Any Which Way But Up

One of the most frequent questions new or student designers have is how to get paid work. So much of the time, they’ve tried applying to a studio like a ‘normal’ sort of office job and gotten nowhere. They feel like they have enough school and skill under their belt to get something, anything, remotely related to working in design, but more often, they’re confused why this isn’t proving enough.

The discussion, from here, could go one of a hundred different ways. Really. Anything from the (d)evolution of the industrial complex and hiring process into the current Hobbesian meritocracy to a rant against society-wide epidemic of typos in resum├ęs could become my next 1000 words. But instead let’s step back again.

The issue at hand is that they don’t know, and don’t know what to do. So they ask a teacher, who may not have had, applied for, or been in, a non-academic design position since Clinton was redefining what is is. They might give them any assortment of well-meaning but more-often inaccurate advice. Or they ask a family member, for more of the well-meaning with an extra side helping of incorrect to go with it. The design professsion today is not the design profession of even five years ago, and especially ten. The hiring process (and I refer to that as everything from landing an in-house position through running the freelance gauntlet) is a very different animal than, say, completing a certificate in HVAC and getting in line with the rest of your class for inevitable hire.

(My comparing designers to tradesman was not intended to reek of elitism: I bring it up because designers don’t have the luxury of a certificate that amounts to anything. There is little regard for anything above and beyond a portfolio and definitely no hiring pool or union hall to keep one occupied. Sometimes the journeyman carpenters that wait out in the Home Depot parking lot each morning would appear to have this whole work thing figured out way better than the whole of the graphic design profession.)

The relatively swift change from traditional work assignments to the stark individualism of the current scenario has left newcomers without any true entry-level opportunities in which they might actually grow a portfolio, which they need in order to get the start they need. It’s incredibly chicken-versus-egg, and quite understandably frustrating and complex.

In lieu of knowing what to do, or getting useful advice, the new designer does whatever comes to mind next, which, for some reason, almost always involves working for free. When even the most decent internships are unpaid, and can be known to go to ten-year veterans in the field (such is the competition for jobs) this merely pushes the newbie further south of the professional equator with somewhat nonsensical results. Herein lies the attraction and joie de vivre of the logo and t-shirt contest sites, the Threadless’ and 99Designs’ of the world.

I say “nonsensical” but it makes some sense: that some work is better than no work, even if it doesn’t pay. That something in the portfolio is better than nothing, regardless if said portfolio will be dismissed with the question “Do you have any real work?” It’s all really a huge waste of time, and, worse yet, dilutes the paid market since everyone, it seems has ‘a niece’ that’s ‘getting into that’ and is willing to work ‘for the experience.’

It’s encouraging that some that I explain this too realize how goofy the whole thing sounds, but are still left with the question of ‘if not this, then what?’ I don’t feel like I have any better answers than anyone else.