I am flattered that so many young designers ask me for advice about what they should do after graduation. Truth is, my opinions hardly matter as everyone is faced with a unique path that they must follow. But I am truly baffled by how many choose to go solo or even start new design firms. I understand the urge to follow your dreams, but that just sounds like a nightmare to me.
I was reminded of this recently when Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay announced he was closing his two Vancouver restaurants after less than two years. Mackay publicly admitted that he now realized how bold he was to go out on his own so soon, unaware of how saturated the market was or how high operating costs really were. Although he was an award-winning chef, Mackay lacked the experience, financial backing—and I would suggest a unique enough offering—to operate a successful restaurant business.
Recently I heard from two former students of mine. As they entered the industry a few years ago we had some honest talks about their options, and against my advice they decided to skip internships or junior positions—which they felt were beneath them—and went into partnership together with another classmate to form their own design studio. After some early success working for friends and family, their studio quickly fell into chaos, the partnership dissolved, and the company folded, leaving their clients in rough shape. They recently visited me and explained how their own hubris had led them down a path of disappointment and hurt not only them, damaging their careers and reputation, but the clients that they served.
These are common stories unfortunately. I suspect there are a number of reasons why young designers feel so compelled to strike out on their own so early these days. Besides a crappy economy where creating a job for yourself might seem easier than finding one, over the past 20 years I’ve increasingly heard encouraging statements like “follow your passion” or “do what you love and love what you do” which of course feeds right into the “we can change the world” millennial ethos of those entering the workforce now. With the fairytale of the freedom, flexibility and personal reward that comes with being your own boss—especially with stories of startups making millions for their young founders—combined with the bold problem solving and confident communication skills that come with a design education, it’s no wonder 25-year-olds think they should be a creative director or studio owner!
Of course there are legendary success stories about young designers making it big, but those are exceptions—and by that I mean exceptionally talented and lucky designers. I’ll spare you the customary lecture about the need to possess a deep understanding and knowledge of business fundamentals like finances, accounting, management, and marketing required to succeed as a business owner. You can just Google that stuff, right? I’ll even spare you my story of how running my design business has still not brought the freedom, flexibility or financial reward I’d hoped for after 15 years—and I have a business degree—and how I often miss the days of just working for someone else. Instead, let’s talk about how lazy, short-sighted and dangerous starting your own business can be.
You heard me: lazy, short-sighted and dangerous. Think about that for a second. There are few choices more self-indulgent than starting a business because you don’t want to put in the time to earn a position at an established company and invest the time to learn from experienced experts. Businesses that survive their first few years—less than 15% by the way—are those that have something unique to offer their customers. Are you so sure that your design business will have something special to offer its clients, or are you just thinking of yourself? A young graphic designer’s motivation should be to solve communication problems using creativity, design thinking and production skills, not feeding their ego by playing the role of young entrepreneur. Ego and impatience are a designer’s enemies. Are you really so confident that you feel you’ve not only mastered our craft but can also already manage a profitable business? If your own ignorance or inexperience lead you to fail, then your own selfish needs just potentially harmed someone else. Are you ready to take responsibility for that?
Your job after design school, is to master design. No wait, it’s to get a job, Hang on, it’s both! It may be harder than ever to land good designer positions these days, but that should be viewed as a challenge to overcome. Much like any client design project, your career is now your design project and deserves even more time, effort and energy than school did. Do the research. Invest the time to get it right. And slow down, for God’s sake! Give yourself a little time to look around, see how others do things, and fail a few times without ruining yours or anyone else’s business.
Oh, and that “do what you love and love what you do” paradigm? Uh, that might be a little messed up kidlings. I may not agree entirely with David C. Baker’s perspective on the issue, but it’s worth a read and a deep think. It’s called work for a reason, and if you got into the design field because you thought it was going to be fun and easy, you’re in for a bumpy ride with a nasty ending.
I’m sure Dale MacKay will survive this bump in his career, and ultimately gain wisdom and experience from his own arrogance. But he will forever have this failure on his CV and attached to his professional reputation, not to mention the impact it made on his friends and family who trusted him with their investment money. And my two former students both learned valuable lessons and are now back on track, a little behind schedule perhaps, but destined for success now that they’ve renewed their commitment to their careers instead of their egos.
There are literally dozens of other motivations for starting a design business, and dozens of other reasons why that choice might be foolhardy.
What are the issues most important to you? And what steps have you taken in the pursuit of your dream to own your own design business?
Mark Busse is a founding partner and managing director of the Vancouver-based strategy and brand design firm Industrial Brand, a past president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada [B.C. Chapter], and a design writer and educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @MarkBusse