Why I wanted to be a designer

Why I wanted to be a designer

Justin Kemerling's Layout avatar

Earlier this week I received this year’s collection of screenprinted social justice posters from the printer, Screen Ink. Ten designers from the state donated their time and talent to make a poster to help raise money for Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit that fights for justice and opportunity for all. This is the fourth year I’ve volunteered my time to help put on the show, and every year I continue to be impressed with the enthusiasm from both the design and nonprofit communities. It’s become one of my favorite projects. I love the layering of ink, feeling the paper in hand and the positive, hopeful messages.

As an independent designer, I’m in full control of what work I take on and what I say no to. I left typical agency life over fours years ago to do something that was more me, and I wanted what I considered to be “good design” to play a big role. How exactly, I wasn’t quite sure.

Nowadays, there are numerous examples of what I call “good design” in the design industry. Design for a cause. Design for social change. AIGA has launched Design for Good: “a movement to ignite, accelerate, and amplify design-driven social change” that catalogs a wide range of real-world projects. Firms like Firebelly, Fifty & Fifty, and Hyperakt do truly inspirational, world-changing work and show that it’s possible to have an impact and make a living doing it.

When I was in school over ten years ago, the main pathway from student debt to adult salary seemed to be working at an agency that had lots of clients. Success was defined by the size of the budgets, the reach of the brands, and how many awards you landed. It was something I was interested in at first but eventually tired of. Don’t get me wrong. There are exciting careers that follow this path, generating amazing work along the way. But it’s not for everybody.

If it isn’t for you, how do you find your thing? The thing that speaks to you in design. My thing has become community activist design. From small community-focused nonprofits to activist campaigns with a national reach to the startup with a built-in social focus, being selective in the work I say yes to has allowed me to take on more of what I really want to do. I’ve seen other designers go all in with a tech startup or be an integral part of an indie rock label. Others have started their own unique design shop, worked for political candidates, or headed to grad school on a quest for something completely new and uncharted.

So if you, a designer of today, haven’t quite found what you really want to do yet, how might you go about it?

Design your work

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Image courtesy of Justin Kemerling

The path to self-discovery is part create-your-own-job-without-instructions, part follow-your-passion, part go-boldly-into-the-night. Every day designers think critically, solve problems, and create opportunities. They make things that function efficiently and perform beautifully, not only in the projects created but also in the career that houses them.

Making a successful career in a creative industry is uniquely challenging and extremely rewarding. It helps if you can remember that economies change. Jobs that used to be mainstays of the national consciousness are now obsolete. In the creative industry, everything was print and broadcast TV (anti-social). Until it wasn’t.

The guideposts to a career in “good design” used to be few and far between. But now, solid examples of people making it happen are popping up everywhere. More and more designers want to use their talents to have a positive impact in the world. Being aware of that desire will continue to make possible whatever it is you really want to design for a living.

Embrace your hobbies

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Image courtesy of Justin Kemerling

After college and given large blocks of time, I tended to make anti-war posters, go to protests, and listen to The Clash. I followed lots of independent media outlets, read Adbusters, and discovered James Victore. I’d watch any documentary I could get my hands on, subscribed to GOOD magazine, and got extremely familiar with the Massive Change project.

That’s what I was interested in when I wasn’t working at my day job. For awhile that’s all I thought those things would ever be — extracurriculars. My “hobbies” inspired a small section of side projects that stood next to a fuller, more traditional body of work. But those interests and side projects eventually led to designing for activists and nonprofits so often that it simply became what I did every day.

Write out your principles on paper

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Image courtesy of Justin Kemerling

Before I set out on my own, I sat down and wrote out a list of 11 points. Each point represented a completed side project and was an example of work I wanted to do more of. Projects that were experimental and optimistic. Projects that were community-minded, gave a damn, picked a side, and so on. This was my framework for doing “good design.”

Having a set of principles still helps determine if I should take on certain projects. I refer back to this list to see if a new opportunity jives with the trajectory I initially shot for.

Catalog what you love

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Image courtesy of Justin Kemerling

I pay attention to what others are doing, what other projects are out there, and I make note of ones that I particularly love.

Project M and nine young creative people from all over the country got together for two weeks to execute an open-ended project in rural Connecticut with a mission to support local farmers and growers. They designed Pizza Farm, bringing together a diverse community for an afternoon centered around a celebration of what local food has to offer.

Another project I love: Students attending Camp Firebelly in Chicago worked tirelessly and collaboratively to understand the intricacies of the prison industrial complex and create a digest in which women could share their stories in an authentic, meaningful, and humanizing way. They illustrate and design a moving collection of stories inspired by writing from people affected by the prison system.

My sticky notes attached to design annuals always mark the public service section. What’s Amnesty International or OxFam trying to call attention to? What unique guerrilla campaign is going on that’s making people pause and take notice? I keep track of concrete examples to point to and say, “Yeah, this, this right here, this is what I want to do.”

Jump in

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Image courtesy of Justin Kemerling

Branding used to be a new thing. Then there was design from a sustainable perspective, and then responsive web design. Now we’re talking about design thinking and service design. All are unique disciplines within the world of design. There are people who like the new terminology and others who don’t. Debates ensue.

Regardless of the label, there will always be new avenues to pursue as designers, in techniques and strategies as well as who the design process is for. Side note: Time to redesign U.S. tax forms? Anyone, anyone?

A couple years ago, our AIGA chapter invited a varied group of creatives to a design thinking workshop. Architects, writers, graphic, and information designers worked alongside community leaders and gerontology, occupational therapy, and technology experts on a multi-faceted challenge. We set out to see what’s possible for an ever-growing aging population in terms of housing, community, retail, and recreation.

It was an exhausting and invigorating activity. New and uncomfortable with room for expertise and collaboration. Everyone working together to find an appropriate solution to a tough societal problem. Solutions that seem obvious now but happened only because the group jumped in and went for it.

The specific career path you’re going down isn’t obvious when you start. How design will be different in the years to come isn’t either. For an answer to the uncertainty and constant change, try to align creativity, passion, values and interests into your very own design career. It’s a worthwhile quest. And one I’d recommend to anyone who never really liked following instructions.

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