By James Wilson
Let me paint a picture. There’s this guy. Let’s call him “James.” James pedals his fancy Italian bike 40k from home to work as long as the road isn’t snowy. James is known for his brute-force enthusiasm. It’s impossible to miss, whether he’s proselytizing about the new Velodrome or railing about the ethics of certain companies expecting free creative. James is closing in on 60 and has run his own design firm for 30 years. Does James believe ageism exists in the design industry? Absolutely. Does he feel he’s affected by it? Bring it on.
Everyone judges everyone else by the way they look—that’s the human condition. However, ours is a visual occupation so it makes sense that designers are super sensitive to it. At its best, design is an industry that is informed by innovation but it is more often influenced by trend and fashion. In our youth-centric society, older people are typically at an attractiveness disadvantage when seen against millennials. God knows, every time I meet a designer I size up their taste based on what they’re wearing. Shallow, but inescapable.
If you subscribe to the notion that design is a young person’s game, then you—like many who discussed the topic on a straightdope.com forum I visited recently—probably feel the “over-40” designer has only a few options: hope to get moved up the chain of command, set up their own shop or move to the country and open a bed and breakfast.
There are two prongs to this ageism question. How is the older designer perceived both from within the industry and from the outside looking in? Within the design world, competition is fierce. To get the best projects, you need to have the best talent. But we’re talking business here, so it’s the best talent you can afford. According to Australian design blogger Laurie Aznavoorian, who writes at futuresrambling.com, “our industry has exacerbated issues around ageism by responding to a challenging economy by sacking older workers and replacing them with juniors who cost less […] Not only are [firms] failing to benefit from the experience and insight of older workers, some have tarnished their reputations from continually undercutting fees.”
Experience is essential in keeping a design company viable in the long term. Clients want the assurance that comes from experience. The result: less ageism from the client end. If you run your own design company, as long as you are able to sell your services, you’re pretty safe from unfounded ageism. What you are not exempt from, however, is the need to remain fresh and innovative.
The notion of “fresh and new” is often associated with young designers, who are seen as more plugged in to street culture, challenging concepts, new aesthetics, and of course, evolving technology.
But any designer, regardless of age, can access these influences. Of course, we all recognize that as life becomes encumbered with mortgages and kids and aging parents, it can be increasingly difficult to find the hours to live and breathe design. Still, the call to remain current is one that mature designers ignore at their peril. Even though it changes weekly, understanding new technology and having the vocabulary to express that understanding is critical. Drawing from experience alone can result in work becoming stale.
The flip side is also true. Without experience to guide raw talent, design can end up unresolved and lacking technical detail. Cool, but possibly off message. Unique, but without substance or legs.
Here’s how I think about it. Remaining current means remaining agile: open minded, aware, always looking to learn, never resting on laurels, never thinking you’ve arrived, never taking things for granted, feeling like you’re always just starting and being excited by life in general.
Does that mean systemic ageism will cease to exist? Nope. Our best bet in this imperfect design world is to mitigate certain expectations that encourage ageism. Like making sure “interns” don’t displace paid positions. Ideally paying young designers fairly so there is less disparity between disposable grunts and expensive seasoned staff.
“James” has been known to say that “talent is talent whether you’re 18 or 80.”
But ultimately, an excellent design studio or mature designer can resist ageism by combining their God-given talent, epic skills and experience with some ageless intangibles—passion, enthusiasm and good taste. •
James Wilson is the principal of Overdrive Design, located in Toronto’s Junction district.
This column was originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.