What is it that I do again?

While specialising in one field of design may one day make you an expert, it can close off a world of creative opportunity

No. I can see what’s about to be asked and no, I don’t want to answer it. I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t know you, and you can’t make me answer it. No no no.

“What do you do?”

Can I get out of this somehow? Perhaps I could distract her and sidle away to the buffet. I saw mini-quiches. You can’t very well interrogate a complete stranger at a wedding reception when they’ve got a mouthful of mini-quiche. That would just ruin the day for everyone. The only socially acceptable thing to ask in that situation would be “ooh where did you get that mini-quiche?”, to which I would mumble a reply and wave my hand in the general direction of the quiche-source and everyone would be happy and nobody would have to explain what it is they…

“I’m a designer.”

Oh well that’s just perfect. Whilst I was merrily distracted by savoury thoughts, my mouth went ahead without me and answered the unwelcome question. So now it’s out there. Of course, that’s just phase one of the polite chit-chat interrogation. Phase one isn’t so bad. It’s what follows that makes me squirmy.

I can see the information being processed in her rapidly glazing-over eyes. Bless him, they’re saying, he’s got some Wayfarers and a knock-off copy of Photoshop Elements and he thinks he’s a designer. Before those eyes have time to roll, here comes phase two:

“So what do you design?”

Now this is the big question. What the heck do I design? Why am I never prepared for this? Why don’t I have a stock answer for this? How hard can it be to tell people what I do?

Here’s the problem: coming from a background of in-house designery at Quango Unchained, long ago I became accustomed to life as a Jack of all trades. Posters, books, websites, branding, magazines, adverts – every day I’d be designing a bit of everything. And that’s how I’ve continued. It’s all under the big design umbrella, and lessons learned in one area are undoubtedly invaluable and beneficial to another.

But the further I wander into this freelance life, the more I worry that I should attempt to be a master of something. By clinging onto all trades, am I just being greedy and leaving myself professionally diffuse, unmarketable?

Recently, I’ve found myself working on a lot of book covers – a particular line of work I love. So should that be the path to take? The more I sell myself specifically as a cover designer, the more covers I’d design, and the more expertise in designing covers I’d gain, right? It’d give my portfolio a bit of clarity, get me known as that guy who does that thing. I could sell myself and my services, easily and non-squirmily. In theory, the work would snowball.
And of course it’d be useful when hobnobbing at wedding receptions. I could counter career scrutiny by simply reeling off the literary classics I’d wrapped in my designy goodness. Maybe I could hand them out to all the guests – I bet Chip Kidd is forever turning up at nuptials with boxes of Jurassic Park. He has that look about him.

I’m aware that I’m nodding to myself and stroking my chin as this wonderment circles my brain. And the question is still just hanging there: what do you design? It’s become awkward. After such a massive pause for thought, anything short of “flying cathedrals” or “the terrifying future of mankind” is going to be a bit of a disappointment. But okay, I’d better give an answer.

“Stuff.”

Okay, so apparently my idiot mouth is not completely sold on the idea of specialising. Good to know.

I suppose it has a point – I’d probably get frustrated only having book covers on the go. Even Mr Kidd branches out from time to time and works on non-bookular projects. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot and stifle myself with a pigeonhole (a situation that, quite frankly, sounds horrific).

Although the grass over there is a touch greener, I often take it for granted how liberating being a Jack of all trades is. Having fingers in pies did my imaginary friends Charles and Ray no harm – maybe I should continue following their lead and stop obsessing with how marketable I am on paper, and actually do some work on paper.

And here I am. Still nodding to myself. Now standing completely alone. Someone walks by with the last of the mini-quiches. Bum.

Daniel Benneworth Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray

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