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Field Study

An Unedited view of design and thought process:

work, experimental and otherwise by Keenan Cummings

Don’t Be Wise. Be Relentless.

This article has been floating around under the guise of “wisdom”. It attempts to answer the question “should I start my own studio right out of design school.” 

"First of all let me just say how much I admire the gumption and the confidence of wanting to start your own studio right out of the gate. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

Now here comes the hammer: this is a terrible idea. There’s only one idea that would be worse, by the way. And that would be going to work at a startup right out of school.”

First off, I should provide some context. I’m a creative director at a start up, but spent 4 years working in reputable agencies before that. I credit that time I spent there to affording me the opportunities I have now. I don’t regret a minute of it. Okay — got that out of the way.

This is generally a disappointing post. It’s worth remembering that the profession of graphic design — that one where we screw around with shapes and colors and make “experiences” — would have been thought of as a ridiculous and irrelevant waste of brainpower only a few hundred years ago. It took some brave/naive/enterprising individuals to venture out into unknown territory to set up a reputable profession and establish the economics that would allow us to lazily come along and follow happily in their foot steps. The best thing in the world for the design industry is more of those young/naive/ambitious types to stretch what it means to be a designer, to find new ways to spend their time messing around with communication and experiences, and to bring the necessary economics to those new disciplines that will make it easier for more to follow in suit. 

What irks me more than anything is any degree of buzz-killing on young designers’ enthusiasm to create more, make more, and share more. That kind of relentless creative energy is now what I look for in peers and potential hirees. This is the kind of harmfull advice that needs undoing, so I am providing a voice for another approach to an early design career:

The economics of making a living are changing rapidly and dramatically. And not just in the design or creative industry. Practically every job is on the table for obsolescence in the coming decades. Your ability to stay comfortable and happy will have more do do with how scrappy you are at approaching a career path than your ability to master any specific domain. The distance between what you create and the value it creates for the end user/customer is shortening. You will succeed not just by being a good business man. Now you got to be a great person too. And the options for great people are endless.

There are no tricks of any trade. There is volume and consistency. There is kindness. That’s it. There might be a few people out there that aren’t good and maybe were never meant to get good, no  matter how much work they put in (and I’m not sure that’s true). But you’re not one of those people. You found something that you are pretty good at, and that you care a ton about. That gives you options to create any kind of career you want. Really. Honestly. 

Start now by chasing opportunities. Be relentless. Write. Read. Make. Mimic (but credit your sources or course). Just don’t buy into any advice that tells you to be loyal, pay dues, bide your time. Those are truthy sounding old-time wisdom that has no real substance. Think about it. “Pay dues”!?!? Like the price of entry into a creative economy is boring, soul-sucking, back-breaking, passionless labor? There will be pain, but you’ll learn to deal with it as you go because you love the end result.

The steady, well trodden path to a successful design career is good and fine. You got a nice little roadmap for you right there. But I suspect that most of us will find our tastes and interests and opportunities changing often. Professional residencies, design accreditations, five year plans — those programs can hardly keep up with you. Unless you know exactly what you want out of the rest of your career, I recommend you don’t slow down, don’t follow the wisdom. Learn to learn fast. Learn to l ove something and do the crap out of it.

Please chime in int he comments if you got something to add or refute. Would love to hear your thoughts!

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