An Open Letter to Graphic Design Students: Don't Follow the Web, Follow Your Heart

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Dear Student:

As a new school year is upon you, you’re probably entering your junior or senior year at a design college somewhere. You’ve talked with your peers, consulted your advisors and finally picked the right design classes for yourself. Some of you may have recently graduated and are currently looking for a job. Either way, this is a pivotal time for you, and lots of questions and concerns are probably rolling around in your head: money, bills, getting a good job, doing work you’re proud of and, perhaps most importantly, figuring out what part of the industry you belong in. And design schools like my alma mater, the School of Visual Arts, are constantly staying up to speed with the trends and needs of the industry in order to prepare you for the world that awaits.

Lately, there has been an onslaught of graphic designers who have expressed their thoughts on where the industry is heading. Many feel that we need to learn how to design for the web. It has been discussed here by Patric King, eloquently written here by Frank Chimero, and powerfully stated here by Ben Pieratt. They’re encouraging us, and rightfully so, to transform our current skills and services in ways that will undoubtedly be more beneficial as the industry continues to evolve towards the web.

thoughts

As someone who’s had a hand in design, branding, three-dimensional experiences, and advertising in a short period of time since graduating, I realize the web is something I haven’t touched very much of. Not because I haven’t wanted to, but because I’ve been busy—outside of my day job—working on my steeze in other areas of interest, such as quasi-illustration and writing. As August Heffner recently mentioned, I’ve learned a lot by working with my hands, and I get satisfaction in being able to do so. And as I am currently preparing myself for a couple interactive projects, and finishing my new portfolio site (HTML with elements of HTML 5 and CSS to implement some of the more responsive features) with these awesome people, I want to highlight the other side of the coin that isn’t being heard as much.

While it’s important that you consider your work in a web-based context, it’s also important to know that there are young, successful designers out there who are holding on to the guts of graphic design—far away from coding, being a web ‘nerd’, pimping on Twitter, or building a career that just involves talking and writing about a bunch of stuff. I’m speaking about the young designers who are consistently creating hand-made or illustrative imagery that is memorable, iconic, and fearless.

When I was a kid, I was proud to have bruises and scars on my body after playing outside. Having bruises and scars meant I was having fun. It seems so many designers forgot how to get dirty, mechanically following the fear that’s being pumped into the industry, and abandoning the fundamental desire to make tangible, satisfying work. The fear that tells me to design for the web—or rather, the feeling I have inside that tells me I’m an idiot to miss out on this immeasurable opportunity of unlimited resources—is nothing but a ploy to keep me away from doing something I may really want to do.

speak and love

American mythologist and writer, Joseph Campbell, talked a lot about the idea of “following your bliss.” He tells a story of a family sitting next to him in a restaurant one day. The father was upset that his little boy wouldn’t eat all his dinner. The boy’s mother says to the father, “Just let him do what he wants.” The father, greatly annoyed at this, responds back, “If he does what he wants then he’ll get the wrong idea, and he’ll never understand. I’ve never done anything I truly wanted to do in my life!”

Too many of us are desperately focusing on pushing code and pixels, simply doing what others have suggested, never finding our own voice, forgetting why we set out on this journey in the first place. Do you remember why you entered the design field? What your dreams were? Can you remember the first life drawing class you had? Do you remember the first lecture you went to? The sensations? The butterflies? I would imagine that it had nothing to do with the web.

art

All you need to do is pick up a New York Times, or a book jacket, and you’ll see the conviction of young designers like Matt Dorfman and Chris Brand. All you have to do is check out the work of Paulina Reyes, Friends of Type, or Elle Kim to find young designers who seem to have their heads down, steadily pounding out bold, hand-made imagery. I’m envious of and inspired by their tenacity and humbleness.

If you’re passionate about something and you work extremely hard to do it well, there will always be a place for you and your talent in whatever realm of design you’re in. Don’t believe the hype. The time you’re spending frantically learning web tutorials, or trying to come up with grand interactive ideas, could be time spent learning how to draw better, or learning how to write better. We definitely need more young graphic designers who are working on building a unique and articulate voice within the industry. And even more so, we need articulate young designers to be actively doing great work, too.

It’s very important to recognize the capacity of this arena; hone your craft, but don’t ignore the possibilities of the web. Ben Barry is a good example of a young designer at the cross-section of both the interactive world and the world of craft. Designing for the web is a huge part of where the industry is heading, and I’m personally excited about it. However, don’t forget that the work you ought to be doing is the work you should be doing. If you think that you should be designing for the web, then you will undoubtedly make that happen and that’s a wonderful thing. But, it’s not the same story for everyone, and it certainly isn’t a blanket recipe for success in this industry.

As you enter this profession, nervously trying to get a job under the pressure of the industry, please do not defeat that small voice inside that may be telling you something. And in this age of the web, it’s more important than ever that we celebrate those young designers who are making electric imagery with their hands, for clients, in the name of graphic design.

With luck,
Tim
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39 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Graphic Design Students: Don't Follow the Web, Follow Your Heart

  1. Mike1

    since its initial idea – which interestingly grew from the sanctum of founder stefan siegel’s shoreditch kitchen walls into a working databa-se of over 6,000 designers spread across 88 countries – the dedicated designer platform has certainly done what it says on the tin. a globalhowroom where trend scouts, fashion insiders and stylists are able to source talent, it isn’t just an online shop, it’s a veritable fashion spring-board, saturater with the ideas of tomorrow’s designers, and eagerly digested in the process too. ladiva attractive layering of colorlessenjoy! cody colorless casual style is so attractive. seemed to rock seemed unvarnished. we’ll tiresome colorless chic the field is variegatwith all kinds of flowering plants. and she worked a skirt and blouse since its initial idea which interestingly grew from the sanctum of ounderstefan siegel’s shoreditch kitchen walls into a working database of over 6,000 designers spread across 88 countries – the dedicated designerplatform has certainly done what it says on the tin. a global showroom where trend scouts, fashion insiders and stylists are able to source talent,it isn’t just an online shop, it’s a veritable fashion spring-board, saturated with the ideas of tomorrow’s designers, and eagerly digested in theprocess too. ladiva attractive layering of colorless enjoy! cody colorless casual style is so attractive. seemed to rock seemed unvar-nished.we’ll tiresome colorless chic the field is variegated with all kinds of flowering plants. and she worked a skirt and blouse

  2. Mike

    since its initial idea – which interestingly grew from the sanctum of founder stefan siegel’s shoreditch kitchen walls into a working databa-se of over 6,000 designers spread across 88 countries – the dedicated designer platform has certainly done what it says on the tin. a globalhowroom where trend scouts, fashion insiders and stylists are able to source talent, it isn’t just an online shop, it’s a veritable fashion spring-board, saturater with the ideas of tomorrow’s designers, and eagerly digested in the process too. ladiva attractive layering of colorlessenjoy! cody colorless casual style is so attractive. seemed to rock seemed unvarnished. we’ll tiresome colorless chic the field is variegatwith all kinds of flowering plants. and she worked a skirt and blouse since its initial idea which interestingly grew from the sanctum of ounderstefan siegel’s shoreditch kitchen walls into a working database of over 6,000 designers spread across 88 countries – the dedicated designerplatform has certainly done what it says on the tin. a global showroom where trend scouts, fashion insiders and stylists are able to source talent,it isn’t just an online shop, it’s a veritable fashion spring-board, saturated with the ideas of tomorrow’s designers, and eagerly digested in theprocess too. ladiva attractive layering of colorless enjoy! cody colorless casual style is so attractive. seemed to rock seemed unvar-nished.we’ll tiresome colorless chic the field is variegated with all kinds of flowering plants. and she worked a skirt and blouse

  3. Mike

    since its initial idea – which interestingly grew from the sanctum of founder stefan siegel’s shoreditch kitchen walls into a working databa -se of over 6,000 designers spread across 88 countries – the dedicated designer platform has certainly done what it says on the tin. a globalhowroom where trend scouts, fashion insiders and stylists are able to source talent, it isn’t just an online shop, it’s a veritable fashion spring- board, saturater with the ideas of tomorrow’s designers, and eagerly digested in the process too. ladiva attractive layering of colorlessenjoy! cody colorless casual style is so attractive. seemed to rock seemed unvarnished. we’ll tiresome colorless chic the field is variegat with all kinds of flowering plants. and she worked a skirt and blouse since its initial idea which interestingly grew from the sanctum of ounderstefan siegel’s shoreditch kitchen walls into a working database of over 6,000 designers spread across 88 countries – the dedicated designer platform has certainly done what it says on the tin. a global showroom where trend scouts, fashion insiders and stylists are able to source talent,it isn’t just an online shop, it’s a veritable fashion spring-board, saturated with the ideas of tomorrow’s designers, and eagerly digested in the process too. ladiva attractive layering of colorless enjoy! cody colorless casual style is so attractive. seemed to rock seemed unvar-nished. we’ll tiresome colorless chic the field is variegated with all kinds of flowering plants. and she worked a skirt and blouse

  4. Mike

    I know it is pretty unrealistic to actually find a candidate that can do all of this but, nowadays, virtually every design job listed not only requires all the type, color, and design experience of yesteryear, plus all the usual CS Adobe and list of programs, but also requires applicants know a lot about web programing and the many backend and technical aspects of it.
    Except for a small group of technically minded design students at most design programs, a lot of talented design majors don’t get into design to be web or app programers. Like 30 years ago, most stiudents did not get into mixing printing inks and understanding the paper market for commercial printing. That stuff was found in the graphic arts and printing departments at places like RIT and CalState SLO. Graphic designers needed to know it but only so that they could know the limits of the great printers they work with. Not to be the printer.
    I agree, first comes passion and being a designer irrespective of where and how your good design work appears. But, and I say this with some sadness, at least right now, designers need to also be geeks.
    Be the geek to stay in the game but fight for good design!

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  6. Pablo

    But really, there’s actually not a lot of work left, in graphic design itself:

    We have become accustomed to prospering by catering for the insatiable appetite for consumption that has characterized the last few decades. But what if there is a fundamental change in the way people think about consumption? And what if huge numbers of people are going to learn to live with reduced spending power? This is not mere speculation; there are signs that this process is already underway. 
    […]
    It appears that we are entering a “post-graphic design” era: a time when pretty much anyone can make graphic design, and when, in a networked and “template-for-everything” world, communication can be had more cheaply and more easily than at any time in history. In the post-graphic design era, the demand and need for routine graphic design skills will inevitably diminish. 
    […]
    No one knows how designers will earn a living in the coming decades, but the most likely outcome is that for many people, design skills will become the equivalent of owning a driver’s licence: lots of people drive, but very few earn a living from just driving – they drive to do other things. In the long-term, I can see design skills becoming a license – a passport – to do other things. But in the immediate future, survival will depend on adaptability. And as the Darwinians tell us, adaptability is the key to survival. 

    see: http://observatory.designobserver.com/feature/when-less-really-does-mean-less/32738/

  7. Dawn Shepard

    Thank you so much for this! I hear the fear by other designer and the like when I say I’m a print designer. Everyone seems to be in a panic to jump into web design. I’m an advoate for following your heart and finding the way to make it all work. The irony of my life now is that I design, what would have been printed items before like, ebooks, catalogs and infographics that now are for the web. I still need all those skills I learned from design to create them, they just live somewhere else now. 
    I’m amazed at how much I see on the web that was created in real life and then photographed. We are humans and we realate to a human world of dirt and dust.
    Plus there is no denying what getting dirty does for the mind. I think we all like to DIY on some level and it is healing to our souls to do so.

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  12. Tim Belonax

    “We definitely need more young graphic designers who are working on building a unique and articulate voice …”Tim, this is a great quote that I wish was the larger crux of your argument. What I read this as championing is the commitment of young designers to their own “graphic” voice in spite of the temptation or worry over more fruitful digital pursuits (or others). I would like to add that these youngsters need a health dose of context (ie: design and world history) and theory (why are you doing what you’re doing?!) … not if they want to be successful, but if we, the design community, want a better, more informed design future.
    The championing of craft over digital or “following your bliss” isn’t a new provocation afterall, but it may be a necessary reminder. Christopher Simmons (my former creative director) gave a well-positioned presentation at this year’s compostmodern in San Francisco that I believe parallels your position.
    Give it a watch here:http://vimeo.com/20653511

  13. David Ramos

    Yes: do listen for that small voice, please. It would be a shame to let fear herd around our careers and our profession.
    The medium won’t save you, though. I’ll wager that most of the interactive work that students learn to do is lukewarm, a grand shame, but the design world is awash in tepid letterpress and slipshod illustration too. The fault, in all of these cases, is the same: someone’s mistaken the medium for the method. There’s an opportunity for grace in anything. 

  14. Stacy

    Thanks Timothy, I have been going through a crisis with the job market and design and my friend sent me this article just in time.
    I don’t think anyone is saying here that print is better than web… though I suppose we tend to think what we love and are doing is better than what others are doing…
    I’m mostly a self taught designer.  I fell in love with the tactile aspect of design, the smell of ink on new paper.  But I’ve also refreshed a website I’ve designed 100s of times just to see the difference one letter can make.  What worries me and frustrates me are employers posting jobs for “graphic designers” and expecting you to know HTML, CSS, and every acronym not reserved for the business world.  
    Just because I know how to set type should not mean I know how to update the front page of a website.  And that is what is happening.  Since no one else is going to do it, I think it is the designer’s job to educate the client that print is print and web is web.  You can’t glob every type of work done on a computer outside of word documents together and expect graphic designers to know what to do (or “figure it out.”) Unforuntately, the job market and scarcity of work is allowing employers to ask the moon of designers for not any more money.
    I hope for a time when the public is more educated about this topic, or when the importance of print regains an importance than is currently being given to web.  Meanwhile, it’s comforting to know there’s still a place for those of us who like to design on paper!

  15. Caitlin from Silverscape

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    Is there really that much pressure on design students to succumb to the world of web design? It possible to believe there is a world where designers of online experiences, could perhaps be happy with the challenges of concept, layout and typography? Perhaps someone should get Student Counseling services involved? 

  16. hstryk

    “The sensations? The butterflies? I would imagine that it had nothing to do with the web.”
    Actually they did. I remember designing my first website in high school, teaching myself HTML and feeling absolutely giddy every time I refreshed the page and saw my ideas coming together, instantly. While I still love working hands-on and have been balancing my work online with what I call hands-on design or art, I am frankly getting fed up with the clear distinction between print designers and web designers.
    I agree that any designer should follow their heart. Some people just love print, others web. But I’ve noticed the opposite from you. The majority of articles I’ve come across lately as well as discussions with fellow designers seem to convey that web designers aren’t considered “real” designers. There’s been this fetishization over print, that it is somehow superior. (And yes, I realize this is a blog of PRINT Magazine) The Adobe Muse ad campaign is full of this sort of mentality. Sentiments of “Finally a web program for print designers” “Don’t let code get in the way of your creativity”.
    I understand as I’ve designed for both, how different it can be designing for one or the other. But in the end, web designers and print designers are both DESIGNERS. I’ve never been one to choose one medium over the other, I feel every medium has its benefits and its limitations. While I think your article has some good points… it left me sort of disappointed. Again, another article further separating print designers from web designers.
    “…far away from coding, being a web ‘nerd’, pimping on Twitter, or building a career that just involves talking and writing about a bunch of stuff. I’m speaking about the young designers who are consistently creating hand-made or illustrative imagery that is memorable, iconic, and fearless.” Why is “web nerd” (and the other pajorative associations with web designers) separated from terms like “memorable, iconic, and fearless”? These worlds can merge, can they can influence each other. Some paths aren’t as clearly divided, and though your article may be great for a target audience of those only interested in print design, who don’t want to move to web – it seems to only further the divide between mediums and again hold print designers over web designers.

  17. curtis

    Thank you for the <a href=”http://www.ccwest.com”>graphic design article.</a>   I always believe in  the old wisdom “Strive for excellence and success will follow” in every thing that you do. This is just the article i needed. Also check out <a href=”http://www.ccwest.com”>Graphic Designs here.</a>  btw, i’ve bookmarked and shared the article. Thanks

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  19. Tina Quinto

    Design is about communicating ideas, and there are so many different mediums available. I recommend to try as many new things as possible in school. Make up your own mind about where your passions will take you, and look at all your interests to guide you in your career. My career path has not been driven by a specific type of design, but by my passion for social causes. By being willing to learn new skills (including designing for the web), I’ve been able be do what I love & stay employed in a difficult market.
     

  20. Timothy Taussig

    Thank you for expressing in part what I have been feeling and observing for a while now, a loss of “craft” and the here today, forgotten tomorrow design. I’ve been in this field for some 39 years and evolved into the digital world, yet maintaining a connection to the hands-on as much as possible. My day job is mostly digital, but I maintain my sanity with oil paintings, photography, and drawing after hours. I bring those after hours experiences with me to work everyday conscientiously and unconscientiously.

  21. Marc Rabinowitz

    @ Timothy GoodmanIn agreement with everything you mention to younger designers; probably a much larger discussion than one article with a string of comments can handle, but younger designers need to ALSO manage their expectations. Certain ‘traditional’ design skills are still necessary but no longer sufficient for certain areas of graphic design. If they love illustration but want work with a paycheck every 2 weeks, they’re going to have to be tenacious in figuring out how to make that happen. The number of those available jobs are not in proportion to the number of designers graduating each year. And while the web is like good typography or music in that you dont have to understand the language to appreciate their beauty, at some point these designers will probably be working with the web/other designers and they do need to have a decent understanding of a communication medium that is increasingly becoming a part of people’s lives, in order to design effectively.     @ David CrawfordWhile I totally agree with your distinction between feel good design and necessary communication, another level should be introduced between those two. Once a good designer has distilled what is necessary, it is their job to make the act of ingesting it as pleasurable as possible, no? Not just to convey information, but to truly communicate it. It’s the difference between drawing (rendering what is in front of you) vs. illustrating (illuminating what is not readily visible), between merely existing and truly being alive. Marty Neumeier rightly says (in his excellent books—students: READ THEM!) that we are “information rich and time poor”. I think that if you respect your audience, you’ll attempt to elevate “necessary communication” into more pleasurable, welcomed, delightful communication. (This is where I hear you saying: “as often as time and budget allows!” YES. BUILD it into your budget).Thoreau said it once/best, so I’ll just quote him:”We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”Younger (read: ALL) designers need to understand what is important to them, what they consider urgent. This is what they’ll be able to communicate most effectively and energetically in whatever medium they choose.

  22. Bronson

    Tim,
    Your sentiment is certainly aimed correctly. I do think, though, it comes too close to being anti-technology, which will get you nowhere in any discussion about the future. The future of design is not in any single output; it is in loving it and the masses who use/see/touch it. Designing for the web is just one thing you can do. Of course, the practical side to this is making a living. As you mentioned, there are many niches the designer can carve. But, I see too many job offers that limit a design to techy outputs. So, as much as it is an an internal debate, it is also one that needs to be taken to market. Best.

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  24. Alessandro Bertolucci

    Thank you, I needed to read this.
    I’m an old hat – graduating in industrial and graphic design shortly after “the big push” of digital media in the mid-to-late 90′s, the web was young and design was still much about craft.  I was involved in the early days of web design, but left to pursue a career in packaging and industrial design, then marketing and advertising.
    Now I find myself at a cross-roads, recently unemployed with skills that seem antiquated by comparison, frozen by options and questions around returning to freelancing with all the advances in web design, print design, 3D CAD, video, ruby, java, seo – et cetera.
    Your article has reassured me that I made the right choices in doing what I did at the time – just like recently seeing products I designed nearly a decade ago still on the shelves and being produced – and that I will continue to move forward – be it as a freelancer or returning to a position where I can help create meaningful design and products.

  25. David Crawford

    In the field of design, as with anything in life, balance is the key. All designers should employ various techniques and mediums to gain knowledge on how better to develop and communicate ideas. Totally agree. However, It seems that this article implies that we’re just entering the web medium (i.e. “Designing for the web is a huge part of where the industry is heading, and I’m personally excited about it.”) The industry is not in the process of moving towards the web, we’re already there and have been for sometime. 
    I believe that there is also a division between design as art and design as communications. As a designer, we push ourselves to make even the most marketing heavy project something that we should make amazing. This is an unneeded stress and an undesired objective from the view point of most clients. We need to be able to separate artistic “feel good” design from necessary communications.
    In the end this article simply says, “do what you love.” And that is a good message. But, let’s not ignore the web and speak of it as a place in the future. It’s now, it’s here and you will need to understand it to excel as a well rounded communications professional. 

  26. Eric

    Which is why I decided to take some risk and setup my own design agency, despite the stiff competition and the big bros out there.. 
    Seeing my works in my clients’ hands and ultimately projected out to the public is one of the best things I can reward myself with – accomplishment :)
     

  27. Armando M.

    Great letter Tim, a part of me needed to read this. I’m a young upcoming designer in my early 20s and I’m pretty good with designing web related stuff, but I love doing graphic design and creating logos, type, projects, etc. I create all of this on a computer screen for endless hours, is my passion. But I also love the feeling of seeing my work printed out on a piece of paper or other mediums, is like art. Being able to actually touch your work and give it shape even after you have it on a piece of paper.
    As far as the industry seems to be headed towards the web, there will always be a need for creative individuals whose creative work isn’t limited to web design. I’m not discrediting web designers, even as a Freelancer I believe in stay up to date with the latest tools to remain relevant in such a competetive industry. I seen web design that has left me speechless and amazed because of how good and technical they were. Without a doubt a lot of the graphic design money will be in the web. But like all great things, classic well done graphic design will be always be around like a fine wine. 
     

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  29. Patric King

    thank you, timothy. the reason i responded is that your article makes an association between from “working on the web” to “working in service,” and kind of makes it look like you think that’s what everyone’s saying.
     
    production skill as a career move is absolutely not my goal. the opposite, actually. every time i’ve learned a new way of thinking towards an ed goal, it’s opened up a new avenue of artful thinking that feeds directly back into the visual design i create.

  30. Timothy Goodman Post author

     

    RE: Patrick. I know you’re not just saying that, but it’s easy for young design students to read that and feel that there are no other ways to be successful in the future. I love what you and the others have to say about the web, actually. My intent was not to provoke you, yet to offer a bit solace for those students who might feel confused, making decisions based on fear. 

     

  31. spudart

    Totally. As a 35-year-old designer of the web, I’m now taking an encaustic painting class to get my hands dirty and get into a hands-on medium. Smelling the wax, pouring it. Carving it. Getting the real tactile sensory experience.

  32. Patric King

    correction: i am not just saying that designers need to get to work on the web, and certainly not just in service. none of the authors you linked to say that. i am a loud advocate that designers learn to work with other technologies of any sort—from processing, to 3D, to the web, to typography—because learning another method of work changes how you formulate ideas, and makes you a better artist.
     
    your goals and those belonging to those of us howling that designers need to learn to work with other technologies are exactly the same. nobody’s saying to get online so that you can get more production work. everyone’s saying to learn the language so you can learn to create work in another way.

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