Modern work is weird. I mean, we've got to make or do something to make money for goods and services. I get that. But it seems that as we've gone through the 70s to the 10s. that that's changed to include you not only do that thing but over time you become a manager of other people doing that thing or risk coming across as a failure or a slacker. Which by a numbers perspective doesn't make sense because not everyone can become a manager. A majority of the people working, have to keep working and not move to a management level. So does that mean that all of those non-managers are slackers?
So let's take this from a designer's perspective. I started off as a Graphic Designer and I really liked it. Can't you tell? I still make sure to cap my title. But as I got into the workplace I realized that Graphic Designer was the equivalent of "Grunt," in military speak. So pretty much that meant I was a pawn in the design world, which doesn't make you feel so proud of what you do. All of a sudden I was taking this job that I loved and starting to look passed it as only a stepping stone to something "higher."
In my heart, I was perfectly happy with what I was doing. But with LinkedIn being formed and getting notifications of colleagues getting promotions and moving from company to company every few years, I really started to feel like I was lagging behind. A year or so later I got a Senior Designer title and I really liked it. I felt like I'd accomplished something important. But again, after a year or so, I felt like I was slipping. Senior Designer had lost its luster and people I looked up to were becoming Art Directors. There were people who didn't even come from a design background who were becoming Art Directors and I felt like I had to level-up to show that I really knew what I was doing. Yep, one-ups-manship had taken a hold. It's pretty embarrassing looking back since I was chasing what I wasn't even sure I wanted. I mean, I knew at that point that I was a competent designer and I'd had my successes but this was a big jump.
I've actually got to stop for a second here. Titles are a funny thing in the design world. They can mean exactly what they say or they can mean something else. Best I can figure is that it's all about what a company/agency can charge for the hourly rate of an employee. I mean, from a client's perspective an Art Director sure sounds more expensive than a Graphic Designer doesn't it? But for the sake of the point I'm trying to make here, let's go with the "traditional" meaning of Art Director: A person that directs visual design with senior/graphic/production designers which may/may not involve actual design themselves. Finally, I not only got an Art Director title but a Senior Art Director title soon after. I proved that I knew how to direct and did it at a "higher level than my peers." I felt really good about that. I felt like I was "succeeding." Holy crap, these quotes are flying like crazy. But I didn't want to stop there. I was on a mission to be a Creative Director and I wanted to LEAD, LEAD, LEAD!!! Or so I thought. I'd bought into the whole idea that moving "up the ladder" meant that you were succeeding and developing as a designer. I finally got to the position of Associate Creative Director and I was at the doorstep of what I'd put out to become. I was in more and more meetings everyday talking about the who and what of projects and less and less the actual design process. Opening up my Adobe Creative Suite and Sketch became not to work on mine but about checking other's design work.
This was the turning point where I had a real frank discussion with myself. What the hell had I been doing for the last 12 years? Where was I going and why? I stepped back in the shoes of myself as a young designer at the beginning of this all and asked, would I have been stoked to see my future-self doing work like this? I didn't really think so. I had a lot conversations at that point with colleagues about what our titles and work actually meant. I realized that I never set out to become a design manager but that's truly what I became. I like designing. I like directing projects. I like working with clients. I wasn't any one person in the the design process, I was most of them. I've never been very good at staying inside the lines and sticking to just what I should and this was no exception. I've got opinions. Good or less relevant, they came from experiences and I felt they needed to be included in projects so that they could go more smoothly and get the client exactly what they needed to solve their design problems. That was the moment I realized a title didn't mean anything to me. Call me whatever you want in the design world, I know what I do and I know where I can contribute best. From that point on, I had frank discussions with senior colleagues about who I was and what I did, and I was surprised to see them open up and value who I was. I was happy to be flexible about my title and what I did on a per project basis and things made more sense to me. My title meant so little.
My point here is this. Warning: here comes the quotes! "Climbing a ladder" to a "higher level" isn't something you have to do. It sounds simple but when you get in the middle of it all, it's not so clear to see. Being a Designer, Senior Designer, Art Director etc. is good in and of itself. Even if there's little meaning to those titles. You're not any better just because you have a "higher seat" on the org chart or make more cash. Yes, you most likely make a lot more money as you move up but if you're designing for money's sake and not because you are trying to contribute what you do best, you're really being disingenuous to yourself. And while that may be OK in the short term, it will get to you at some point in your life. And like Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction you may have a "moment of clarity" that shakes you up. It's not a fun feeling and it requires you to take a hard look at what you've become. Like I did.
I find that when I'm happy, the work day seems to go really great. The people I work with are happier and the work I do comes out better. I sometimes don't make the money that I feel I should. It's a cold hard fact that happiness and compensation don't normally go hand in hand. But in my opinion, happiness and love are what life's all about. Being happy about what I do and about the work I create or help create, makes my environment a better place. A "ladder to success" shouldn't be the benchmark that you live by. Who you are as a designer is the most valuable thing you can contribute. It doesn't matter where that fits in, whether it's one title or a combination of them. Fuck a title! When you find who you are, plant and fly that flag. Leave the ladder in the corner where it belongs.