The joys of being a multidisciplinarian

If you’re ever stuck in a design rut, remember that working in this profession gives you a chance to do, well, anything, says Daniel Benneworth-Gray

It wasn’t always like this. I used to input data.

This was one of those temp positions you land in after falling from the back end of university; a means to pay the rent while you figure out the least resistant path to world domination. It was administrative work of little consequence, and even less pay. The only remarkable thing about this job was quite how little job it involved.

A full and detailed list of my responsibilities: grab invoice from pile one, tap-tap-tap numbers into computer, place invoice onto pile two. That was it, that was my day. Over and over and over.

I didn’t have to use my initiative or come up with any ideas. I barely had to move: my hand hovered over the keyboard’s number-pad, poised to do a little scuttling-facehugger motion every now and then. And no matter how much effort I put into it, neither pile of invoices seemed to change all that much. There was always more. It was thankless and unending.

I did what I could to find mental stimulation. In order to stay sane, I’d obsessively harvest the fluffy-crumby detritus from my keyboard using a straightened paperclip. Sometimes I’d incorporate some jazzy Gene Krupa percussiveness into my typing, paradiddling my way through the data. If really desperate, I’d strike up a conversation with one of my dead-eyed and chirpily-racist colleagues. That was always a treat.

I survived it, I moved on. It was a long time ago. Years have passed and that heap of data is somebody else’s problem now – it’s their turn to wrestle with sanity. One day I may serialise this beige period of my life in a thrilling comic, Cheap Suit Sisyphus Versus The Minimum Wage Ennui Piles.

I’ve got more important things to do first though. So many things. There are some books that need to be turned into books, and I’m getting a little bit overwhelmed by the multitude of little tasks ahead of me. Editing and sourcing and enquiring and amending and sending and typesetting and tweaking and chopping. I’m vibrating and confused. Deadlines are hurtling towards me and I’m mostly coffee. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

But in the middle of it all, there is a moment for pause, for reflection. The calm eye of the storm. And nothing puts all of this neat chaos into perspective quite like recalling the tedious past, those days of data-shovelling. I could be doing that, not this. And then I remember: oh yeah, this is awesome.

Too often I take it for granted: somehow I’ve found myself in a profession that demands and rewards variety. I don’t sit at a desk for hours on end, doing the same mindless task – in fact, some days I don’t go anywhere near a desk! I’m on the floor, chopping up magazines, or in the library, pretending to be Morgan Freeman in Seven. When I get the chance, I take the camera for a walk, or camp out in a coffee shop somewhere to sketch ideas.

It’s not possible to get bored with any one activity, as it will be swiftly followed by something completely different. Even the paperwork (yes, I still have to input data from time to time) makes for a refreshing change of pace, but it’s in the actual act of design that I really get to juggle different ways of thinking.

One of the joys of this job is that it’s a license to play, to sneak into the forbidden gaps between arts and steal fire from the illustrators and the photographers and the writers. Design isn’t a discipline in itself, rather it’s an amorphous amalgam of others. Every designer’s particular blend of multidisciplinitude is subtly different, flavoured by skills and tools and interests picked up over the years. The trick is to know what to pull out of the hat and when. It’s not that I think of myself as a Renaissance man or polymath – it’s more about experimentation than mastery. I’m an expert in nothing more than the fine art of dabbling. Every project is an opportunity to do things completely differently.

Being a bit overwhelmed by your work is a good thing, certainly better than the alternative. Drudgery be damned, I’m a designer! This is the antithesis of that dreadful grey job I crumpled into all those years ago. I used to do nothing. Now I do anything … except for the keyboard-paperclip thing, that is. Because eeewww.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York,

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