Ask a Designer #1: Does it Matter What I Call Myself?
Here at SuperHi, we get a lot of questions from our amazing and creative students. What we've realized: learning and growing doesn't stop after you complete a course or learn a new skill. It's an ongoing series of ups and downs, challenges and blurry lines, doubts and insecurities, a sometimes muddy mess of hows, whys, what ifs and what nows? We see these questions and we hear you: it's tough out there.
Welcome to our very first edition of a series with our resident advice columnist (or as our UK constituent of the team calls it, “Agony Aunt”), where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Say hi to Meg Lewis, our first columnist to take on the mantle.
Maybe I’m an UI designer because I focus on interfaces? But there is always something missing. On the other hand, the concept UX is more complex in my opinion. So, which would be the right title for someone focussed in art direction, branding, and web design and development? My background is in relation with advertising and art direction, and the title interactive art director or digital art director, doesn’t sound bad at all. However, I don’t know if that makes sense in certain contexts, for example, when I’m not working for an agency or studio. Does anyone call themselves a freelance interactive art director? Is that even what I do?
Who Am I?
Dear Who Am I?,
Much to my own abstract brain’s sadness, we live in a society of concrete thinkers who love the heck out of labels. We’re trained early on to prescribe adjectives, modifiers, and pronouns in order to classify people, objects, and experiences. Humans love to place things in neat columns as it helps them to quickly observe, store information, and move on.
I’ve experimented with being abstract in the way I describe my own work throughout my career. My adorable Meg brain once thought it would be refreshing if I was doing something no one else was and allowing the world to draw their own conclusions and labels for me. NOPE! Didn’t work. I wasn’t being concrete enough, the world got confused, and I stopped getting work. Opportunities and inquiries fizzled out and I was left dumbfounded. Once I made the simple choice to describe very blatantly what I do and who I do it for—everything changed for the better, money started rolling in, and I got more jobs that made me feel fulfilled.
The age old question, do I need to specialize or can I be a generalist? is totally uninteresting to me. I think we can have whatever career we want whether it’s specializing or generalizing. But, in order for us to cater to the human brain it’s extremely helpful to have a “thing”. Your “thing” can be a particular label, a unique style, a specific service, or a niche area of expertise. While I call myself a generalist designer. Often, my “thing” is the style of work that I make, who I make it for, and what greater good I’m working toward.
The age old question, do I need to specialize or can I be a generalist? is totally uninteresting to me. I think we can have whatever career we want whether it’s specializing or generalizing.
My hope is for you to write a single sentence description that perfectly describes the specific work you do. I want this description to a) showcase what makes you totally unique compared to others in your field and b) allow your audience to place and put you in a column so they have a baseline understanding of who you are as they look through your work. When writing this exceptionally difficult sentence, I love to follow the formula: [insert name] is a [insert title] working to/for [insert niche area of focus]. You can be as generalist or specialist with what you place in here, but it’s helpful to make yourself sound as unique as possible. If your concern is that you wear a lot of hats, be as generalist in your description as possible while allowing yourself to determine important blanket statements that label what makes your work special. The idea is for you to sound incomparable and totally unique to your competition. You’re allowed to make up a new title just for yourself as long as it’s descriptive enough for people to easily place you and move on.
For example: Meg Lewis is a brand designer working to create positive change. Dave Jordan is a user experience designer working to simplify complex systems. Pearl Bateman is a multi-disciplinary art director working to make the world a better place. Betel Geuseman is a full stack engineer working for social good. Bing Bong is a honky tonk clown working to normalize clown culture in the tech industry.
Why have a title that’s totally unique to you? If you structure the way you communicate your work as a reflection of what makes your interests and personality totally unique, you’ll attract more work that makes you feel naturally fulfilled. It sets you apart from your competition and allows you to position yourself as someone providing a service that no one else can.
It matters what you call yourself, but remember that you’re in control of your own narrative. If you’re not interested in working in a specific area that you keep getting hired for, edit it out with your title and copy. As long as you have a great one sentence written about what you do and with whom you do it for (or what greater good you’re working towards) you can use it as a way to curate your work and show only the projects that prove your describer statement.
Meg Lewis is a designer making experiences for happy companies and a speaker and educator creating more fulfilling lives for humans of all kinds. Meg empowers individuals to discover their unique selves through books, video series, workshops, and talks titled Full Time You. She also founded Ghostly Ferns, an international collective of designers and commercial artists.