The Non-Linear Path to Designing Your Career

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For some, the career path to a professional designer is like a sketch for a logo that readily comes to life with little hiccups (aka client interruptions) or minimum alterations. Before you know it, what started as a plan denoted by pencil marks on a piece of paper is emblazoned on everything from soft cotton T-shirts to letterhead and banner ads. For others, even some of the greats—like two of PRINT’s Regional Design Awards’ judges—that journey to a career as a designer is wrought with a eraser smudge parks and crumpled pieces of paper that make way for something new, something better.

A non-linear career path to becoming a graphic designer is something encountered by many. For these two PRINT RDA judges, their studies started in different disciplines but were eventually drawn to their careers as designers. Although their stories are different, they are united by a found passion.

A Sudden Awakening and a New Career Path

You can see traces of Antonio Alcalá’s background when studying certain pieces of his work. Before owning his own studio, Studio A, he first graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in history. His work comes together like genetic material—his education in history and his own experiences combine to display deep understanding and appreciation in all of his projects.

Driven by a yearning to communicate with meaning, Alcalá understands the importance of research when bringing a project to life, especially for clients like the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute, National Geographic Society, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “My experience studying history influences my work all the time, but not in ways that are necessarily detectable in the final project,” Alcalá says.

There’s a thirst for knowledge that comes with each new project that fuels him. “I am never bored. I am constantly learning new things. And I enjoy helping to create work that adds to our cultural heritage,” Alcalá says. One of those projects, Harlem Heroes, is a book designed for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. By researching the topic on his own, Alcalá took a deep dive into the cultural life of African Americans in Harlem, which in turn influenced everything from typographic choices to photography. “These small additions, a result of reading and research skills, help enhance the content,” Alcalá says.

A career path to graphic design isn't always a linear one.

But why did this Yale graduate with a history degree choose to pursue a career path in design? “Design is enjoyable,” Alcalá answers very matter of factly. After graduating from college with that degree in history, he had no clear vision for what his future looked like. Many with a history degree either pursued graduate or law school, neither of which he found appealing.

Little did he know that a gift from his grandparents in high school—a calligraphy pen kit—would continue to draw out further interests leading to design. For some time, he set aside such artistic interests in pursuit of academics of a different stripe, but an off-campus calligraphy course his junior year of college beckoned him. Then, the instructor of a course in drawing and printmaking took note of Alcalá’s enthusiasm and work ethic, noting that he was definitely not destined to a career in fine art…but he did ask if Alcalá had heard of graphic design.

“By the end of the summer, I began to see the possibilities of other options besides history,” Alcalá says. He went on to Yale School of Art to earn an M.F.A. in graphic design and later opened Studio A in 1988. It’s safe to say that the rest is history.

Your Path is Your Story

Sam Eckersley, founding partner of RED Partners, first finished his undergrad in advertising and, at the time, imagined himself climbing the ladder at a large agency like Leo Burnett or Landor. He spent about four years working for a marketing firm on campaigns for corporate clients. “I wasn’t content, but felt stuck,” Eckersley recalls. Soon, through a friend, he started to attend different events that connected him to new worlds in the industry, like a talk by Spanish-American artist Victor Moscoso about psychedelic music posters of the 1960s. “His talk put a face behind work I’d always obsessed over but didn’t realize was a career option,” Eckersley says.

A career path to graphic design isn't always a linear one.

He knew where he wanted to be, but he didn’t quite know how to get there. “I remember coming across the book ‘Made You Look’ by Stefan Sagmeister. It had a huge impact on me. Eckersley then applied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City where Sagmeister taught. “I now had a clear direction, and it was simply about working hard to get there,” he says.

Looking back, Eckersley doesn’t see that time spent pursuing a different career path as wasted and doesn’t think others contemplating a change should either. Instead, embrace it and use it to your advantage to stand out in a crowded field. “I often find designers that come from other industries can offer unique perspectives. My advice to non-designers making the switch is to embrace aspects of what you’ve already learned and let it shape your approach and thought process,” Eckersley says.