January 14, 2012

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I’m an expert at this. So what? It won’t matter in 5 years.

There is a growing challenge to being a professional designer these days. I don’t know exactly when it started. You could say it started with the advent of the macintosh computer, where software skills became more important than hand skills and three jobs got combined into one. You could say it started with the internet, where the technology and tools changed yearly (if not monthly). You could say it started with the rise of social media where the power of product advocacy was placed in the hands of the consumer. What challenge am I referring to? I call it the marketing skills arms race. And it’s a race I’ve been running in from the day I got my first job.

Early in my career I met several people who had a dramatic impact on my long term view of my career as a graphic designer. I kept meeting art directors who, in their own words, were obsolete because they failed to make the transition to the desktop computer. These were talented guys who could concept, write, draw and layout publications and ads and had done it for years. But since they didn’t rise to the level of Creative Director, they were still “in the trenches.” Practitioners of the daily work. The problem: the tools had changed and they didn’t adapt. Dinosaurs almost overnight. Sounds overly dramatic? Maybe. But it’s true.

The lesson I learned was to never get too comfortable. Things change. Keep learning new skills and you will always be relevant. I was right, but not entirely. Not so long ago, if you wanted to learn a trade or a craft, you would apprentice yourself to a master craftsman. Spend years being his understudy and when the time was right, you would then become the master and spend your lifetime honing your craft to reach a level of competency that can only be attained by time, talent and experience.

Sounds pretty cool, no? Become a master at your trade. (Make no mistake, fellow designers, you are in a trade.) The problem is, that doesn’t apply anymore. The landscape has changed. It keeps changing. And it is changing faster than ever. I’m a bit of an intellectual dilettante, so the idea of diversification of skills has a certain amount of appeal. But I reached a plateau a few years ago that I couldn’t escape. There are only so many hours in the day. There are an increasing amount of programs to learn. Oh, and somewhere along the way, designers are supposed to be programmers too.

Eventually, what I found out was that you have to make a choice: Diversify your skillsets so that you have a shallow, but useable competency in a multitude of areas, or choose a focus and dive into it completely, developing a depth of knowledge and experience that you can truly master that area. Both have risks. Neither are a sure bet. Just ask any agency who has had to reposition themselves as “experts” in social media. I’m as fascinated by it as the next guy, but really, did any of us get in this business to tweet? No. We are artists. Thinkers. Problem solvers. Visual communicators. Even if you choose to become an expert in a field, that field may disappear entirely one day(just ask print production artists).

I’ve reached a point in my career where my design sensibilities, my ability to be a strategic thinker and my talents as a verbal communicator(me talk good meetings well) have allowed me to be of value to my clients and remain relevant in the business world. Still, rarely does a day go by where I’m not in photoshop, indesign or illustrator doing a tactical piece of creative. (Yeah, that pesky computer keeps rearing it’s ugly head.)

So I’m still running. Uphill. Both ways in the snow(that one’s for you Dad). I have no idea where it’s going, how long it will last or when it will end. But I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s over.

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  • Barry Underhill

    Uphill both ways?!!! In the snow?!!! In Texas?!!! Well said.

    I agree, the form of the message is always changing. The source can vary as well. In the end, it doesn’t matter which language you speak (french, latin, html), the success or failure of the communication will still rely on its relevancy to the audience. Hopefully, that will keep us relevant for a few more software updates as well.

  • http://www.fangmarks.com Matt Fangman

    Good points, Barry. I think the challenge isn’t so much choosing which language you will speak, but the fact that you most likely must be multilingual. I’m not sure that is the most efficient use of our time and talents. But, that is a post for another day!

  • http://www.michaelholdren.com Michael Holdren

    Totally agree with you, but I remind myself of the expression “a jack of all trades is a master of none” so I don’t get spread too thin with my skillset.

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