A Decade In Design

Illustration: Craig Ward
After recently clocking up his tenth year as a designer, Ben Terrett wondered what had happened to his contemporaries over the same period. Were they happy? Did they earn enough money? Did things turn out as they’d hoped?

Illustration: Craig Ward

After recently clocking up his tenth year as a designer, Ben Terrett wondered what had happened to his contemporaries over the same period. Were they happy? Did they earn enough money? Did things turn out as they’d hoped?

In January 1998 I started my first permanent job in design. I was an art director at a pharmaceutical advertising agency. Every­one’s got to start somewhere.

So, ten years into a design career, what does it look like?

You hear lots from people at the top in this industry and come the summer you hear lots from those starting out. But you don’t really hear much from those of us in the middle. So I thought I’d ask a few people who are also in their tenth year in the creative industries and see what it’s like in the thick of things. Are people happy with how much they earn? Are they happy with where they work? How did they get there in the first place? What pisses them off about the industry? What would they change?

I deliberately spoke to people from outside of the London media bubble and I tried to reach as broad a range of people as possible. So we have multi-award winning creative directors from glitzy London agencies, a digital publisher and someone who lives in Newcastle but works in Brighton.

On average, people have worked at four places over the last ten years. That’s a job change every 2.5 years. I’ll admit that this isn’t the most scientific study, but aren’t we always berating marketing managers for that? Maybe it helps. Martyn, who’s currently the creative director at Preview in Brighton, says “I’ve worked in big and small agencies on brand, dm, digital and ad campaigns. Having been inside a range of different types of agency has helped me take the best bits from each of them and understand what works best.”

Roughly half of the people asked think they’re remunerated fairly and half of them think they don’t get paid enough but then maybe those people could “choose to work at a very, very corporate firm and earn lots”, as someone mentioned. Two of the lucky buggers get paid more than they thought they would.

Ten years ago we didn’t have the internet at college, or at least I never found it, so we had to pop across the road to look at the city’s library connect­ion. By the time I’d started working, the only websites I’d looked at were for Fuse Fonts and Paul Smith. It will come as no surprise that most people cited the internet as the biggest change over the last ten years.

Take Jeremy Ettinghausen, who has possibly the best job title in London. When asked if his job existed ten years ago, he says simply “not likely”. Jeremy has the wonderful job of digital publisher for Penguin UK and was the only person who’d been at the same company for all of the ten years. He was probably the most excited about the future: “After the dotcom crash, digital was a dirty word and few wanted to besmirch their balance sheets with it. The last three years have seen this attitude largely disappear.” I asked everyone if they’d ever thought about quitting. “Just when things are getting really exciting? I think not,” said Jeremy.

The advent of the internet has, of course, affected the industry in all manner of ways. One of the most unusual working practices I discovered was that of Rebecca Bell who works from home in Newcastle as studio manager for TW Cat, a direct marketing agency for the charity sector, that is based in Brighton. “I never expected to be able to do my job from home,” she says. “Ten years ago it wouldn’t have been possible. I’m over 350 miles from the office but this doesn’t affect my ability to do my job at all. I have a direct connection to the office which enables me to put pdfs of artwork into job folders on the server for the account team. Art­work is sent to printers via ftp, amends to jobs are emailed back to me, the whole system works perfectly.” That wouldn’t have happened ten years ago but then, as Rebecca points out, neither would a job go back and forth between you and a client “three, four, five times a day. We worked with bromides and chroma­lins, proofs were sent to a client in the post, they marked up amends and you got them back two days later,” she remembers.

When someone says work/life balance I always think of fat middle aged men snoring into their cans of Stella on the last train out of Waterloo, but I was surprised at how often people brought it up. Martyn says the most miserable time in his career was when he commuted from Brighton to London every day: “I wasn’t enjoying my job and I was missing my new-born son. I literally dragged myself out the house each morning. It was dark when I left the house, dark when I finished work, I didn’t see daylight for about four months.”

Others shared similar concerns: “The one thing I hate about my job is the hours,” said one. “Working all-nighters isn’t clever or fun,” said another. One person went even further: “I don’t mind working hard but when you’re averaging 70–80 hours a week something isn’t right.” At one particular (well-known) firm, one person I spoke to said “I think the earliest I finished was 10pm with one night actually being 3am.” Time to go home, or go and work with Rebecca. 

What does a career path in design look like? Just about everyone had a different route that crossed disciplines and often cities. Ian Perkins currently works at Wieden + Kennedy London, but his CV reads like a Who’s Who of creative agencies. Most people would love to work at just one of BBH in London, Chermayeff & Geismar in NYC, Emery Frost Design in Sydney or BBH in Singapore/Tokyo. Out of all those people, who was his favourite boss? “Ivan Chermayeff or Tony Davidson. I feel like I had a good friendship and common understanding with them. We both generally agreed on what’s good and trust each other’s judgement.”

Fay Cuthbertson started working at the RSA Student Awards, did her degree at Saint Martins whilst working there part-time, freelanced, worked for The Sorrell Foundation, then Tiley Woodman and now works as a graphic designer for Word­­search, all based in London. Rebecca, on the other hand, started out near her home town in North Yorkshire before moving to London where she stayed for three years before moving to Brighton and now she lives in Newcastle.

One of the things I’ve learnt over ten years is that it’s OK to admit things aren’t great all the time. Everyone gets a bit down – it’s work after all. Whilst most people said they loved their job – “I wanted to be a designer when I was 13” and “I actually love what I do” – everyone had gripes. Fay Cuthbertson hates “getting a mock-up back with comments (literally) scribbled all over it, including one that said ‘colour too poncey’.”

Alison Hunt from Air Design gets fed up with being asked how long a job will take: “It’s just so hard to put a time limit on design.” Most people would agree with that one. Process, bureaucracy and meetings were the other pet hates as well as cowards: “Scared to risk, scared to fail, scared to be fired, scared to make a massive cock-up.” And that’s cowards as colleagues not just as clients.

They say it takes 10,000 hours or 10 years to become an expert at something, which isn’t long if you’re working an 80-hour week. So what advice would people give to someone who’s just started their first job? Some obvious and familiar stuff here, but you know – what works works. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, listen, make loads of notes, make yourself available to do anything, don’t get arsey if someone asks you to mount tonnes of work and, finally, know how everyone takes their tea.” Everyone in my studio will tell you I agree with the tea one. “Present solutions, not problems – nobody needs a whinger, the one who fixes things goes the furthest.” I found that quite refreshing.

Michael Russoff has won just about every award going as a creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. Amongst other things he’s one of the clever people behind those Honda ads. He thinks you should “be genuine. Don’t pretend. Forget what you know.” Interestingly he also says that “perfectionism will make your work better but it will hurt you and everyone around you. Go home sometimes, the answers aren’t found in offices.”

I don’t know about you but I always worry when people bang on about perfectionism. It’s just not very nice is it? A little compromise never hurt anyone. And his last point is very true. The answers aren’t found in offices. Doing anything for ten years throws up no end of embarrassing stories. This one was my favourite. “I found naked pictures of my manager saved on the system. She’d just turned 40 and was having a bit of a body image crisis. She’d asked a photo­grapher friend to take photos of her while she pretended to be asleep…. completely naked. Very odd. I still have no idea why they were saved on one of the Macs at work.”

I managed two and half years at that pharmaceutical ad agency before moving to a digital agency that went bust with the bubble. I seem to remember them saying they wanted to grow from 20 people to 200. In a year. Funny how that never happened. Then in 2001 I started The Design Conspiracy with four friends from university. Actually, I was a little surprised that no-one else I spoke to had started up on their own, but considering that everyone had followed a different path, perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

I’m starting to feel like Professor Robert Winston. After ten years everyone seemed to have found their niche and everyone enjoyed their job. Thirty-eight people graduated with me and now only ten of them have design-related careers, so, as Rebecca says, “be thankful you’ve been given the job, you’re one of the lucky ones. Enjoy it!” 

Ben Terrett is founding partner of The Design Conspiracy. He also writes the Noisy Decent Graphics blog. This piece appears in the July issue of CR

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