Graphic Design: Hobby or Career?

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It has been my experience, as I have connected with other designers [via twitter or other means], that there are a lot of designers out there who seem very involved in the design community but actually have little to no real experience in design. This raised two questions for me (which are addressed is this post):

1. Are most designers I communicate with online avid “Hobbyists” or practicing “Professionals”.

2. Which is more desirable when it comes to graphic design: to be a passionate “Hobbyist” or experienced “Professional”? and where is that line drawn?

Help me answer the above questions
by leaving your comments on this post.

Two distinct designers

The Hobbyist
“I consider myself a freelance graphic designer. I take odd jobs when they come my way but most of my work comes from myself.  I like to submit really cool or funny ideas that I have to places like LogoPond.com and see what people think. I haven’t had any formal education in design and I already have a full-time job so I don’t have as much time to design as I would like, but I like to doodle and make cool things in Photoshop when I have some extra free-time. A lot of my free time is also spent blogging or tweeting about design. I’m all about making cool things and being creative.”



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The Professional
“I consider myself a professional designer because I have gained a formal education in the matter and now work full-time designing things exclusively for big clients.  For me, design is simply a problem-solving process. If I submit a series of logos to a client, for example, I generally let the client make whatever changes they want because, when it comes down to it, design is just a business and ‘the customer is always right’. I’m all about making money and solving problems.”


The good

The Hobbyist

  • “I like to doodle and make cool things in Photoshop when I have some extra free-time”
    The hobbyist is always striving to learn and grow because he understands there is always something more to learn in the world of graphic design.
  • “…my free time is also spent blogging or tweeting about design.”
    The hobbyist likes to stay up-to-date and connects with other hobbyists and professionals in the design community.
  • “I’m all about … being creative.
    The hobbyist understands the importance of being creative when designing for others and therefore, his work is always very original and exciting.

The Professional

  • “…[I] work full-time designing things.”
    The professional understands that there are few things in the world that can compensate for full-time experience in any discipline- this includes graphic design.
  • “…design is … a business”
    The professional understands that design is not only a great outlet and creative activity but it is also a business. If he isn’t making a profit, he is doing something wrong.
  • “I’m all about … solving problems.”
    The professional understands that graphic design that does not solve a problem, is simply art. Real graphic design solves problems for a client and helps achieve a specific goal.

The bad

The Hobbyist

  • “…most of my work comes from myself.”
    The hobbyist lacks the important experience of establishing a relationship with a client. His designs are almost too perfect because he has no one overseeing the project with him. Therefore, he encounters few to no obstacles when designing.
  • “I like to submit really cool or funny ideas that I have to places like LogoPond.com and see what people think”
    Many times, the logos or other design pieces that the hobbyist submits to online critique and sharing sites have not fulfilled a purpose. Although it may be good to share work with others and receive critique, most of his designs have not actually solved a problem and, therefore, are simply art or illustration – not graphic design.
  • “I haven’t had any formal education”
    While some may disagree, a formal education can give you the edge over another designer. The hobbyist may argue that he simply knows what “looks good” but the truth is, he doesn’t know why it looks good. This makes it harder to be efficient or replicate successful design.
  • “I’m all about making cool things”
    When the goal is simply to “make cool things” the experience in problem solving is demolished. Without a problem-solving process, the hobbyist is creating “pretty artwork” not graphic design.

The Professional

  • “…[I] work full-time designing things exclusively for big clients.”
    Designing exclusively for big clients is not necessarily a good thing. There is much to be said for the designer who can master the ability to design for any client on any budget – big or small.
  • “I generally let the client make whatever changes they want”
    After years of “fighting” with clients over the rights and wrongs of graphic design, the professional has become tired and simply lets the client drive too much of the creative process. There are many solutions to this problem.
  • “the customer is always right”
    Just because they pay the bills doesn’t necessarily mean the client knows which design will be most successful for their company. The professional may need to take more initiative in explaining politely to the client why they are wrong and why the designer is right.
  • “I’m all about making money”
    When a designer is focused simply on making money, the result is usually shoddy work and rushed results.  There needs to be a fine balance between getting work done and doing it well and creatively.

383453_9941Finding the perfect combination

As you’ve probably noticed, these are distinct designers at each extreme end of the spectrum. Let’s examine each of the above scenarios and combine attributes from each to create the “Ideal Graphic Designer”. In my mind, the ideal graphic designer would posses these (and other) attributes.

  • Experienced
  • Informed
  • Disciplined
  • Highly Creative
  • Focused on problem-solving
  • Driven
  • Profitable

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Where are you? Keep this discussion going by leaving a comment.

Now it is your turn to contribute. Where do you lie on this spectrum? Are you a graphic design hobbyist? or professional? What other attributes have you seen (good or bad) in other designers.

Article by Preston Lee

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. I’ll only throw my hat in the formal education area, where I’m an Art Director in San Francisco, and yet my degree is in Psychology. While traditional & print design are well known in schools, web design is an embarrassment for even high level universities. So long as formal education includes apprenticeship, non-degree related courses, and self education, then it fits, but formal is anything but in the web world.

    • I agree with that, Brady. I think it may be because the web world changes so frequently. It seems with print design you simply have to keep up with trends and the basics of printing stay fairly stagnant. On the other hand, it seems web design is changing not only in content but also in methodology.

  2. I am a professional designer but did not find the online design community until after I finished college, out of a desire to continue learning. I think that is a big reason for many non-professionals to interact in the design community; because it is their way of training themselves.

  3. Loved your article Preston. I am a developer and I really enjoy working with designers because their designs do help me solve problems all the time. I am currently working on getting some formal education on design so I can help myself solve problems more and so when I work with a designer on a project, the project can already be that much farther ahead.

    As far as your question #2 at the beginning of the post goes, I would have to say that if the hobbyist is not solving problems, the professional designer is more desirable.

  4. I keep reading the phrase “solving problems” and “problem solving” when I read about graphic designers/graphic design. A bridge builders solves a problem; connect point a to point b. A plumber’s problem is a leaky sink, he solves it by fixing the sink (replacing a washer). What problems do graphic designers solve?

    If you’re at an airport will you be more likely to find your terminal if the signs are designed with Helvetica, than if they were designed with Papyrus?

    Isn’t the only difference that one looks nicer than the other?

    Sorry if this sounds hostile, its not. I’m writing a paper for an art theory class and its kicking my butt.

    I would appreciate any help.

    Thanks,
    Ben

  5. Wow Preston! I had no idea that the US had changed the highway signs to improve readability which in turn improved safety. I find that there are always interesting things to learn about typography. Thanks for sharing! : D

  6. Preston, thanks for the good example, will definitely use it in my paper. But that’s one example of one designer (or group of designers) solving a problem of legibility.

    What problems do designers that don’t design traffic signs solve?

    I’m thinking I don’t understand designers’ meaning of “problem solving”. I come from a programming background and the idea of art solving problems is difficult to grasp.

    Thanks Again. Definitely looking forward to hearing what other have to say.

    • As an advertising designer myself, I solve problems everyday, Ben. A problem might consist of a clients product not breaking through the clutter. It might have to do with the fact that the design appeals to the wrong target audience. There are lots of problems to solve when designing. I agree with you ART doesn’t sovle problems frequently. DESIGN DOES. You may be interested in an article I read recently titled “The difference between Art & Design”.. Check it out and let me know what you think. Cheers

  7. Great article, thank you.

    I especially liked: The most successful designs are those that most effectively communicate their message and motivate their consumers to carry out a task.

    I’m guessing that’s what problem solving in graphic design is: effectively communicating a message that motivates an action.

    I guess my main problem was simply semantics, my idea of problem solving isn’t the same as a designer’s idea of problem solving.

    I found a chapter in a book that explains this better than I can:
    The education of a graphic designer by Steven Heller – The Problem with Problem Solving – Pg 145

    This is what I was going to write before I read the article you mentioned:

    Problem: old packaging did not break through the clutter.
    Solution: redesign the packaging.

    Problem: design appeals to wrong target audience.
    Solution: redesign packaging to appeal to specific audience.

    But my problem is, why did the original designer (the designer whos packaging you are going to fix) design what he did.
    What was the problem he was solving?

    end

    Answer from the article: effectively communicating a message that motivates an action.

    Thanks again.

  8. P.S. I know this isn’t the absolute last answer to the question or to the webdesignerdepot article.
    It was just my favorite answer.

  9. In either case, the professional sometimes lacks creativity over the hobbyist who has more time to get good at what he or she does. I think if the hobbyist were to go to school and learn the business more, they would be better off than the straight out of high school to college professional.

  10. Is a graphic designer just a tool, or problem solver? Sure, everyone is creative but a “good designer” wether educated or not should understand and see the principal of design because that makes a good design. Letting the client make whatever changes they want is wrong. It’s our part of our job as designers to educate and let customers know why something does or does not work. I’ve had great experience with this process. A successful design is one that everyone feels a part of.

    I think the professional and hobbies share good qualities and they both should be combined. It’s good exercise to let loose and simply be creative, forget any rules, just let your imagination go. At the same time it’s also good to restrict yourself and pay attention to the details such as color, balance and space.

    With the above combination you will look forward to be a more successful, happier designer who will be excited to wake up and sit in front of his/her computer.

  11. I am a professional and really enjoyed this article. While I don’t mind that there are many hobbyists out there in the graphic design community, I also feel that they water down the talent pool quite a bit. Sure the hobbyist can make really beautiful things in photoshop, but that is just what it is and nothing more. There is no real color theory behind it or a purpose. When there is no goal or “problem” to solve, it really is just art.

  12. I am a professional graphic designer. My definition of professional is: with each piece I create, I not only try to keep a certain style in mind for branding, I try to communicate an effective message for the client’s target audience. I work closely with print shops to ensure the file format, resolution, coloring, and anything else they need for a successful print job is given to them (upon client approval of finished project). I work closely with web developers/programmers to ensure I don’t make a design they can’t put together for the web and still pay close attention to color schemes, tone, and appropriate graphics for both effective communication and branding.

    I enjoy the enthusiasm and energy of the group you describe as hobbyists, Preston; I like interacting with them to learn new techniques I’m not aware of and try to apply these techniques with the principles I was taught. I think it may be easier for this to pick up on basic design principles than my definition of a hobbyist: a person who does not pay attention not just to basics, but to the needs of either a developer or print shop, and who considers designing in MS Word or Publisher “good enough” for their clients’ needs. My definition of a hobbyist takes either the programmer/developer and printer for granted, figuring they can do whatever is handed to them, period. In my opinion, if a graphic designer doesn’t work closely with the other professions, how can the project move forward? Just a thought.

  13. I read through you questions and comments. It is interesting. I am a Nigerian doing my masters programme in graphics. Please can you help me with Some researchable topics on illustrations in communication design? Mail them to my box if you can. Thanks.

  14. I love this article, thanks for sharing Preston. I have just posted an article on a forum asking questions similar to what has been discussed here.
    One question I asked that seems to be very broad is, can a hobbyist charge for say a web site?

    Thank you,

    Best wishes
    Graeme

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