speaking engagements
  • Starting your own business
  • Winning that one client
  • Moving beyond design (see creative director to head of marketing)
  • Retiring at 40
  • Introducing a paradigm-shifting work that changes the life of every person who sees it
  • Buying a 14th Century French castle (someone did)

It seems that the sum of these successes is rooted in being recognized as an authority. We all have egos to stroke. When we publish that book, win that award, speak at that conference or buy that castle, we’re one step closer to being viewed as the next Ogilvy, Rand or Zeldman. We’re one step closer to being written about.

french castle

Perhaps for those with egos smaller than the state of Utah, succeeding means something more … um, less selfish. Perhaps you want to design a society-changing PR campaign for a non-profit woman’s shelter. Perhaps you want to design the website for your brother’s new business. Perhaps you want to spread the word about web accessibility. Perhaps you just want a small ranch house in California, not a 14th Century French castle.

Success—in whatever form it takes—makes us feel better about the profession we’ve chosen. It makes us feel we’ve made something of ourselves, proved our parents wrong when they told us to become doctors instead. Success fuels our desire to get up early, burn the midnight oil, reinvent ourselves and change the industry.

Stop Designing

There are many, many designers who simply stop designing. The excitement of art school wears off, ad agency burnout sets in, senior level bureaucracy kills the magic. Some other opportunity comes along and that’s it. Out of the business.

To many graphic artists, exiting the field is a bizarre concept. Pantones, grids and “the big idea” run in their blood—how is it possible to deny your chosen calling? In fact, it’s such an alien notion that our industry’s own magazines run feature articles on people who have left the design world to become photographers or fireman, as if the defectors need to justify their move.

Career moves are everywhere for designers. Some of them are vertical (creative director to head of marketing), some are lateral (web designer to web developer) and some are just random leaps (designer to park ranger). I think—and I predict this for myself—that most who have jumped ship woke up one morning and realized their career had squarely landed in #3.

Failing as a Designer

Falling, it is said, is easier than getting up. Likewise, failing is easier than succeeding. And as a contemporary designer, it is easier than ever to fail at our calling.

the design robot

Most designers perform the work of automatons, producing programmed, redundant visual stimuli, because that’s what we’re paid to do. Design has become a mass-produced commodity. No one’s figured out how to create creativity in a factory assembly line, so companies are forced to hire people when all they really want are programs to perform the work automatically.

The majority of graphic artists have nothing interesting to communicate. We water the visual world down with recycled ideas, tired concepts and the same color blue as the guy next door. Most of us wallow in obscurity. Justifiably.

Our failure comes from the inability to change the world, even on the smallest level. Some spend their whole life not creating, wondering why their talent for recycling has not been recognized. Others wake up one morning, look at the brochure for the 14th Century French castle, realize they’re never going to own it, and just go off to become a park ranger.


I understand this post makes little sense. It’s more stream of conscious. Thoughts about this topic keep bouncing around my head like socks in a dryer, and I’m having a very difficult time organizing them.


commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Thursday May 4, 2006

I understand this post makes little sense.

You see, that’s where you’re wrong. There are a lot of days where I HATE my job. I love the people I work with, but I can’t stand my job. For me, sometimes the accomplishment is just getting through the day as a designer (or at least not destroying one of my superiors with my bare hands).

I think that a lot of designers feel as you do. Having never gone to art school or whatever, I feel like I have failed often. So I assure you that you are not alone in this feeling.

Do I think that I will still be a designer when I am 40 (only 10 years away)? Probably not. I hope that I will have moved on to greater things by then. Not that design can’t be considered one of those “greater things”. It’s just that it seems harder to make a difference in the world as a designer, don’t you think?

Nathan Smith

wrote the following on Thursday May 4, 2006

You might not think this post made much sense, but I hear ya man. I think for me, being a failure would constitute having never made a difference in someone else’s life. I think of it this way: someone had to teach Michael Jordan to play basketball. Somewhere along the line, if I can be an inspiration to another who goes on to do great things, then I would count my design “career” as a success.


wrote the following on Friday May 5, 2006

I understand your point, at least the “designers perform the work of automatons” part.

When in a 4-hour shift you’re asked to finish 5 web template comps for a software company, what little else can you do?


wrote the following on Monday May 8, 2006

Are we trapped in our chosen profession? This is, after all, what we trained and labor toward daily. I, too chafe at the fact that I labor in obscurity (or, at least anonymity), and realized long ago, that the graphic design brochure did not match the career destination. How do we reconcile ourselves… our artistic selves with the hard-nose professionals (you call us automotons, I call myself efficient) many of us have become? True, we are NOT saving lives, but in turn, we are not digging ditches either. At what point do we determine that while intelligent, we are not all of us brilliant?


wrote the following on Tuesday May 9, 2006

Thank you everyone for the comments. I am glad I’m not alone on this. Every now and then I have a “What does it all mean?” moment, and, like Michael, I have been trying to reconcile my purpose in life. Was I born to edit PowerPoint slides, or is there some greater career waiting for me? I dunno.

Chris Kavinsky

wrote the following on Wednesday May 10, 2006

One question I ask myself often is “would I be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t have to?” Meaning, if I didn’t need the paycheck, would I still be designing. I think I would be, but what I design and for whom I design it for would be limited. The vast majority of my days, I enjoy what I do. I believe any moderately successful designer does. Our enjoyment of our work has such an impact on our ability to create.

matt northam

wrote the following on Thursday May 11, 2006

I’m about to start my first proper design job, after spending the last four years honing my craft to the point where I can actually get paid to do what I do. It’s a good feeling.. and I’m looking forward to what I hope will be a long (tho not TOO long – retirement at 35 is my goal ;-)) career.. but I get worried by this type of thing already..

Not so much ‘do I still like it’ etc, but more ‘am I doing the right thing’? I know I enjoy design, and that – to me – is the most important consideration, but I’m wary of getting stuck in a rut feeling unsuccessful and ending up disliking the whole thing.

Blah. I’m rambling (you’re not the only one who can’t organise thoughts about this).. I suppose I just wanted to say:
Nice article. It preyed on my fears.

Scott Bram

wrote the following on Friday May 12, 2006

Absolutely with you on this.

I recently exited 7½ years designing on staff for a couple churches (minus a few months at a print shop.) Talk about looking for meaning in your work…

I’ve since taken a part-time production job while I drum up freelance work. The tiny agency is relatively successful, but the work extraordinarily tedious for me. It has definitely has made me question my path in life.

I’d be fascinated to have been a fly on the wall any time a great, non-art design was released. Not conceived, but released for consumption.

I like to think the same misguided compromises were made, that I must make daily, attempting to please a clueless client.


wrote the following on Sunday May 14, 2006

Great read.

I’m curious, though: which careers out there, short of public service or perhaps a go at a run for local office, would we imagine to be more fulfilling?

I suppose I already gave my answers…


wrote the following on Monday May 22, 2006

It seems to be a common theme among designers in the field. It’s not like we thought it would be, not every job is going to challenge you and be creatively fulfilling. most days are going to be filled with repetitive work, filler, and turnover so quick theres no chance to explore the work. but every now and then, you can still get a good one, and those are the ones that keep me going.


wrote the following on Monday May 22, 2006

Chris poses a good, if not rhetorical, question. One that bears merit to contemplate in those dim and benighted moments that I believe that are found in any profession. Now 15 years into this business, I have heard many professionals bemoan and question their decision to become graphic artists, or lawyers or accountants.

As for Matt’s comments…chuckle: fear not! Enjoy the honeymoon! The first five years of the business was the best ones for me! I hope that you can achieve retirement by 35, too.


wrote the following on Monday May 22, 2006

Oh…and I don’t think any of us are born to edit PowerPoint Slides, any more than some of us are born to mop floors and scrub toilets for a living. It’s just one small task in a multitude of tasks that, when viewed in the aggregate, allows us to contribute to society.

Manisha Singh

wrote the following on Tuesday July 25, 2006

HI, I am Manisha. I have 6 months deploma in web desiging from Arena Multimedia. Now I have 2+ exp in Web desinging.
I want to do some PG diploma.
what shoul i do.
Pls sug. me.

Manisha Singh


wrote the following on Thursday October 5, 2006

Dunno if this is a good thing to read 3 weeks before I go freelance… :o

After years spent studying multimedia and art, the dotcom crash meant experienced designers were taking the entry-level jobs, so ended up doing more and more programming. After two years of my last job mainly doing javascript, I’m feeling as tired of that as some people here are about design.
I’m now looking forward to doing a range of different stuff – maybe it’s simply the fact that I can now do a range of things instead of one repeatitively that makes freelancing seem attractive.


wrote the following on Tuesday April 14, 2009


I don’t know who’s listening, if anyone. The dates on this stream seem like they ended a long long time ago. With regards to the subject, i came across this page today because i am wondering whether i have made the right choice as far as wanting to become a designer. I am 36 years old, i went back to uni at 30, got myself a design(Graphic design new media) degree and then an MA. The reason i chose to do this course is because it taught a range of methods from using film and motion to web and print which i loved the idea of. So, here i am, a guy able to use numerous programs, my main love is of motion, film, and illustration though i love all aspects of design less so web design. My problem is although i have had some freelance work doing the odd this and that i can’t seem to make an impression. I like to think of myself as creative, i used to be a musician in a touring band and didn’t really get my stuff in order until i was 30 which is when i went back to uni. My problem is partly my fault and partly the fact that the industry requires clones…i keep seeing the same kind of design everywhere created by different people brilliant at the same thing…but it seems to be an aesthetic thing…the design industry is exactly like being in a band…its a dream, i spent years trying to make it in a band and not…now it seems i’m doing the same thing in the design field. my problem is, i want to be creative, but the industry wants me to produce the same work as everyone else to the same level of technical ability…its like plastic surgery for the communication indutries…i want to be like that designer…i don’t want to be myself in case i fail so i’ll copy that person because he/she is already successful and everyone wants that style cos its ‘in’. My problem i suppose is that i’m scared to be myself creatively in case no one wants my idea of what design/communication is and i worry then that i won’t be able to survive…money wise. I’m rambling, but i guess its my problem, i know that i just need to swallow the fact that i may not be brilliant and just become an automaton but that scares me just as much…maybe its a desire to be appreciated, to not be forgotten, to be recognized…it is plastic surgery…become an already established designer and follow all the trends and…oh, i don’t want to do that…i suppose i already have in some way, but not as well as others,which is why i feel in turmoil. i am an intelligent guy but age, the desire for a family, money to do things with and enjoy life, these things are not something i see in my life very soon as nothing is happening, nothing at all.


wrote the following on Tuesday December 1, 2009

Hey, this is depressing, my god, your designers elts see you design damn it.
This, this what is this, this is called fear, push yourself to the next level, overcome fear, its all fear, its all bull, the grass is greener on teh other side, too teh 36 yr old (so called old person) you define yourself, you are what you define yourself as, maybe you will be totally poor, but what doesnt killy ou makes you stronger. To get to more constructive things… why have you chosen orange on blue here?