As I search for a new full-time design gig I spend a lot of each day looking at job descriptions. I’ve noticed how the role “graphic designer” has become very ambiguous or undefined lately. It used to be that a graphic designer’s job description and expectation was very straight forward: we designed things that audiences and consumers read. We were in charge of the visual communication part of editorials and with knowledge of basic design principles, a good grasp of color and use of art or photography, we made words jump off the page with stunning design and layout skills. Not so much these days.
Each year that ticks by, the role and job of a graphic designer changes. Technology over the past few years has taken design from printed matter to an interactive world and created a bit of a panic with the design industry. To be a graphic designer in today’s world is a bit like taking a photo of a sunset – as time moves forward, the image can change dramatically and quickly. If you earned your degree in graphic design back in the 1990s, you may find yourself overwhelmed by how much design and moved away from the basic art theory and hands-on approach and more into the computer realm. If your design career was born in the early 2000s, you may feel a bit depressed that even though you’re considered entry-level, technology and where design is today has rendered you something of an artifact. What gives?
I look at job descriptions for a graphic designer and scoff at times. One that I came across wanted the designer to have a basic understanding and knowledge of the standard programs (Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop), have 1-2 years of experience under their belt, be knowledgeable in Dreamweaver and while you were at it they wanted you to have customer service experience, management experience and all for a wage of around $10-$14 an hour. A week later they changed the job description a bit – they suddenly were calling the graphic designer a “visual communicator” and added to the list of things you needed to know that you also needed to have skills in web design, video editing and be comfortable carrying a camera and video taping and later editing that for display on the Web. Oh, and still for just $10-$14 an hour, full time.
There’s a lot of, what I feel, are ridiculous, unrealistic takes on what a graphic designer is or should know how to do. The idea that all graphic designers are suddenly supposed to be great Web designers, web programmers, and now they also need to be comfortable and experienced in making and editing video seems outlandish. All graphic designers are not created equal, and employers and those looking to work with or hire a graphic designer need to accept that. Graphic designers, like any other profession, come in all different shapes and sizes with different accessories and skill sets. There are some graphic designers who excel in designing and programming websites. That’s great! But I consider them to be web designers or web developers, not so much graphic designers because graphic designers generally have been expected to be good at having layout or composition skills. Some really great graphic designers are really bad at Web design, and that’s ok! Some photographers have very basic Photoshop skills and that’s wonderful and expected of them. Knowing how to use Photoshop, however, doesn’t automatically make you a great graphic designer. There are some designers who can do wonders with fonts and typography but are weak at illustration; some that are great artists who need to hone their understanding of fonts and composition; some designers who can produce motion graphics and do things in Flash who are completely intimidated by having to design for print which is all still and less about interaction. The point? Each graphic designer has a strength and a weakness and instead of us trying to excel to be great at everything, we need to accept that we’re just one person and there are some areas of the design world we’ll never be experts at. And that’s Ok.
It disturbs me that with the economy tanking and jobs being cut, businesses are so quick to look at the designer as being expendable if he or she isn’t capable of being an all-in-one designer. More jobs seem to be posted with the expectation that the “graphic designer” is now a “visual communicator” and is now responsible for doing the work and jobs that in the past two or three would have been hired to do. I know money is tight, budgets have to be cut, but why not at least consider hiring experts on a contract or freelance basis? Do you really need an on-site web designer when your site isn’t even updated but every four or so weeks? Do you need an on-staff photographer when you really have little need for one? I’m not advocating anyone lose their jobs, but there seems to be a lot of foolish decisions being made in trying to package three or more different areas of design into one person. I’d rather businesses start hiring (on a freelance or contract basis) creative professionals who are truly knowledgeable experts in whatever area of the design process than to put it all on the shoulders of one person. You’ll not only have a better product in the end but you’ll create a creative/marketing/design team rather than being disappointed when one person can’t do it all.
That being said, what’s a designer to do? I say be adventurous and learn as much as you can. If you have access to a program, why not learn it? You don’t necessarily have to spend thousands of dollars on a degree to learn about a new program or how to work one better that you have. Tutorials online are a great free source for any designer to go to. Also, designers shouldn’t be afraid to collaborate more and expanding their networks. I’ve seen the industry become a bit more competitive with designers feeling that they need to defend their turf out of fear of losing out to another designer on the scene. Don’t be. Again, we’re all experts of a certain type of design and can learn from others that are better than us in the areas we’re weak in.