Transitions: Moving Up and Making Time

Illustration by the author

My current title is senior designer—which means, in my case, that my job includes a mix of contact with clients, management of younger designers, and chunks of time when I listen to music and focus on perfecting my formal craft while the hours fly by. Over the next couple of years, I plan to transition from this role to that of an art director or a studio owner. And I’ll admit, I’m wary of what this transition will bring—in particular, I’m wary of the piles of paperwork, the huge increase in management time, and the daily flood of e-mails that will wash away my hours of focused design.

I know that the “making” doesn’t stop; it changes shape. And I know that I need to recalibrate what “making” will look like in preparation for my transition. So I decided to reach out to three respected studio owners to ask how this transition went for them, in hopes of gaining some clarity about the near future of my career.

Rick Valicenti, the founder and design director of Thirst, seems to have distilled his view on this subject to a Zen philosophy. He views the studio as an extension of himself. Just because he isn’t physically “making” at all times doesn’t mean that his studio stops thinking and doing in his absence.

“After three decades of running a studio, I have learned to delight in both the hands-on design and the design of esprit d’corps,” Valicenti says. “It’s all creative and it’s my life’s work.” I had to look up what espirit d’corps means, and the definition just underlined his point: consciousness of and pride in belonging to a particular group; the sense of shared purpose and fellowship.

When I posed my questions to Valicenti, I expected him to send me images of his beautiful black-and-white drip paintings and say that he finds solace in fine art as a way to continue making. But he didn’t. Rather, he told me that he delights in all parts of the process. I also asked how his hours have shifted to accommodate both sides, the making and the management time. “My first e-mail this morning was at 5:15,” he replied, “which is usually when I begin the administrative part of my work. It’s the only time my head is clear and I don’t wince at a mailbox full of correspondence.”

Jennifer Kinon, a partner at Original Champions of Design in New York, had a similar view, though expressed through a different lens.

“The transition from designer to studio owner is all about taking on increasingly more aspects of the design process,” Kinon says. “Great work doesn’t exist due to craft alone. Craft is inextricable from strategy and neither one can be hewn from relationship-building. Each part informs the whole. What’s scary to me is putting on the headphones, zoning out, and losing that context.”

I really responded to this understanding of management time through the lens of craft. It helps lay a solid foundation on which formal execution can be built, just like an in-depth research and discovery process. As for Kinon’s working hours, she humorously quipped they’ve always been “all.”

Isaac Gertman has found an alternative method of resolving the management/design time dilemma. He  joined his partner, Laureen Moyal, at Paperwhite Studio in New York. There, Moyal took on more of the client management duties, and Gertman was free to engage more fully in the actual design of the projects, which he enjoys more.

So for the readers of Imprint who work as art directors and studio managers: I’d love to hear how you handled similar transitions at this juncture in your careers. What made it easier or harder? How have your hours shifted to accommodate your new roles?

I suppose, in a way, the transition is similar to becoming a new parent. Added responsibilities mean that you have to expand your day to accommodate what you once loved to do by yourself. But you do it with joy. (Even if it may mean forcing yourself to become a morning person.)

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Jeshurun Webb is a graphic designer and illustrator currently working from Boston as a senior designer at Korn Design. She can be found furiously brainstorming visual strategies for clients ranging from restaurants to nonprofits. Webb received an MFA in graphic design from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2010. View her work at Formletter.org and follow her @jeshurundesigns.

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For more on moving up the design career ladder, see Careers by Design: A Business Guide for Graphic Designers and The Designer’s Guide to Business and Careers.