Ask a Designer #7: How Do I Know When to Give Up on My Dream Career?
Graphic designer, educator, and writer Nika Simovich Fisher (@labud.nyc) is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Today, Nika walks through what to do when you think it might be time to give up on your dream career.
When I graduated my graphic design degree, I was excited about the future but due to financial pressure, I accepted a basic design job in which I have minimal creative input.
I wasn’t worried as I thought I could build up experience and be in a strong position to apply for better design jobs next. Now it's 2 years later and I’m still stuck doing work which isn’t creative or interesting to me at all. I’ve been frequently applying to other junior roles, adding to my portfolio, doing additional training, requesting critiques, improving my CV, but despite getting some positive feedback I'm rejected every time (if they reply at all).
This is having a serious impact on my mental health as my self esteem is terrible by this point. My doctor has recommended I start therapy for depression. I feel useless and worthless. I received another rejection for a job I was very excited about today and I’m struggling to cope.
Should I keep on trying? Should I accept it’s not meant to be and start looking for another career, perhaps in a less competitive industry? The problem, is I don’t know what else I could do. I just don’t think I can take these rejections forever.
Oof! It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed and your self-esteem could use a boost. It’s hard to hear “no” over and over again, but don’t let that define your existence. You’re far from useless, and the fact that you’re reaching out and being honest is a huge step in the right direction.
Graphic design is a challenging profession. It involves managing expectations, balancing your perspective and methodology with the demands and requirements of a client, as well as a TON of communication. Depending on how many people are involved, this can go from a smooth and pleasant collaboration to a soulless process where you can feel like a pair of hands attached to a computer typing on autopilot.
If you’re feeling more like the latter, the first step is to recognize that, which your question signifies that you’ve done. The next step is to do something about it, which can be nebulous, but I have a few ideas that might help you re-evaluate your situation.
It’s important to know why you’re doing it and what you like about it, as with any creative profession. Creative professions are different from other careers, such as being a doctor or working in finance, because it requires a different kind of investment in yourself. There’s not a linear career path, and you have to have an opinion, as well as a supporting image that communicates what you’re about to other people.
For some other professions, a simple LinkedIn profile is sufficient. For designers, you need to take advantage of your google search results and direct people to what you’re about. This might sound unfair, but it’s actually a huge opportunity to be self-indulgent and figure out what you’d like to spend your time doing, and ultimately, let other people know, too. It’s impossible to do, if you don’t know why you’re doing it, however.
Think back to when you were in school:
What about design did you like?
How does it compare to what you’re doing now?
Is it the open critique format, the accessibility to faculty, the freedom to make whatever you want?
These are all valid aspects that make design education worthwhile, but it's also important information about what you like to spend your time doing.
Another clue for what you like to do is to take a look at your portfolio:
Out of the projects that you’ve done, which ones stand out to you?
What was the process for creating that piece like, and, even if it’s not perfect, what was successful about it?
This time of reflection should help give you a little more information on what you like to do.
Similarly, it’s important to understand what you don’t like about your current situation. If the job itself is fine, but you’re feeling like you have less control than you'd like over the outcome, try to talk to your manager or employer and see if there’s an opportunity for growth or a shift in responsibilities.
When I was first starting out, my gut was to leave as soon as I felt dissatisfied with my job. This strategy works, too. However, my boss told me they would have been happy to work with me to make some changes to my workload in some moments. Communication is everything with design, and it’s important to try and build this with people you work with too.
Once you have a clearer idea of what you like doing, take a moment and write out your strengths and interests. You should be able to explain to someone what you like about your work and also, what your process looks like. This last part is important – processes vary from designer to designer, but what unifies them is that there is always a considered visual representation along with that.
“If you build it, they will come” – Field of Dreams (1989)
After you’ve done this “personal research”, you need to make sure that your work suggests that, and your online presence supports it too.
Evaluate all your existing projects and see how they match up to what you like to be doing. Even if you only have a couple of strong projects, try to make the most exciting visual representation out of what you have, and remove the pieces that feel like extra weight.
If you’re more of a “jack-of-all-trades,” it’s OK to have different sets of portfolios that you share for particular jobs, but I’d still encourage you to define your web presence in a way that feels consistent with what you like about both yourself and design. Consider incorporating a variety of media – writing, photos, animations, videos – to help communicate your work to other people.
After what you have is looking sharp, go back to what you like working on and make sure you’re making new work to support this. There is a lot of controversy over “hustle culture” and how abusive and problematic this type of work-focused advice is. I tend to agree that encouraging aspiring designers to do personal projects in their spare time and having them work all the time is bad advice, however, it would be hard to pivot into a more fulfilling type of career without putting in the work.
When you don't have a lot of experience and leverage, time is your most valuable asset. It would help if you were honest with yourself on what amount of time feels comfortable for you and try and stick to it. If you need to take a job to pay the bills, keep that in mind and consider how many hours in the week you have time to put into your creative practice. If that’s one hour a week, fine. If that’s every evening, that’s fine, too, but know that this might lead to burnout.
It’s important to check in with yourself and decide on a plan that you feel good about and also feels sustainable, at least for an allocated time period.
Once you have an idea of timing, make a schedule. Block it out on your calendar and stick to it! (If you fall off track, forgive yourself and get back on). Not only will this help you make work you’re excited about, sticking to a routine will also help build your self-esteem back up and help you feel more creatively fulfilled.
As your personal work grows, it might inform your work at your day job, and it will help as you continue to look for other opportunities.
Social media has its faults, but it’s a particularly powerful tool for getting your work in front of people, and for forming connections. You might consider exploring less “mainstream” social networks, like a common interest Slack channel, a Discord group, or an alternate social network entirely. Ask people you know for what they participate in and see if there’s an opportunity for you to join. You could also start a small community on your own, and if you're interested in doing so, I’d highly recommend checking out “Run Your Own Social” by Darius Kazemi.
Meeting people is really important when you’re trying to pivot your career. Identify people and places that have the job you want, and introduce yourself. A cold e-mail is free and can be incredibly helpful. The worst thing that can happen is you don’t get a response, and if that happens, try someone else.
Ask if you can have a “digital coffee” with them, or, if they’re pressed for time, share a couple questions via email. Once you’ve spoken with them, ask them if they know anyone with a similar interests as you and see if they can introduce you.
Talk About Yourself
Additionally, you’ll want to get good at talking about yourself. Think about how your background inspired you and has gotten you to where you are and where you’d like to go. Even if your past professional experiences haven’t been great, think about how you can creatively connect what you did there to where you want to go.
Forget About Design
On that note, forget about design! This might seem like counterintuitive advice, but it’s important to remember that you’re not defined by your career.
Since it seems like your work has been causing a lot of stress lately, take a break from it and find other activities you enjoy doing. These types of hobbies can fuel your creative practice later.
If you’re exploring other activities, you’re bound to meet people from a wide range of backgrounds. Meeting other designers is fantastic, but if you ever end up wanting to develop your own practice, you’ll need clients, and frankly, designers are not going to hire you.
A freelance practice in addition to your work might be difficult at first, but with time, could turn into something that gives you more freedom and creative control.
Through these outside interests, you might even discover something you enjoy more than design. That’s the fantastic aspect about being trained as a graphic designer – it’s an extremely versatile skillset that can be applied to just about any type of career. Graphic design requires organization, visual communication, and a point of view, and I can’t think of any job that wouldn’t benefit from that.
Design Your Life
This process of figuring out your next steps has a lot of similarities to the lifecycle of a project – research, development, experimentation, production, and then finally sharing it. And, this type of framework can be super helpful in other aspects of your life; just remember to always leave room for the unexpected.
It’s absolutely normal to feel unhappy at times, but it's important to get help if it starts to become a full-time situation. Even if you’re not struggling, it can be helpful to have someone put things into perspective and assist you through your issues and figure out a plan for finding fulfillment in your personal and professional life.
Therapy is a fantastic way of talking through your concerns and gaining a higher understanding about yourself. I’d suggest finding a provider that works with your health insurance, but online resources can provide guidance and can be very affordable, too.
While the process of shifting your career can be overwhelming, the work you put into understanding your needs and interest will ultimately help you in many aspects of your life. I wish you the best of luck with your journey!