Design, Writing

Bread-and-butter work can make or break a designer

Think of this as a primer for the novice designer and a call back to arms for the experienced art director.

For those of you unfamiliar with design work, there are different chunks to be done. There is the high-level thinking where you come up with ideas, there is sketching where you develop your ideas visually, and finally there is production, where most of the thinking has already been done and all you do is implement the design. In general, production is viewed as the least challenging from a design point of view, and it usually falls upon the lower-level employees to complete it. For the most part, I call the routine, lower-level stuff bread-and-butter work as it puts a lot of food on the table.

I used to work in a small agency where I handled all of the interaction design. Occasionally, I had access to interns who could do the grunt work for me, and certainly, these were respites from the crush of jobs. I started to think that perhaps I needed to find a position where I would never be asked to perform the less glamorous tasks, where I would only be given the high-end design ideation. I thought about it, though–basically, the grunt work is what taught me whole swaths of my marketable skills, so I need it to continue growing as a designer.

The work may be rote, but you can use it as an opportunity to grow.

I remember my first real design job, at Agency.com. I knew next to nothing about design, but I was young, eager, and willing to learn. I was immediately given gobs of production work to perform: re-coloring buttons, applying templates, and archiving old files. I soaked it all up and learned at an exponential rate. Wax on, wax off! These little repeated gestures eventually teach us steps to entire dances! I still use production work as an opportunity to master new skills. Also, I have had to learn that the job of graphic designer can’t be all bubbles and puppies. It entails loads of hard, repetitive tasks. Even this far into my career, I have to be willing to do the grunt work.

If you lose touch with the overall process, you risk losing touch with the work entirely.

Nothing within the process of design should be below you. You can’t afford that kind of snobbery. Take interaction design, for instance: things change constantly, technology advances, styles age and wither. I have never been able to claim programming as being a huge skill, but I dabble as much as I possibly can because it informs my design intimately. I try to build at least some of the sites I design because it teaches me what is possible and what is to be avoided. Programming is not grunt work by any means, but there is an intersection between programming and design where all there is to do is production. If I do not stay informed about what is new with HTML, CSS, and Javascript, I lose touch with what I can do with my design. If I don’t learn how programmers implement my designs, I am going into projects blind. I will make bad decisions that will cost my client and eventually myself. The same applies to every type of design, be it print, installation or screen.

You have to establish your own level of excellence, and that should become your everyday standard.

No matter how small the gig, every client deserves my very best work. Now that I am a freelancer, I am responsible for every step of the design process. I have never grown so much as a designer as I have since leaving the office-jockey life. I have had to teach myself how to do everything better than I ever did before because it’s my reputation on the line. I wish I could say I held myself as strictly to an ideal of excellence when I was an employee, but it’s simply not true. I worked very hard, but if I didn’t agree with the art direction, I could let things slide. I had a little maturing to do, obviously… So all I can say is I now have a base-line standard, and it is higher than I ever knew I could maintain.

I cross all my t’s and dot all my i’s because I love what I do. Or maybe I love what I do because I craft each detail as carefully as I can. I don’t know, but whatever, it’s working.

Filed under: Design, Writing

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Libby Clarke is an artist, designer, and educator living in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BFA in Printmaking from James Madison University and her MFA in 2D Design from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Professionally, Libby has worked as an interaction art director for over 12 years for such companies as Agency.com and Scholastic.com. Currently, she serves as an Assistant Professor at the New York College of Technology in Brooklyn, New York. As an artist, Libby has produced a series of multi-media conceptual products under the name Monstress Productions since 1996. She gives workshops and lectures across the United States on the intersection of art, activism, and technology, and her pieces are exhibited and collected internationally.