Thursday, October 26th, 2006

9 to 5 = average

9 to 5 = average
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I’m a hard-ass. Some would correct that by simply removing the word “hard”; but I digress. There are a number of people who find me rather difficult to be around. I would go as far as to say that our staff – both past and present – would unequivocally agree that working with me is daunting at best. Understandably, I have long searched for the reason behind this. Aside from my somewhat abrasive personality, I believe that the problem stems from alternate notions of purpose and commitment.

Honesty is hard

I wanted to be a professional cross country skier. Odd as that may sound, I thought it would make my dad proud. For many years, I dreamt of gold medals and Olympic finishes, and how great it would be to share that passion with my father. By fifteen, I knew that I just didn’t have what it would take. I didn’t have the “motor” for it, but worse than that, I didn’t love skiing enough.

By my teen years, I decided to be a pro-skateboarder. This meant that I spent a lot of time looking at skateboarding magazines, talking about “air”. I hardly ever rode my skateboard however. When I did, my poor balance generally resulted in me falling, and that wasn’t so much fun.

Later, I decided to be a rock star. My parents dutifully purchased guitars so that I could indulge this fleeting fantasy. The challenge however was that I posed in the mirror and read guitar magazines, rather than actually practicing. I could go on for hundreds of words, describing the many fanciful tangents that I pursued, but rather, let me present the one thing where this was not the case.

In grade school, I was behind on tests, because I liked to perfectly balance the numbering in my margins. I desperately wanted to draw Mad Magazines, so I collected all of my pre-adolscent potty humour in a knock-off of the magazine, composed on scraps of notebook paper. I drew Garfield in many assortments, and liked to design logos and play with ideas. By high school, I often handed-in weak papers and plays, as I had focused instead on creating variations of cover pages.

By art school, I would paint until three in the morning, and often be in class at nine. This of course led to me sleeping through some of the lectures. I just couldn’t find another way to paint as much as I wanted without staying up quite as late. Where the actual skiing and guitar playing were less seductive than the fantasy, drawing was always enough. I didn’t need to think about an end-goal, the “doing” was what I loved; therefore, this has never felt like work.

Tom Hingston seems to share the sentiment, as he notes in Stefan Bucher’s All Access, “I never thought I would get away with not working as hard as I am. Seeing something grow from nothing is very exciting. When you begin to realize that you can create your own tiny universe, that’s a big motivation.”

The paradox of the applicant who becomes an employee

When I meet with other designers who own their own shops, a similar topic often comes up. They often lament how the designer who applied with talk of passion transformed into a worker-bee within weeks of being hired. Certainly, they put in all of the time that they are contractually bound to, but that sparkle which seemed ever-present in their application letter and interview, is gone.

As I have clearly stated before, I’m probably the kind of employer most of you would really dislike working with. As much as I try to be affable, the work remains the most important thing in my mind. Perhaps it would be different in a larger firm, or if I didn’t care so much about the work that we produce. There’s no question about it; I have limited tolerance for those who aren’t entirely committed to what they do.

To date, I have worked with a number of people who have been kind, likable individuals. Some have also been quite talented. That said however, at five past five, most are off for the day, and only rarely does that supposed passion for the work truly materialize, either by taking the initiative to expand their proficiency, or by putting some thought in to a challenging project after-hours. This leads me to wonder why they chose to include the word “passion” in their first discussion.

Most times when I ask about this incongruity, someone will remind me of their desire for balance between work and personal life.

Balance may not lead to breakthrough

Balance is healthy, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it is quite necessary. That being said, balance does not commonly equate with greatness. Those who choose to move beyond others often have to go to some lengths, and make sacrifices in order to meet their goals.

In Jim Collins’ Good to Great, he presents the story of Hawaii Ironman winner Dave Scott, who in addition to a rigorous training regiment chose an equally stringent diet. In it, he would even rinse his cottage cheese to remove any excess fat. From the text, “The point is that rinsing his cottage cheese was simply one more small step that he believed would make him just that much better, one more small step added to all the other small steps to create a consistent program of super discipline.”

Being exceptional takes work, and some careers are really hard to be good at.

I have read of resident physicians who work 100 hours a week. Many articles note that lawyers routinely work seven days a week, twelve hours a day. (And frankly, they are lawyers. That can’t be nearly as much fun as being a designer.) On the creative end of things, just think of the countless individuals who work long hours at gaming firms, or architects, who after years of schooling and apprenticeship often commit hours that others would criticize as being excessive.

Design is a particularly challenging profession at this point in history. It requires understanding of cultural issues, history, psychology, multiple media forms, ever-changing tools, and roles which can often mutate with time. Is it realistic for one to become an outstanding designer, working 37 – 40 hours a week?

I want to restate that neither I, nor the other studio principals I know, want people to work 80 hour weeks. In fact, I don’t think that many would ask for 60 or even 50 hour weeks. I do however, think that in order to back-up such terms as “passion” and commitment” some occasional extra evening hours, or the odd day on the weekend – when a project needs it – wouldn’t be overly demanding. If you are passionate, design should be more fun than other extracurricular activities.

“Design is about commitment: if you want to have a nine-to-five existence, become a civil servant. We’ve already noted that the life of a designer is privileged — but there is a price to be paid for this privilege and that price is unflinching commitment. You have to be prepared to make sacrifices.” Adrian Shaughnessy, How to be a graphic designer, without losing your soul.

You can always choose to be competent

Some people enjoy hockey games and picnics on the weekend. Many like to get home at five o’clock to kick back with a bag of Doritos, and some time in front of the tube. I deny no one that right. But I believe that comes with its costs as well. First off all, one might find that awful orange stuff in their teeth; more importantly however, it may lead to not as many interesting projects to work on, or less growth in one’s career.

Choices in life are often difficult to make. They can however be made easier by truly understanding one’s own nature and purpose.

I don’t particularly like days off. As such, I’ve chosen to immerse myself in design. It’s everything I do. But what about you? Is this really a commitment worth making? Perhaps you have other, more personal needs. Maybe time with your spouse is more important. On the other hand, you might find it more enjoyable to go to concerts and movies. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and it certainly doesn’t imply that you won’t be a fine designer.

Do however make your choices accordingly. If this lifestyle suits you, I urge you to seek out a casual studio, or perhaps a firm that doesn’t make it their mission to push every project. Look for an employer who is relaxed and has a nice, fun work environment, with ample lunch breaks and maybe some perks like a foosball table. Additionally, there are countless in-house and production settings, in which supervisors and other non-creative staff will praise your abilities and you will not have to deal with an overly particular and tough art director.

Whatever you do however, if you are looking for a casual and less than demanding environment, don’t work for a shop that puts the work above all else. These environments are by nature rather serious and require rigorous work. You’d be a fool to join the Marines, and then get pissed about the hours.

If you choose the tough road

Every studio is different, so I’ll limit my points to smashLAB. Here is an overview of the kind of designer we look to hire.

If you landed a job here, I would be happy to learn that you were open to exploring ideas, and felt that there was plenty to learn. You would be one of those long-term people, focused on the project on the hand, while aiming to be a great designer. It would also stand to reason that you would deliver a great design in the allotted time. If the job now and again became a little boring, you’d know that this is how it goes, and would pass in time. I’d also think that you would sometimes say or ask such things as, “I don’t know, but I’ll look in to it”; or, “What do you think I can do to get better?”

You’d be in a few minutes before start time, and would likely not balk at the idea of putting in some extra time if a project needed it. You might even bring in some of your personal projects from time to time, in order to share them with your co-workers.

Where others might blame the client or art director for not giving them the feedback they wanted to hear, you would focus more on the needs of the client or those of the studio.

Should some reading be suggested, you would likely find the book, and read it in your off-hours. You would be interested in doing so, and recognize that such knowledge would build your skill set, and in turn, your career. As Rick Landesberg notes in his article Passion Matters, on the How Magazine website, “Eagerness to learn is an invaluable design trait.”

You would choose this road because you wished to surpass expectations and conventional measures of competency. You would be one of those rare individuals to whom the work is the reward. You would become indispensable to the firm.

The numbers are against excellence

Most things are done acceptably. That’s just life. We rarely demand exemplary food at lunch, instead making do with fare from the food-court. We watch television that is alright, but hardly inspiring, and popular music is manufactured for the lowest common denominator. Most things just land in the middle—not too good, not too bad, but just okay.

That being said, most of us still enjoy the notion of being outstanding at something. I suppose that as designers, many of us want to be like Erik Spiekermann, but equally many are unwilling to put in the time.

So, don’t do it. It’s not worth it. Really, it’s only design, and it doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. No one cured the world’s ails with a better creative concept or perfectly kerned type. Just be average. Your mom will still like you, and you will likely have a fine life.

If on the other hand, you do prize this craft, and want to push yourself, you may have to simply embrace how hard it will be, and just get down to it.

I’ll wrap things up with another quote from Stefan G. Bucher’s All Access, featuring Rick Valicenti’s reiteration of a series of phone calls from a friend, “Hey, Rick, wanna go out tonight?—Ah, I think I’m gonna stay in the studio.—Hey, Rick, wanna go out to a nice hotel for the weekend?—Ah, I think I’m gonna do some writing.—Fuck you Rick, you’re such a snore.”

If you do choose to do it, don’t do it for your boss. Do it because it’s what you would do anyways. Do it because you love it.

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