Career Day


How did you get where you are today, professionally? What paths did you take? What choices did you make? How did you make them?

I ask this regardless of when you began — whether you’re brand new or you’ve been designing for half a century.

Every life, as we all know, has decision points — do I go this way or that? — that affect the content and quality of everything that follows. Some are obvious. Others pass nearly unnoticed.

Some things we plan. But life has surprises. Fifteen years into my career as a magazine art director, the design world changed when it made the transition from drawing board to computer. It changed again with the rise of the Internet. Such changes impose demands. New skills to learn. New jobs to fill — or create! And they’re marked by loss and the grief that comes with it. Skills now useless. Income undependable. Certainties uncertain. Small things pervade. When design moved to the cold realm of digits and pixels, we all lost the warm touch of physically handling our art materials. This loss is still felt.

A few days ago, reader Christine Sawyer wrote to me with a frustration, a desire, and a decision to make — what to do with the rest of her career. It’s not a question that I can answer for her, as in, “do this” or “do that,” but her issues come so close to home that I think we might all benefit from hearing one another’s experience and the collective wisdom of the group.

Christine had this to say:

“I am reaching out to you for an opinion today. I really have an identity crisis as a ‘designer.’

“Let me explain:

“My academic background is business. I have an MBA.

“I really like design, though. I have tried several art forms along the years with no success. As a marketing person, I loved to work with my ad agency, and when I started my own business I quickly wanted to do things myself rather than give them to a designer. I found graphic design to be a better art form for me.

“I took continuing education courses in Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Dreamweaver, and other trainings (CDs and books).

“I subscribed to Before & After magazine, of course.

“I tried to get into the Bachelor program of a great design school in Montréal but was refused. I even took some of their classes just as an audit student (if that’s the English word for that). I found I was too ‘cerebral,’ not creative enough, not outside the box enough; I think I will always regret not to be able to take two years off my life to do the whole program, but I am 50 and don’t even live full time in Montréal.

“I find I very often get my inspiration from the work of others. I read creativity books, like the ones from Julia Cameron, to try to help my creativity. I still don’t find that I am very creative.

“So, in conclusion, I find myself being ‘not good enough’ as a designer. For instance, I belong to a free-lance Web site, and I present myself as a Web designer, but I never quite have all the qualifications required for the jobs offered. On the other hand, at times I am pretty happy with myself; for instance, when I did a WordPress Web site, montré

“I find that I am just a ‘me, too’ when it comes to design, and even though I am a strong marketing person and strategist, people in small-business Vermont don’t seem to want to pay for these expertises or don’t believe they can have a designer-marketer in one person. (They like the whole package when they start working with me, though, but they don’t always pay more for that extra expertise.)

“I have a great résumé as a business person. I even worked as an account director at the Ogilvy ad agency in Montréal. My Web site, Birchwood Ridge Group, shows my work.

“I am planning to take a photo class with The Photography Institute starting next week.

“Help me out, pleeeaaaaase. I really need help: How should I approach the rest of my business and professional life? Classes? Mentor? Other ideas?”

*  *  *

Dear readers, before you dive in with advice, please recognize that, by writing, Christine has entrusted me and now you with a precious and private thing — her life — and that in doing so, she has made herself extremely vulnerable to you. Respect that. Contemplate deeply. Take your time. Be sensitive. The issues that she faces are the issues that you and I face, packaged differently but only a little. Please don’t expect to have her answer — you don’t even know her, after all — but you may have some insight or life experience that can help Christine and perhaps others, too.

Your turn.

This entry was posted in Career and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

71 Responses to Career Day

  1. MrsK says:

    Interesting to think about. Made me consider what I’ve done so far, which parts I liked, as opposed to which parts I could produce much of but was bored doing. People’s interests and productive strengths often do not intersect in their chosen career. Isn’t that why artists have day jobs? Don’t many artists keep day jobs their entire career?

  2. Ryan Parker says:


    I am in a similar position, having been part of an exciting internet startup for the past year and a half with design responsibilities.

    My education is business as well, and my working background is real estate development. I am 100% self-taught in graphic design through great resources like and subscriptions to creative publications such as Before & After.

    Now back on the job hunt, I’m realizing my strong suits are more in business, and that I can use my creative talent to benefit me in other ways apart from life as a “designer,” which, while interesting, simply won’t get me to my goals.

    I’m sure it’s the same in every industry, but real estate in particular, there is a nearly global lack of good design in Web and print for the purposes of promotion. People like us with design skills and technical knowledge are at a huge advantage, and we are wise to use this empowerment to advance our standing.

    I’m not sure where this road will lead me, but I am in no way regretful of having spent the last few years developing an immensely valuable skill set that will eventually pay off in new and unexpected ways.

    Best wishes to you, Christine.


  3. Christine, I think your work is awesome!!!

    I have to wonder if any designers ever really feel they’ve reached their best. We are always thinking that we could and should be better and that there is someone else who is better.

    We are also in an industry that many don’t want to pay for what we are worth. I think that can bring us down, our self worth. It is also an industry that demands our constant upgrading, and what we need to know is endless.

    Maybe directing some of your energies (and obvious talent) towards working for a cause will help you feel like you are fulfilling a purpose (e.g. animal defense, disaster relief or Web sites that disabled people can access). Even if you could do this on the side once in a while, you will see very quickly how valuable you are out there. But, truly, I think you have found your niche.

  4. Sarah says:

    I completely empathize with the idea of always wanting to be the designer but not feeling like you can do it completely. I, too, am a designer wannabe, but over and over again it seems that I’m not able to get out of the “business” side of things.

    My husband recently went through a huge struggle with his career, and the side effect is that it taught me that we have our best opportunities in life by building on the skills and experiences we already have. And then, perhaps, we explore our other passions on our own time, when we can just be explorers and have all the freedom to “play.”

    I have found some success in marketing myself as a “marketing professional with the ability to speak the language of design.” I use my current set of design skills to do sketches, but most importantly, I use them to ensure that a client gets exactly what they were expecting from a designer. A “visual liaison,” if you will.

    I don’t know if that resonates with you at all, but I hope it at least gives you some ideas of how to reshape your skills and interests moving forward. I do really believe that there are lots of things people like you and I could do, but there are realities to making a living that require us to think about where our skills, interests and experience intersect to meet the needs of our potential clients. What is the unique offering we can present?

    The rest is all still there and important, but perhaps it’s a hobby, at least for now.

    Good luck to you!

  5. Judy Robertson says:

    Dear Christine,
    Thirty years ago, a well-knows designer/illustrator told me I would never make it. That was 30 years ago. I don’t have a closet full of awards, but I do have a lifetime of working closely with all sorts of people to get their jobs done.

    My advice? Keep doing what you love, and find ways/people/projects that will fulfill you. Find others with your passion and work with them . . . and always, always expect something good to happen and doors to open. Worked for me.

    PS: Before & After really is, without a doubt, a classroom, a reference tool, a designer’s bible.

  6. Wow! Firstly, Christine, your portfolio on your Web site is several notches above most applicants I see who pitch me as graphic designers who have been taught by a design school, so you may even consider yourself lucky to have been “rejected” by the cookie-cutter design factory of which you were almost an inmate. ;-)

    I work in the creative field (quite accidently*), and for the past week I have been “hacking away” at a Web site design for a client who refuses to accept a stock template on WordPress. It has been a frustrating experience pushing and pulling WordPress, CSS and PHP, like pulling taffy on a small fishing boat on rough seas. I have spent a week questioning my ability at design, coding and all sorts of skills that you are also pining to know. The learning never stops; you never arrive. I think the trick is to stay curious.

    Clients all want everything for 27¢ US! That will never change. And as all this Internet stuff is free! free! free!, the value of what we do in the graphic arts is apparently becoming less and less. But, my client could not do it himself, and he could not job it out to India, because he could not articulate what he wanted. He had to rely on my ability to anticipate what he needed and have the confidence (okay, I faked that!) to know how to do it. That is ultimately what he is paying for, and he knows it . . . because I will remind him. Given the end product, anyone with two hours of Photoshop experience and a computer can reproduce what you and I do. What has value is the ability to see design take shape from a pile of words, photographs and business objectives.

    And you have what a lot of designers lack: an MBA! What an incredible asset when the business world is screaming for ROI from design and social media and all this creative stuff that the kids can do but can’t justify. Focus on the ROI, and clients will lean forward and then allow you to create!

    I have no real advice, because what works for me may not work for you. I will only share that you are not alone in finding yourself “not good enough.” I think all creative people feel that way, because the expectations we place on ourselves are insanely high. We always want to be better, to be more cutting-edge, to be clearer in our user interface, to be John McWade. But the truth is there will always be someone better, more talented, more creative. But, they will never be the uniqueness that is you.

    *My path is one paved with the frustration of seeing a vision that people around me were too lazy to execute. So, I learned all these “graphic design” and “programming” skills in the course of a lot of nights and weekends. Still learning 20+ years later and I fear I will die with an O’Reilly book and a Before & After issue cracked open on my lap :-)

  7. Kay says:

    For a long time, I too struggled with not being “good enough” to be a designer. But then I realized, as I had been telling my children for years, there will always be someone who is better than you at (fill in the blank), and there will always be someone who’s worse at (fill in the blank).

    It’s difficult to find your niche and learn not to compare your talent to others. My degree is in communications, not graphic art. But I have found that my communications background has opened many graphic design doors for me. And one of my best skills is the ability to organize and plan events, breaking them down into manageable tasks . . . which any designer needs.

    The job where I learned the most was working in the prepress department for a Sacramento-area printer, literally sitting on the other side of the desk from local designers. Seeing how the digital files came in from designers and what was missing from those files was an eye-opener. I learned more about resolution and file formats and what the printer needs to produce a quality piece than any book or conference could ever teach me. Lesson learned: garbage in = garbage out.

    Look for work in organizations and associations that require more than just a designer. I work for a private nonprofit in their conference and training events department. I get to design brochures and registration materials and specialty items, in addition to helping plan events, work with trainers on their training material, and so much more. Having an eye for design and being able to plan projects is an asset that many companies can use!

    Am I the best designer in town? Absolutely not. I know my limitations and areas in which I excel. If a job is out of my realm, I don’t hesitate to contract with someone who has that talent. And the reverse is true.

    Add your other skills to your design capabilities, and hopefully you’ll be surprised at what the universe can bring your way.

  8. beth says:

    Dear Christine,
    I think that being 50 gives us life experiences . . . work, play, art, design. We use all of this to enrich and enlighten ourselves. You seem to be searching for something, but I am not sure you haven’t found it already. I agree that reading books (I love The Artist’s Way), taking classes, walking through art galleries and attending workshops are wonderful ways to become creatively inspired. What you do with it . . . is the true beauty.

  9. Marshall Hinsley says:

    I think that Christine is suffering from a common form of professional identity crisis. It’s a sort of spinoff of self-doubt, and I experience this often.

    I’ve come to the conclusion after eight years as a videographer and print productionist (I can’t call myself a designer) that there will always be someone better than I am, more qualified than I, more creative than I, and most likely, more lovable than I am. But that doesn’t negate the fact that there are clients who are happy with my work and call on me often.

    I stay abreast of new developments through online forums and books (those dusty things with paper), and I try to add to my skills and software literacy as often as opportunity allows. But there is no end to software updates and skill improvement, so I try not to become overwhelmed by what I don’t know and bolster what I do know.

    As long as the bills are paid and I enjoy my work, I don’t feel that I can ask for too much more.

  10. Hugh Henry says:

    Christine . . .

    Please don’t judge yourself by the rejection you received from the “design” university. I find your work clean, well laid out and very salable.

    I have been a designer for close to 30 years, and currently I am living and working in Montréal.

    I the past number of years I have found that the so-called “design” schools spend more time teaching their students how to create pretty pictures and cool Photoshop techniques than the basics of design. It shows up in the student portfolios I review.

    You are a talented designer, and your business knowledge is your best asset.

    Graphic design is and always should be viewed as a tool of business.

    Keep smiling.

    Hugh in Montréal

  11. Whitney says:

    Christine, I am so sorry you are in such a pickle! I have to admit that right before I graduated college, I was in a similar situation. I wanted to be the next famous graphic designer in New York with a huge firm but was being pulled in a different direction. So I decided to take an internship — in the exact area I didn’t want to be in. And you know what? I found out what I loved! I took the internship with a state government agency in North Carolina, designing with just two other designers on a limited budget, with boring clients with conservative tastes. But I loved it! I’m still there now, and I find the challenge in taking government work and making it beautiful really rewarding. But I just had to try it to know.

    I would recommend trying it all out! Try one thing for a while, maybe even something you aren’t loving. Take some of those classes you want to take. Do a little mentoring. You may come to find your calling!

    Lastly, deep down you know what your talents are! Don’t let that little voice in your head tell you that your designs aren’t good enough. They’re great, in fact! We all need a little encouragement about our work once in a while :-)

  12. Tracy says:

    You can never learn too much, and you are never too old to learn something new. So educating yourself with new information will keep creative ideas churning. But more than anything, don’t be so hard on yourself! Don’t be afraid, try something new . . . put a new spin on something unexpected . . . it leads to brainstorming, which is the start to any and all good ideas. Try to recognize being inspired by others rather than duplicating what someone else does . . . and don’t take the critics to heart. Don’t let someone tell you they don’t like something without making sure you get their explanation of why they feel that way . . it helps your creative mind!! Good luck!

  13. Don Cheke says:

    I think that the things Christine mentions are topics that many individuals can relate to in a big way. It is always good to share our stories in some way, so that we can see that we are not alone in our feelings with regards to capabilities and our place in the world. I wrote an article titled “Marketable Skills” in my November 2008 newsletter, The Creative Review, if anyone is interested. In it I talk about my own struggles within this industry, which I stumbled into by chance a few years ago while looking for a product to help me illustrate a book.

    I have no advice to offer, but I would like to say hang in there, Christine; believe in yourself, and stay positive.

  14. Joanne Doyle says:

    Christine, I completely understand your dilemma. I have a degree in graphic design, but when I graduated, the industry was moving into the computer age. At the same time I made the decision to start a family and to raise great kids. I am now trying to find my way back into the industry, and I’m finding my passion is more toward landscape design. Go with your gut feeling, your passion. That is the best advice I can give, since the world we live in is changing by the second. Good Luck!

  15. Leanne says:

    I very much feel for you, Christine, as I have recently (and still am) going through many of the thoughts you are having. I would like to share my story in hopes of knowing you’re not alone, and maybe there is a message in it (I’m waiting till I can hear it). I’m not a writer, so please bear with me.

    At 19, I started my first office job of entering names into a mailing list, which happened to be part of the advertising department in a hardware/tools/electronic company. After a while, they realized I was competent and asked if I could attend their meetings, take notes and type up the minutes. Next came booking ads and writing copy for fliers (I’m way out of my league on that), then they sent me to night school to take Quark Xpress. Soon after came layout of newspaper ads, fliers and catalogues. I loved the job. Unfortunately, there were problems within the department that caused me to move in the company to the purchasing department.

    After this, I moved to another province and was planning to find something back in the advertising department but sold out to a higher-paying job. After 12 years in various purchasing/inventory control jobs, it came on gradually, but realized I could not do it anymore. I took a break and worked at various jobs that were totally opposite of what I was doing to find out what I liked. After much soul searching and a simple question, “what makes you happy?” I wasn’t sure anymore. I had buried myself in a life that wasn’t me, and I was not watching the “little things” I was doing. I found that no matter where I worked, I kept volunteering for anything that required art, from Christmas invitations to things for the billboard, even making the Excel spreadsheets pretty! Even painting and crafts in my spare time.

    Where I lived, there were no schools/colleges/universities. My understanding husband, sweetheart of a dog, and I sold everything, moved to another country (that was a dream we had, so what the heck), and I went back to school. To get in, I did have to put together a portfolio, which I had no idea what that even was, but in the end I got accepted. School was hard and frustrating, but so many wonderful things happened. I was passionate about something. Good or not, it didn’t matter. There were students (who were younger) who had that “special creativity,” whereas I seemed to have to work extra hard and long to produce an OK design.

    So here I am, newly graduated and can design OK with lots of time. But being patient with myself, keeping an open mind and continuing the education, I have started a freelance business and have some great customers. I am getting faster and better with the more projects I do and the more I learn, but it seems to be a long process. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. I have good days and bad days, but in the end, I am passionate about what I do. I find inspiration in reading articles of extremely talented artists with their struggles and successes, and I have a wonderful support system.

    I don’t regret any of the decisions I made. I find I can look back and realize that I use every one of my experiences to help me now and have created the person I am today. I now make decisions on what makes me happy, and my world has opened up to new and wonderful experiences.

    I honestly wish you all the best in whichever path you choose, and thank you for sharing your story.

  16. Buffy says:

    In 1973 when I left Virginia Commonwealth University, I was a commercial art major and decided it was time to get married instead of completing my degree. It’s been on-the-job training ever since. Fortunately for me, I became one of the first computer graphic designers in the country (Genigraphics, 1974). Since then, my career has taken me through all sorts of ups and downs. New technology, applications, working platforms, different employment situations and always new products, styles and people. What a blast!!

    It’s been 35 years, and I now believe that my work is just fine (although the next guy is always fresher and more exciting). Age has a wonderful advantage when evaluating one’s own talents.

    In addition, I find that I am most prolific and enjoy a wider audience for my work when I don’t try so hard and just let the ideas bubble to the surface. One thing leads to another as the design is worked out. Relax! You are a creative person; let it happen naturally and at its own pace. The other advice I can give you is keep at it!! Draw, doodle, learn, scribble, paint, sculpt, cook, sew, whatever; it’s important to unlock all the rivers of creative juices that we have, because I think they cross-pollinate other ideas!

    Best of luck, you’re better than you might think!


  17. Susse Thrane says:

    I love your work, which isn’t a comfort to you as you haven’t been able to find your spot as a designer, yet are longing for it. I’m sure it will come if you persevere.

    I am an assistant professor teaching Visualisation (graphic design) & Interaction (XHTML/CSS) at a business academy in Denmark. My students are from all nations studying to become certificated multimedia designers.

    As you already have an MBA, it might be an idea to find something that will combine business and design, as this programme does. You’ve got it right when you say that you’d like to combine both your business and designer skills. Businesses are realising this more and more as well.

    The other part of the lectures are Communication and Marketing.

    I’m telling you this, because this could be the words/terms you should look for when searching for a suitable programme.

    I’m sure you could find something equal to this either in the U.S. or in Canada.

    I really hope you’ll find your way through the jungle of programmes that will assist you in your creativity and increase your chances of a dream job.

  18. nita says:

    Your work is good designwise, but it doesn’t look like you have too much fun with it. I would think for your own site that you’d pull out all the stops and just have a Web site that reflects your personality, not look like you followed a corporate template.

    I think you do have it in you to be creative, you’re just afraid to push that envelope. Start with your own site, and have absolute fun with it; don’t worry about what corporate image you’re portraying. Image is what your portfolio is about; design is what your Web site is about.

    One way to open up your design mind is to offer to do Web sites for charitable causes. I’ve done several and have found that they often give you free rein, especially if it’s a local company (as opposed to nationals, who oftentimes have set guidelines and templates). They often can’t afford to have someone do an awesome design and many want something a little edgy and hip.

    You’re off to a good start by just hanging in there; now allow yourself to go to the next level.

  19. Elsie says:

    Christine, you have the almost perfect range of skills! So many designers are just that — designers with no marketing or business management understanding — and the reverse is also often true. The world is your oyster, my girl. You have a tool box full of excellent tools. Don’t worry, the right opportunities will come your way.

    Have you considered working with small to medium businesses? These guys can be great at what they do (e.g., making wine, welcoming guests) but are not designers or marketing savvy. They often try to brand and market their business in fits and starts, and as a result they can lack continuity in their marketing efforts. They may not understand what makes a design work or what media to use to reach their customers. They cry out for a friendly, trustworthy person who is genuinely interested in their business.

    My business skills are similar to yours. I grew up in a small business and went on to work in corporate business. I have marketing and sales skills and have developed my creative flair through graphic design. Working with small businesses, we develop long-term relationships and help them get it all together — creating an identity (business culture), branding it and broadcasting it to the public. It’s very satisfying work. Oh, and you can add presenting and seminars to the product set if you are so inclined. Small to medium businesses love attending events and workshops such as these to build their skill base.

    We get to work very closely with our clients, we know their families, we’ve visited their homes, and we know their customers. We help them grow their vision and watch them grow their business. Very different from corporate work, where it feels like we’re dealing with a department and not a person. In fact, we don’t do corporate work any more at all!

    Last of all, someone I have learned a great deal from once said to me, “It’s when you feel you are learning or growing the least that you are actually learning or growing the most.” This is because you are taking the time to look at yourself and think carefully about things.

    Life is a journey, not a destination! Good luck!

  20. Kris says:

    Interesting topic. I just went through a long discussion where it was pointed out that I qualify or equivocate whenever mention comes up of me being a designer, photographer or artist. It’s so easy to see what we don’t know, and so difficult to see what we already have accomplished. My job is graphic design, but I’m a department of one, so there isn’t anyone to bounce ideas with, and I print most of my output myself, so I don’t really have the four-color prepress process down. I don’t feel like I could get a job as a graphic designer any place else, but I’m probably wrong.

    I started working here (non-profit adoption and foster-care agency) as tech support and administrative assistant. Part of my job was to create fliers for workshops and a monthly newsletter; I spent about three weeks working on the first one in Publisher. That same year, 1998, I taught myself to scan the wealth of family photos I’d just discovered, and retouch them with Kai’s Photo Soap.

    I graduated to using Photoshop as I learned more, and I was able to use those retouching skills for clients — kids — at work. (Photos are something these disenfranchised children have very few of, and those they have are often damaged.) I decided to learn more by going to the local junior college, because learning from books didn’t give me the whole picture, how the different aspects I was learning worked together. It took me five and a half years to earn my certificate, but my method was to take only one class at a time and give it my all. The more I’ve learned, the more useful my work has been to my employer, and the more they have supported me. I received my certificate but haven’t stopped learning — you can’t — more than two years ago. I will be 59 this month and feel that I have the skills to keep myself employed for as long as I care to work.

    I’ve always considered myself very lucky when it came to employment, but the reality is that it hasn’t all been luck. Seeing opportunities as they arise is a big part of “luck” — walking into those open doorways, following through. Share what you enjoy with everyone you can — without being obnoxious, of course — and follow where your passions or curiosity lead you.

    Christine, you’re good at what you do, and enjoy a wonderful combination of skills. Keep going with classes; you may just not have enough confidence in your current skills to sell yourself effectively, and those can help there. (I always just “know” that if I can do something, so can everyone else and their brother, too — and that is so not true!) Don’t doubt your creativity; what you have is unique to yourself, and nobody else can ever see things with quite the spin you do. Find ways to educate your clients about aspects of design that they don’t see and never thought about or heard of. Show examples where you can, so they can see the effect of typography or layout done poorly and done well. Leave them more educated than when you began, feeling like they know something new. Good design is mostly invisible, so it isn’t easy to charge for, but bad examples abound. If you like Web design, from what I’ve seen, there are a huge number of bad designers who pay attention just to the latest whiz-bang effect and have no follow-up at all. By having good design skills and following through on updates and changes quickly, you have 95% of other Web designers beat!

    Best of luck to you.


  21. Christine,

    All I have to say is shame on the design school for not giving you a chance. Along my path, I’ve run into design snobs, and it seems as though they are one of them. I understand the importance of teaching the best of the best, but your most precious tool is going to be what your clients’ needs are, not how cliché you are willing to be. I’ve tried to be “outside of the box” with some of my clients, and they don’t seem to like it too much. You should sit back and see if you’re happy with what you have to offer your clients, because they are the ones who really matter. By the way, I struggle with getting paid for what I’m worth as well, and I think it’s a very common thing to encounter. I would talk to others in the industry and see what the majority is pricing, and stay in that arena.

    I have an Associate of Science in Visual Communications from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, and they gave us just enough education to choose our own path. Everything else has been learned after school. I would suggest to keep doing what you’re doing, put together a great portfolio of your favorite work, and keep learning as much as you can. That’s going to be your biggest asset. There’s a lot of work out there for us, and you may not be right for everybody, but that’s the case for every designer. You have good assets of having marketing and agency backgrounds, and you do very nice work.

    Keep practicing and good luck!!


  22. I hope this doesn’t sound over-simplified, but do what you love — and you do seem to love what you’re doing.

    My favorite quote of late by Tony Robbins that has kept me inspired: “The only thing keeping you from getting what you want is the story you keep telling yourself about why you can’t have it. Break free!”

  23. Mary Ann says:

    To Christine: I have no great words for you other than to let you know that you are not alone in feeling as you do.

    I, too, am a bit of a designer wannabee, but I have not even done all you have to educate yourself and to build your skills. I’ve been too afraid to make the commitment, fearing that I, too, will be “not good enough.” For that alone, you should be proud of yourself.

    And the other writers have already commented on the quality of your work, with which I agree wholeheartedly.

    To John: Thank you for what was really a beautiful closing note to your post about the vulnerability and risk Christine took on in writing to you. I do so wish more of those who comment on blogs everywhere would keep in mind your sage advice: “Contemplate deeply. Take your time. Be sensitive . . . you don’t even know her, after all.”

    I, for one, am moved by your sensitivity. Thank you.

  24. Randy Martin says:


    I am self-taught.

    After twenty years of being an award-winning television writer/producer/director, I found myself in business for myself, promoting fingerless driving gloves for bus drivers for $200 a month. After years of accumulated debt and really poor design, I discover I have become an award-winning graphic designer.

    I still wonder why I am. Or how I got here. Or if I’m any good at all.

    Then I remind myself that I’m still in business for myself 23 years later, they haven’t yet thrown me in debtor’s prison, and I’m learning things every day.

    When I first started, I thought I was building a business. But I never hired anyone to design or write or do anything creative. Eventually, I discovered that what I had done was created a job from which I could not get fired. So, as my five employees gave me their two-weeks’ notice, one by one over the next two years, I did not replace them.

    Today, I work alone. I love the freedom. And I love to design. (The first thing I do when I come home from vacation is sit down at the computer and create a logo or something!)

    For me, the answer has been to look closely at everything that passes in front of my eyes. If I like it, I do more of it. If I don’t, I don’t.

    I, too, have a business background. I teach classes in time management and personal strategic planning. So, as far as clients go, I seek out small shops that need both a marketing director/department and a graphic designer/art department. Then, I help them convince themselves that I am the expert in solving their problems for whom they have been searching — whether they knew that or not before I showed up.

    If I can talk them into hiring me as their one-stop expert, I arrange to spend one day a week at their place doing work for them on their computer with their programs. In that way, what I produce is always in their hands. I don’t walk away from work and bring/send it back. During my work week, I have frequent changes of environment. And I find I learn more about how the business really operates from the employees than I ever do from the owners. Thus my final work is on target (mostly!), and I have constant feedback/input from everyone there. Which may not work for other designers, but it works well for me and the clients I have.

    From my perspective, the personal key is to know what you want. To have a Preferred Future. A destination. And then to create the plan that will get you there. If your goal is to do creative work for good people, then (from what I can see and have read) you are inside the front door. All you need to do now is keep on keeping on.

    If that’s not what you want, then determining what you do want is where to spend your free time. But don’t guess (maybe I should take a course in ______). Try to find out for sure what you want your end result to be. That is your strategy. The classes are tactics.

    This is my design mantra: I believe I can do it. And so I do. And what it is, is what it is. And next time, whatever it will be, it will be better.

    Best of luck.

  25. Paul McEwan says:

    I know I have had moments like this too. I see other designers doing what all the other designers are doing. I follow the most successful of the bunch, whereas before I would just keep my head down and work.

    Today it’s a different ballgame. I read inspiring stories of successful creatives and business people. I take motivational lectures and hang out more with the entrepreneurial crowd. Because to achieve what I want to, I need to understand that I can’t do it all, and I don’t want to do it all. I love collaboration.

    I am learning to hand my work over to a small network of media types that I consider to be better than me who look to me for more work and art direction. I am re-tooling my business, building a business plan around that and starting it over. Even now I spend more time being with clients, and thanks to some beginnings of personal branding, they are clients I like.

    It’s life-changing, scary and fun all at the same time. Good luck!

  26. Karen says:

    Hi Christine,

    Wow, déjà vu!

    I too came to the design end of things later in life (in my 40s) after a long career in client services at a large ad agency in Toronto.

    My training was primarily through osmosis at the agency and then at Toronto Image Works (for desktop publishing and Web), and now through, Before & After, NAPP, books, magazines and the many resources available to us online.

    I have often beaten myself up for what I perceive as small “c” creative. But as clients and friends have been diligent at pointing out, not every job requires that. And not many clients can afford that. What most clients are looking for is something that the majority of students coming out of design school can’t provide: the ability to understand the issues their businesses face, and effective, clean, well-thought-out communications solutions that don’t break the bank.

    Some ideas to consider:

    Get a subscription for training. Subscribe to blogs like David Airey’s for creative inspiration. Focus on a niche market that you have the greatest affinity for (i.e., the biopharmaceuticals) and develop that. Listen to your clients; the testimonials on your site clearly show that they value you and your skills.

    If you are happy doing what you are doing, then stick with it and keep pushing yourself. Remember, there’s a need for all different kinds of creative skills and skill-set packages out there!

    Good luck!

    Karen in Niagara

  27. John Henry says:


    Many of us have been in your place and asked the same questions. I have been actively making a living with graphic arts for 30 years and recognize that I’m not a superstar, just a good journeyman graphic communicator who successfully meets the needs of the client, whether on the Web, in print, or at a trade show.

    Your work speaks for itself, and I suspect you have happy clients . . . which is better than design awards any day. (Got some. They were exciting at the time, but now they are gathering dust somewhere.)

    About 15 years ago I was working in a small, two-person company, and we were asking ourselves the same questions and having similar issues: How do we break out of the “just another designer” category and get clients to take us seriously? Neither of us had formal training.

    Our solution was to reposition how we presented ourselves. Instead of graphic designers, we became a marketing strategy and design firm. We focused on helping clients achieve their business marketing goals with advice and marketing tools (like brochures, logos, Web sites, trade-show backdrops). Something you are eminently qualified for.

    We also drastically changed the way we made sales calls, going to the extreme of no longer carrying a portfolio of work with us. If they wanted to see our work they could go online. Instead, we asked them about their marketing challenges and needs, and discussed ways we could help them reach their goals. (Sounds kinda like MBA stuff, huh?) We focused just on them instead of work for past clients.

    Our new approach was a resounding success, and our sales increased significantly. I’d like to take credit for the new sales approach, but the inspiration really came from a client we were courting. After reviewing our portfolio presentation he said, “Yeah, yeah, nice stuff, but what are you going to do for me?” He later became one of our best clients.

    So, I guess my message is to quit stressing about the lack of formal training; your work is better than many graduates who have been formally trained. Focus on your strengths, and use your experience as an advantage. You know firsthand what helps sell products and services in the real world. In my experience, there are a lot of potential clients hungry for that kind of support.

  28. Jon says:


    The best designers I know decided at some point that they weren’t suited to do anything else — especially a typical office job. Being in that position is almost easier, because you have no choice but to succeed or starve! If you are determined to be a good designer, and don’t give yourself another way out, you will succeed as well. (Hey, you may need to make money another way once in a while, but then everyone has had to at some point.)

    In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell expresses the notion that you must practice a craft for 10,000 hours before mastering it, which I have found to be true (in my 50+ years). When Van Gogh started his art career, he was a clumsy draftsman. Not just ordinary — bad!

    Our society has changed: Lifelong learning will be a matter of course for all of us. It’s the journey toward becoming the designer you’d like to be that is exciting, more than the arrival. So I’m encouraging you never to give it up as long as you love it. At this point, judging from your work, you’ve made good progress and will continue to do so.

    Here are a couple of pieces of advice for your journey:

    1. Great design is much more than making a page or screen look good — it’s about communicating a concept, a feeling, a belief or a point of view. Use gritty emotional concepts to drive your designs.

    2. Spend some of your time on private experimental design, and really go crazy with it, pushing boundaries while not having to answer to anyone. Put it on an anonymous, experimental Web site. (See “Maintaining a personal design playground” in the book Hotwiring Your Creative Process) This will improve tremendously the everyday stuff you do and give you courage to “go for it” more often.

    3. Make your design multi-dimensional by infusing it with organic elements to counter the logical rigidity of grids, boxes and sans-serif type. Try to make it tactile and surprising in some way. Good design stimulates the brain in places where nothing else may have yet reached — it expands our consciousness.

    4. When you’re designing, put yourself in the mindset of an 18-year-old, and walk out of your comfort zone. Remember that attitude — like the Alice Cooper song, “I’m 18”. It’s half bravado, half complete insecurity. Then get used to it, so you can expand the zone further again.

    5. Use the design masters as well as the coolest, trendiest designers of the moment for constant inspiration. Let their mojo rub off on you. Horde design books and cool Web sites, and pour over them. Let them be virtual mentors to you.

    6. Keep being vulnerable, humble and honest, just like you’ve been here. Your letter alone tells me you may have what it takes to be great if you follow your heart.

    Best wishes from a fellow designer and human being.

  29. Mike Pryde says:

    Hi Christine,
    Like you, I came to design after already having a first career in programming (I became absorbed in design as my employer slowly switched to Web-based applications from traditional client/server apps). I’ve always been an artist at heart and encountered the same kinds of issues — my skills didn’t match my desire to create. I’ve discovered through personal experience that one’s skills almost never match the desired level — it’s a matter of constant practice and growth. This includes “creativity.”

    Creativity is hard work and takes practice, like anything else; don’t let anyone tell you you’re either born with it or you’re not. I’ve had my share of frustrating experiences where ideas weren’t coming fast enough (or at all) — what artist/designer hasn’t? The great thing is that there are methods that help get the creative juices flowing, and since you read Julia Cameron you already know a lot of them.

    The other side of this coin is “self doubt,” and this, too, is something we all experience regularly. It’s unavoidable when your work is cast before huge audiences in a world where everyone has an opinion. Again, the best medicine is to keep going. I also have to say that your question has really helped me, too — seeing all of the responses and common experiences has been wonderful. So keep designing, and thanks!

  30. Laurie Humphreys says:

    I was going to be a social worker with my BA in Sociology/Social Service. But I went to work for Boeing, which trained me in computer programming (before PCs but after punch cards). I fell in love, got married and became an “at-home mom” of four children for 16 years, followed by two years of volunteering to learn the new technology (e-mail, Word, Excel, etc.). I have now been employed for the past eight years as a marketing project administrator. Some of my “duties as required” included designing forms and fliers. So I took classes, poured over Before & After articles, and asked a lot of questions of graphics friends and cronies. Somewhere along the line I learned Photoshop, Adobe Acrobat and InDesign. It’s fun, but not at all what I planned on doing. I’m still doing some design work, but now I’m mostly heading up a new project that will provide school supplies for children in impoverished communities in the U.S. So I’m finally using my Sociology/Social Service degree 31 years post-college graduation. And I’m on my fifth career change!

  31. Sandra Peek says:

    Hi Christine,

    Like others here, I totally understand the confusion involved in trying to build a career from a diverse skill set. I spent years thinking I needed to focus on one specialisation to be successful, but I couldn’t bring myself to give up any of the various skills I’ve developed (and, honestly, the idea of just doing one thing seems far too limiting!).

    After 20 years as a journalist — working, at various times, in print news, editing, newspaper design and production, television research, etc. — I started and owned a business newspaper for nine years. I have a management-school qualification in strategic management. And I’ve developed a number of other design and communications skills along the way.

    My communications business provides clients with PR, design, professional writing, marketing communications, publications, strategy and planning. And I love it all. After years of angst about never fitting any job description I ever saw, I’ve developed the following fundamental learnings that work for me.

    • There is a huge value in a broad skill set. My clients love what I do because I integrate written and visual communications elements very effectively. Once I understand their brand, strategy and objectives, I can keep delivering in consistent and fresh ways time after time.

    • Be very selective about clients. Most organisations aren’t structured to get the best from me, so I don’t take them on. I typically work with organisations where I have maximum influence, can apply all or some of my skills, and have enough control over the quality of the results.

    • Accept the trade-offs. I find working this way hugely satisfying but, you’re right, the invoice often doesn’t fully reflect the value that I bring. I live with that, but I gently remind my clients occasionally of the value I’m adding. And none of my clients has ever asked me to justify an invoice.

    • Build a network. There are many specialist skills I don’t want to have, and I will always refer rather than do a less-than-excellent job.

    • Never ever settle. I measure my work against the output of specialists in each of the fields I work in, and I expect the quality of my work to be able to stand the comparison. This means I pedal quite hard to keep developing my skills. Other things, like photography, are still hobbies, but I’m confident I’ll eventually add this to my portfolio.

    It’s not the easiest kind of career to build, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! Good luck, Christine. I hope there’s something here that helps you fit your own great skills into a coherent and distinctive business.

  32. Oh man, Christine! If I haven’t uttered every single word you just wrote within the last six months! The only difference between us is an MBA and six age years.

    I’m in the same boat.

    If you want to try to build your business, try a business networking group such as BNI (they are international). I could go into a long explanation of how they work, but it’s too much to post here. And it’s starting to work for me (it takes a little time for people to figure out exactly what you can do).

    It’s hard in the design world; you really get the creative stuff kicked out of you on a daily basis working with corporations.

    I tell people, “I’m an artist, making a living at graphic design.” For some reason, this makes them take me more seriously, and it makes me more confident. I save my artistic prowess for my art and sculptures and treat my graphic design as a business, one subject to the CEO’s opinion as well all the human-resources lady and possibly the receptionist.

    You just need to take them by the hand and guide them soothingly to an effective solution.

    So in summation:

    Be confident in telling people you are an artist making a living at graphic design.

    Find a business networking program.

    Keep taking those classes and continue to grow.

    And just for kicks, go to the local university that offers foundry, and pour a little hot metal . . . you’ll be shocked how alive you feel!

  33. Reiki Ree says:

    Short and sweet . . . I was in your shoes and know exactly how you are feeling. I market myself now as a Marketing/Design/Project Manager . . . someone who knows 1) what needs to be done, 2) how it is done, 3) how long it should take. Those three things alone save my clients lots and lots of money, even when they add in the cost of my services, in addition to paying a Web or print designer. I help them develop their marketing plans, rough out the “design” stuff and then find the contractors to do the work. You don’t have to go back to school (a total waste of time . . . I did it, got my BA in Digital Media and knew more than my professors about the “real world.”) So, market yourself, sis-tah! Go for it! Have fun and get creative. The world has changed, and the more you have to offer, the better your chance of someone wanting what you have to offer. Cheers!

  34. Jimmy W. says:

    First off, let me say . . . John, you’re brilliant for blending this “creative soup,” if you will. I can bet most of us did not start as layout artists on the blue-lined grid paper . . . paste . . . Rubylith masking film . . . and walking over to the stat camera to shoot the ad . . . but I digress. I think Christine and all of us should read the manifesto by Hugh MacLeod about how to be creative . . . it’s written for just this situation.

    Here are some things I like from it:

    1. Ignore everybody. The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you. Good ideas alter the power balance in relationships, which is why good ideas are always initially resisted.

    2. The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to change the world . . . the two are not the same thing . . . the sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will.

    3. You are responsible for your own experience. Nobody can tell you if what youʼre doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the lonelier it is. Every creative person is looking for “The Big Idea.” You know, the one that is going to catapult them out from the murky depths of obscurity and on to the highest planes of incandescent lucidity. The one thatʼs all love-at-first-sight with the zeitgeist.

    4. The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs. One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills.

    5. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.

    6. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props . . . Van Gogh rarely painted with more than six colors on his palette . . . A fancy tool just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind. Which is why there are so many hack writers with state-of-the-art laptops . . . Pillars do not help; they hinder. The more mighty the pillar, the more you end up relying on it psychologically, and the more it gets in your way.

    7. Merit can be bought. Passion can’t. The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody
    does. Human beings have this thing I call the “Pissed Off Gene.” Itʼs that bit of our psyche that makes us utterly dissatisfied with our lot, no matter how kindly fortune smiles upon us. Itʼs there for a reason. Back in our early caveman days, being pissed off made us more likely to get off our butt, get out of the cave and into the tundra hunting woolly mammoth, so weʼd have something to eat for supper. Itʼs a survival mechanism. Very useful then, very useful now. Now . . . your business either lets you go hunt the woolly mammoth or it doesnʼt.

  35. Rachelle says:

    Christine, I agree that your work looks great. I, too, am completely self-taught, and sort of fell into doing something I love (my education is in advertising). I now own a graphic design business and work from home, and I love it. My best advice is to determine the things you like to do the best and feel you are most talented at, and surround yourself with other professionals who can make up where you lack skills with client projects, etc. Having a little reinforcement in the areas you lack experience or feel less secure is enough, at least for me, to feel like I’m giving my clients great service, and it makes my business very fulfilling.

    For example, I do most of the graphic work for my clients. But I also employ an illustrator/Flash designer, and it’s wonderful to be able to get a second opinion, more ideas when I’m stuck, etc. More than once, even a small suggestion or help with a logo was enough to put a project over the top and make it something I was really proud of. In many cases I end up being more of an art director, which I love, and I give a lot of advice to clients, which I also enjoy.

    There are many freelance professionals who are ready and willing to pitch in on projects — programmers, other designers, etc. If you love designing, then I say, go for it! But don’t be afraid to hire freelancers or ask for help when you need it. Learning graphic design is so much fun, you’re in for a thrilling ride — enjoy it!

  36. Franz says:


    I agree with much of what has been written here. In fact it might be a bit overwhelming to go through it all and parse the good advice from the less so, increasing your anxiety in the process. Despite that, I’ll forge ahead and give you my thoughts and hope they provide you with some clarity.

    As is often the case, the solution to your dilemma is right in front of you. Like most of us, when it comes to solving our own problems, we lack the proper perspective, the ability to see ourselves as clearly as we see others and their troubles.

    You say you are a strategist. Apply that skill to molding your design career. Think strategically. The problem has a tremendous amount of emotional content, which makes it difficult to see things clearly, but that’s exactly what the first step has to be. You hold the pieces in your hands. Lay the problem out before you. Define the starting point (what are your strengths and weaknesses — be honest!), and be clear about your goal. Now that you have a beginning and an end, chart a course between those two points. Can you overcome a weakness by learning new skills; or can you turn a weakness into a strength? Where are your time and efforts best used in the development of your career? What can reasonably be achieved in the short term? What will take more time and require more patience?

    Even at 50, developing as a designer is a process that will yield results only over time and with a great deal of effort, sweat and frustration. If you’re going to be a designer, it has to be a full-on commitment. The challenge is endless — you’ll never be done with learning new skills. And the rewards will never match the effort you put into a project and the service that you provide to your clients. I know this sounds a bit melodramatic, but as an older, self-taught designer, I can identify with your story/situation. I’ve been there; I am there; I will be there again, and I have found no other way through the difficult times than to tough it out, to be totally committed.

    So, classes, mentor, other ideas? I say all of the above, depending on how they best apply as solutions to what you want to overcome or achieve. There’s no formula, but you do have to possess a strong will, lots of courage and the heart to make it through the many moments of doubt and difficulty. Being the most talented or best designer is beside the point. In the end, you have to believe that you have something positive to contribute to the culture at large and to your clients more specifically.

    Bonne chance.

  37. Carina M says:

    Christine, I wouldn’t worry about being creative. I’ve always looked at design as a way of problem solving. I think, what are my customers looking for, and what’s the best way to give it to them. Then I work it out. I find myself to be very cerebral as well. And I’m constantly amazed and dwarfed by other people’s “creative” gifts. But I use it as inspiration, and though other designers may not be emulating my work, my customers are happy, and I’m glad to make the world a prettier, more understandable place.

    Also, I think it’s great that you are able to speak the languages of both business and design. I think it gives you an advantage those design students don’t have. As far as school, just because the one design school rejected you doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other schools willing and able to teach you whatever skills you are looking for. Maybe just think of specific skills you want to learn — like the photography class — and take it one step at a time.

    Good luck!

  38. Wendy says:

    I consider myself to be a designer — an “information designer” — which combines elements of graphic design and technical writing to produce “information products” — at least that’s what I do at my current “day job.”

    I am 51, and my degree is in electrical engineering (talk about a circuitous journey!). I have always loved art and music and writing, and I have steered my career (sometimes by brute force) so that I can get paid doing things I enjoy. When I got my current gig, the hiring manager said straight out, “You will not be drawing on this job!” I suppose it was in response to my enthusiasm over my brand-new Wacom tablet that I had bought for myself on my 50th birthday. That boss is gone, and I’ve replaced the ad agency for a lot of the occasional artwork needed by three different departments in the company (I also redesigned the company’s business cards, and the woman at the head office liked them much better than the ones they got from their ad agency).

    As far as my graphic design skills go, I am pretty much completely self-taught — picking up a lot of excellent advice from this magazine in particular, and also using a lot of the self-teaching books available from Adobe.

    I learn and get inspired from viewing other people’s work, online and in art galleries.

    I work in a lot of media, both online and off. In fact, I just finished designing and building 30 costumes in 30 days for my daughter’s Arts High School’s Shakespeare anthology performance (which was tonight!).

    I think you should ignore the schools and learn on your own through experience. You already have an excellent foundation, and your work is admirable already.

  39. Rob East says:

    Christine, I think it has to do with turning 50 that we start to think about the rest of our lives. Here in Australia, the government wants to raise the retirement age up to 67, so we (I) have to think, do I have what it takes to remain in my profession for at least another 10 years?

    I have worked for myself as a graphic artist for 33 years, coming from a wine/food industry background before that with a “flair” for design. I spent most of those years producing travel brochures in Australia for people traveling overseas for the likes of Qantas Airlines, Thai Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, Westin Hotels, Cunard, and also was the Australian art studio for Continental (Airlines) Holidays for many years.

    We started with Letraset and glue/wax type galleys onto art boards, and we employed up to 12 staff at a time in the way of layout designers, darkroom operators, typesetters and assembly/finished art people.

    Halfway through the ’80s this all changed with the advent of the Mac, and staff went by the wayside and down to three of us doing the same workload as before. The ’90s were a blur with so much work, even though Continental Airlines left Australia in 1994 and a huge hole in our budget, but we got on with it and picked up another airline through our reputation.

    Come the turn of the century, I closed my studio in Sydney and had what we call a “country change.” We moved out of the city and into the rural surrounds of country life. I had my studio in a spare room in the house and decided to get some extra contract work, putting a monthly editorial magazine together in the town. This was going really well, as it brought in $45,000 p.a., and then wham! When it was all just starting to click again I needed open-heart surgery, and I lost my contract, even though I was off for only five weeks.

    Time to reinvent again, as I have a wife and two young children. This town I live in and the surrounds is a big school area, and even though I had never done this sort of work before, I have gained work from a few of these colleges, doing newsletters, prospectus brochures and annual reports. It is early days at the moment, but feel schools will always be around. They like what I do, and because as graphics people we just have to come up with another new idea, but for ourselves this time.

    Christine, your portfolio is great, and if this is what you really want, you will reinvent yourself and go forward . . .

  40. Wendi says:

    Hi Christine:

    I’m on the other side of the fence, so to speak. I started in technology and science (I’ve been an embedded firmware engineer for many years). I believe life is always about re-inventing yourself. Never let the naysayers get to you; life is filled with more people who want to bring you to their level rather than promote you.

    It seems to me that you have more than one thing you are good at. I think that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. If you love designing, keep designing. Find a niche that uses the skills that makes life worth living. You only have one life.

  41. Dear Christine,
    Reading your story felt like reading my own — I’ve also got an MBA, and B Business Science with Honours in Marketing, because at the time I thought it was probably the safer options to pursue “business” rather than the “fickle arts.” So, like you, I ended up briefing the agencies rather than actively designing myself, and I always felt that my creative side was slowly but surely dying on me, leaving me half-hearted and frustrated, and with the bitter feeling that I wasn’t living up to my potential.

    So, last year I decided to make a cut — and this is where my recommendation to you comes in — and started my own business focusing on strategy development, marketing planning and design (graphic and Web).

    My key “positioning” is that I am seeking long-term relationships and to become a strategic partner in the client’s business — usually at a fixed monthly fee — which allows them to basically chuck everything visual-communication-related over their shoulder to me — while I get enough involvement and possibility to bring in strategic thought, media advice etc., etc.

    So, while it may all start off with a single project, your goal should be to make them think long-term and see you as a partner in the business who can help set the direction. The secret is really to price your monthly package so that your additional capabilities are priced into the package from the start. Your target market should exclude small businesses who won’t be able to afford your package.

    Then, coming to your problem with your perceived lack of creativity: I don’t think you should worry about that — you are just putting pressure on yourself unnecessarily. My experience is that clients don’t typically expect radically creative design work, but rather a solid, consistently reliable person to deal with, and designs that achieve their objectives and are in line with their past campaigns. Getting there is not so difficult if you free yourself from the pressure of having to present something that is completely out of this world. Chances are, they will prefer something more conservative anyway.

    Christine, I really hope that you get to where you want to be. There is nothing worse than letting a life slip by without making the best of your potential. You are in the lucky position to be good at both — analytical thinking and creative thinking. Combining the two into something worthwhile has so much power and potential. I wish you good luck in fulfilling it!

  42. Mike Barlow says:

    Hi Christine,

    Graphic design is not an end in itself; it is the journey.

    I was formally trained as a product designer. My father taught me technical illustration, and through life’s little nudges I have ended up being a graphic designer with my own business via toy design, jewelry design, display design, shopfitting design and account management and directorships and partnerships in design companies.

    And yet here I sit in my own company as a designer with 25+ years’ experience still desperately trying to keep up with the technical knowledge to stay with the industry that has given me a livable-to-very-good living in equal measure.

    The point I am making is that I don’t see myself as a graphic designer because that is what I am doing now, nor did I see myself as a jewelry designer way back then when I did that. I am a designer. Period.

    A designer is someone who sees the world through eyes that are either trained or naturally see a better, more cohesive way for products, visuals and communications to be presented through a filter of experience and skill sets that that person brings with them.

    You don’t need to go to University to learn that you already have that ability. You are doing it; your work is superb. Run with it and be happy that you’ve already made it as a designer.

  43. BT Zimpel says:

    Dear Christine,
    I’m a lawyer (and 50 like you), and I started helping out at the school my children attended as a legal advisor and event manager. Eight years ago, the guy in charge of the school’s yearbook quit unexpectedly, and I took over this “little” job. I made my firsthand experience with layout software (Quark 4.1!), and I got hooked. I always wanted to do something in art or design but had to study a subject that was a bit more down-to-earth and probably would earn some money.

    I took seminars, read books, looked up Web sites, subscribed to Before & After, of course, and learned and learned. I always felt that others were doing a better job in designing than me, since I’m not a professional. I learned a lot in those eight years, and yes, I’m getting better. To open up my own little design office would be a dream, but you did it. Stick with it, and do what you really want to do. If you have fun at what you’re doing, you’ll be great. Designing is a very personal job, and there will always be customers who don’t like the style, the font, the colors, etc., but if you keep learning and keep an open mind there are no limits to your creativity. Take a minute and be honest with yourself and answer the one question: What do I want? The rest is easy.

    All the best.

  44. Sunanda says:

    Hi Christine,
    I appreciate the sincerity and honesty in your post. I am in the same age group as you are. I am a graphic designer myself with formal education in applied arts. First of all, to be frank, formal education doesn’t make anyone a great (good enough) and creative designer. It’s the mindset of the individual how they utilize their education to grow while they work. A creative person experiences the moments of both satisfaction and frustration in his life. All creative artists, singers, musicians and actors go through this dilemma in their careers. In a way, this stress is good for the creativity, as you criticize yourself and want to do better.

    When you are feeling low with such thoughts, just ask yourself if you have given your best possible shot using the skills you have developed. Everyone has his natural capacity to do things. Understand your capacity and limitations and keep on working. I saw your site. I feel your work is really good. Believe in yourself. You have an extra edge of marketing skills with the design skills. Enjoy your work, Cristine. Wish you all the best.

  45. paulie says:

    Hi Christine,
    I can totally relate to your feelings. I also have an eclectic skill set, feel incredibly drawn to design, but feel inadequate about my design capabilities. I think I’ve found some keys, so for what it’s worth, here they are:

    Your skill set and “cerebral” nature suggests you are strongly left-brained (analytical/critical). Your love of design suggests that you are strongly right-brained (artistic). At the same time. But if you ever left the two of them in a room together, chances are your left brain will have beaten your right brain into a bloody pulp.

    If you are like me, when your right brain is trying to be creative, your left brain begins to analyse and cut off the creative flow, and it begins to compare your output (unfavourably) with what you know to be “great design.” That gets you into copycat mode.

    What has helped me is to use my left brain to analyse and define the design problem, then make it shut up, while my right brain gets on with creatively solving the problem. I do that by having a design process. I look for inspiration, make sketches, then forget about it and let my subconscious work, etc. Because I have found this process to work effectively, I have the confidence to silence the voice in my head saying “it’s not good enough” by telling it that “it doesn’t have to be — the process is not complete.” That seems to placate my critical side for long enough. Keeping a design diary is helpful for this; I can see how my best designs started off as ordinary.

    The other thing that has helped me is to see myself as more of craftsman than an artist. I can then appreciate my ability to solve the client’s problem skillfully (as you do, judging by your portfolio), rather than pull off a piece of “stunning design.” The more confidence I have in that, the more my creative side is liberated.

    I think it’s maybe a good thing you didn’t get into design school. The critical side of you constantly wants to fix you by getting you more education, but it would never be satisfied. Recognise that, embrace your creative side, and have fun.

  46. KC Ramsay says:

    Christine, you have a lot of friends! I gave up a 30-year career in architecture to become a professional photographer. It’s hardly a business yet, but it will be. Julia Cameron is an enduring inspriration for me as well. Follow her advice: morning pages and artist’s dates. And hang in there. You are gifted, and the world needs your creative ability.

  47. Phyllis says:


    I felt like I was reading my own story with the details changed!!! I was an English major in college, never had a clue I wanted to be in design work. I call myself an “accidental designer,” because I stumbled into design work on the job. Learned much of it on my own, much of it from co-workers. Like Christine, I’ve never thought I was creative enough. I’ve seen the work of some really amazing designers, and I can’t match it at all! but, one thing to understand is that there are niches for all different types of design: I chose to work in the ultra-conservative business world. I think most designers would hate my job, because every design has to be very conservative, very traditional, etc. But I love it! It’s fun! There’s a place for all types of design, “cerebral” or not so. Just look for the right niche! Don’t worry if it’s not wild, crazy art that designers in another niche might be creating.

    And with that said, I think classes are always a great idea. I recently (year and a half ago) started taking online, entirely project-based courses at; I’m working on a certificate in graphic design. I have found that these courses help tremendously. Not only is it a wealth of information about design guidelines/conceptualizing etc. that I didn’t know, but it’s also repeatedly forcing me to be creative. Project after project, I have to come up with the entire concept and quite often the specifics of the audience who will supposedly be receiving the design, etc. It was intimidating at first but helpful to me once I got into it. My work has improved drastically. Many of the projects will go into my permanent portfolio. I would highly recommend these classes, especially since they’re online and you can work them around your regular job (I work full time as a designer so couldn’t easily attend physical classes), and you can take them from anywhere.

    The two most helpful resources I have are and Before & After magazine! :-) I hope I don’t sound too much like an ad, and I know I can’t tell somebody else what the answer is for their life. But I expect the courses (these or something similar) would make a difference for Christine also. I felt really sad reading Christine’s story, as I know just how she feels. Would like to tell her not to worry so much — just find the right niche — there’s plenty of demand for “cerebral” work! That’s how I make my living!!!


  48. Fabio says:

    Hi Christine,
    I travelled in Europe from one job to another during this 10 years, always in Web design! Now I deeply want to escape! But this is my day job, and at night I fly into dreamland drawing, painting, shooting. One month ago I had a heart stroke, but I will never give up with creativity . . .

  49. Julia says:

    Thank you Christine, for sharing. No person is or ever should be an island — you are so not alone. Thank you John, for creating this space for careful reflection, sharing, iron sharpening iron, etc. — an extension of the intuitive, insightful, beautiful design philosophy that permeates your work.

    For this designer-in-the-works (early 40s), that is what it’s all about: giving from a heart of abundance. That abundance might be skill, creativity, service, honor, dedication; something that when you start talking about it, you “glow” — your heart races, time stops when you’re in the midst of it — a passion for which you were created. And if monetary compensation awaits, you think, “I get to do this and get paid for it?” Each time Before & After arrives, I smile — it’s so obvious that someone absolutely loves what they do, and they’ve cared enough to share with me. Out of their generosity, I become a better person.

    As I walk a similar journey, I’ve been encouraged to look for a common thread — pianist by training, children’s bookseller by experience (believing a quality selection matters), and educational materials designer/publisher by surprise. The thread? Communicating a message in a most beautiful, excellent manner. (Kind of cerebral, I know.)

    Why the thread? It helps focus. Erwin McManus, author of Wide Awake, recommends the domino effect. Given you have many talents, experiences and abilities, focus on the one that will touch the others for the greatest sphere of influence. This helps determine whether you need additional training, say “yes” to a volunteer position, or even consider becoming a mentor (you really do have much to offer).

    As for creativity, you might enjoy “Sparks of Genius” by Michele M. Root-Bernstein and Robert S. Root-Bernstein. You’ll be challenged to play around with the 13 creative thinking tools they’ve found used by people across all disciplines. They offer ways to direct thinking in creative ways for us comfortable, in-the-box people.

    Be hopeful. Your future is bright.

  50. Nelson Tavares Matias says:

    Hi Christine,

    I understand your doubts and desires, but who knows it’s your moment to teach instead of learn? Probably you will get a lot of pleasure in doing it. Generally, we know more that we can imagine, so go ahead, put your hands to help someone, and you probably will receive more than you offer. Sorry about my English write style; I’m a Brazilian design professor. Good luck!

  51. Kerry says:

    Rick Tharp was a great designer who I admired for years. Yet, he took his own life a few years ago in 2005. In his briefcase on the Golden Gate Bridge — which he leaped off of — was some of his best work and a note saying, “Is this all there is?” or something of that sort.

    I used to think that the point of life was to find something that I enjoyed doing, and then doing it. I thought that my goal in life was to be a great designer with a lot of accolades, a big expense account, and being well-traveled.

    Then, after I graduated from college and did some freelance work, I discovered that many clients didn’t want to pay me. They wanted my work for free (or maybe $25 if they felt generous). It wasn’t that my work was bad or sub-par, it’s just human nature to want the most you can get for as little as possible.

    Also, I discovered that there were different standards for African-American designers even within the design community. (Think about it. How many African-Americans do you see in those AIGA conferences, receiving design awards, or being featured in design magazines?) While I’ve managed to garner some awards in my career, it’s hardly satisfying knowing that there are quite a few designers who aren’t honored at all in this profession.

    Then it hit me. I was about to spend the rest of my life trying to attain a goal that will mean very little when I die. I suppose it’s good to be a great designer, but for what purpose? I strive and strive, make pretty images that people will throw away for the next important thing, pay taxes, maybe own a home, and then I die. (And those who’ve experienced anything I’ve designed will not even shed a tear.)

    My point is not to depress anyone. Rather, I am writing to share my perspective about moving from a designer seeking to get some needs met to becoming a designer of value. What we do is not just for ourselves. What we do has a higher purpose than self-fulfillment. What we do serves mankind in some way. And what we do serves a higher spiritual purpose.

    Therefore, the conclusion I reached years ago drives what I do today. My motivation has moved from the perks of being a good designer toward doing what I am purposed to do — to give something of value that will have meaning in this life and into the next. I know this may sound esoteric, but it makes a difference whenever anyone contemplates learning something new or developing their skill set. It keeps front and center why I do what I do, so that I will not be discouraged by setbacks or restarts.

    No matter what it is that I love to do, there is a reason why I love it. And there is a purpose I must fulfill because of this. With this perspective in mind, my challenges become my opportunities to grow.

  52. Jane F says:

    I’m on the other side of the fence in terms of my history, which has been art education and commercial design. Though I’ve been managing designers and marketing staff with more of an art-direction role but mainly business duties, which has been rewarding, the challenges are great when you are older and can’t move around without a marketing degree. I find it is rare to have the business, design and creative abilities and find an environment that will appreciate them all as well. I constantly wonder these days about a completely new direction and agree with previous commentary on staying positive and never being too old to learn. Best to you in your future search. :-)

  53. Hi Christine,

    I didn’t have time to read all the comments above, but I thought the perspectives of Ryan and Sarah on 3rd June (top of page) were very interesting and made some good points.

    My experience of graphic design has actually been the reverse of yours. I trained as a designer/illustrator and later moved into marketing as director/owner at Admiral Design & Print. (When we bought Admiral as a going concern in 2002, it was a simple “jobbing printer” for local small businesses.) Two years later, we rebranded ourselves from “Printers” to “Design & Print” and haven’t looked back since, widening our geographic reach to the whole of the UK via our Web site.

    I took an interest in marketing out of necessity, as we didn’t have anyone in-house with the time and skills to do it, nor the money to outsource.

    We have just done a recruitment round (this time for an artworker/Mac operator), and I must say we would have had a very close look at anyone who told us they had marketing experience. Most designers don’t have, and it would make them a very valuable addition as an employee.

    If you want to stay freelance/self-employed (which I assume you do, based on the original article), then I think you could improve your design work to be more “cutting edge” if you continued your “visual education.” Before & After is a great starting place; I subscribe to it as a source of inspiration for our designers. There’s nothing wrong with self-study, but, of course, you miss out on the critiquing you would get on a formal course, which is a necessary part of any design education. You might be able to find a local designer who is willing to mentor you by critiquing your work, if you want to continue down the design route.

    However, I think you have a pretty niche set of skills, which gives you a fairly distinctive USP as a marketing consultant, as Sarah pointed out. Some options for you could be:

    Option 1:
    Make an alliance with a local design company or a couple of freelance designers, and position yourself as a visually aware marketer with a unique understanding of the design process, so you can offer a more-complete marketing “package” to your customers. (You could even extend this to working with local printers. We do this ourselves — trade printing for design companies and marketing companies.) As you are interested in design, you would probably really enjoy the process of interacting with creative people, but without having to acquire the considerable technical knowledge required to be a top-level designer!

    2) Position yourself as a designer with marketing experience — but if your greater expertise is as a marketer, you will be competing against people who are much more talented creatively than you are . . .

    . . . and there’s the nub of the “problem,” I think. The phrase “jack of all trades and master of none” comes to mind. While I think it’s OK to take an interest in other areas (related to your core business or not) because it makes you a more well-rounded business person, your best bet in terms of potential earnings is to become an “expert” in one area, but have a unique niche (which I hope I have explained that I think you already have). I just said this to my 18-year-old daughter, who is about to embark on the first step to becoming a graphic designer. If I gave one piece of advice to any young person, it would be this, “Become a real expert in one subject area, and you will never be out of work, so long as you keep your skills up to date.”

    That said, Wendi’s comment above is also valid, about doing what you love — just make sure it really is that you love design, not just that you’ve become “bored” with marketing! Ask yourself why you are moving toward design. Only you can answer that.

    My opinion, for what it’s worth — I hope it helps!

    Christine, I hope you find what you are looking for and end up doing what makes you happiest. Remember, it may not be the thing that has the most money-making potential! Have a think about what is important to you in life . . . :-)

    Good luck, Christine, and if you’re ever in need of help with examining your life/work values, keep an eye open for my new business venture starting this month, which centers around personal and professional development for the entrepreneur. That’s you, I think! ;-)

    Take care now,
    Gill Clark

  54. Brian says:

    My advice to you is:
    1. know what you want
    2. find out what you’re getting
    3. then change what you do to get what you want.

  55. Subarna says:

    Dear Christine,

    I really can’t advise, but I would like to share my situation, which is quite similar to yours, though I am from a different county.

    I always used to like doing craft in school. I was the girl in our school house who used to draw the soft-board pictures every month on every topic in each standard. I was the best girl to do stitching and knitting in my batch.

    But sadly, after all these open indications by God, still I was unaware that this was my career.

    To excel in life in my country, science stream is the best to pursue in one’s career. It’s always best to either be a doctor or an engineer. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, and I used to love biology, especially since you could do all those diagrams. So I graduated in Bio-Science.

    Then life took a strange turn. Before my grad results were out, I thought of learning computers to utilize the time. I visited the institute and asked what are the courses available. They said software engineering and desktop publishing. I asked, what is desktop publishing? Once I got the answer, I knew this is something that I would love.

    And I loved it so much that I started topping in all the semesters (I was an average student in school). Before my last semester ended, I already had a job. It was great.

    But once I started working, I understood that software were only tools; it didn’t help me do a good layout. I was stuck. I started browsing Internet and joined the graphic design forum. I learned many things. Then I came to know about Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book and bought it from Amazon. This was an amazing book to me, which pointed out what I was lacking. And the trend started to buy very costly (in my currency) design books that increased my knowledge. Now I have a mini design library consisting of books catering to color, layout, typography, design theory. I subscribed to different design magazines including Before & After. I discontinued other mags and continued subscription only with Before & After.

    I wanted to continue my design education. But I was above 25 years then, and in my country after a certain age it’s difficult to join university again, and at that time there were couple of design colleges that one could join. The best one, National Design School, only allows application below 25 years. I tried online institutes also, but they were beyond me in budget. I really bang my head and wish I could have understood this skill of mine during college years. I really miss a design degree.

    I had a good career. I started as a graphic designeer in an MNC e-learning company and went on to be visual design lead in that company. Then I joined a world-renowned consulting company as the assistant communication manager. I was told I was very good in leadership and managing roles. But I always used to feel dissatisfied, since the scope of graphic design in e-learning was limited, and in communication department one can only work with one brand according to style guide. Now I quit full-time job to do freelance, so that I can do quality work. But I rarely get clients, since everybody wants experience in real design work like working in an ad agency as a visualizer. I really regret not trying to work in an ad agency in my younger years. Now nobody hires me as a fresher, as I have 11 years of work experience. I had registered as a paid member in different freelance Web site, but sadly never won a single bid in three years’ time.

    I am stuck in my career. I am 33, a mother and homemaker, so I can’t devote my 100% time towards restructuring my career. I don’t know where to go from here.

    But I keep hope and have decided not to take up any career other than graphic design, since this is what I love doing . . . this is something that makes me happy.

    Currently started sketching again, reading Keys to Drawing by Burt Dodson. Doing pastel sketches also. Participating in free design competitions/poster competitions so that I don’t get stuck with my skill.

    I believe what God gives us is what we need and not what we want. So waiting to see if God has further plans for me in this field and trying my best.

    Please keep hope . . . something may come up around the corner. I know even patience has a limit, but that’s the only thing we have in our hand, i.e., hope . . .

  56. You must temporarily have a confidence issue. Your work is lovely to look at, and you are up-to-date with Web technology. And you have wonderful, intelligent clients. In your photo you look young! Your credentials are outstanding.

    Perhaps you need to offer your services to those back home in Vermont and throughout the U.S. I was not sure if your bottom line was making money at this or feeling creative. I gave up every other career option except for graphics for the past two years, and I need to make more money.

    Keep learning. I suggest an MFA from the many online programs such as at Savannah College of Art and Design for a terminal degree, which would allow you to teach at the university that rejected you! I have a similar story, and I keep up skills with and primarily with Please write to me if you want to know about this experience.

    I believe if we “creative” folks spent five hours sketching and brainstorming even before doing the research and mood boards, every piece would be amazing and highly creative. The issue is that this time is not in the budget — well, at least for me.

    I learned a lot reading every post; thanks for your letter.

    Also, I am available to freelance for your company!

  57. Droolcup says:

    Dear Christine (and all):

    Many inspiring and fascinating posts. I felt I needed to chime in.

    My background is two degrees in English Lit., a master’s in Speech Pathology and Audiology, and parts of two doctorates, one of which was in Speech Science. Then I got married and became a mother. I stumbled into computers at 40 when I was pregnant with my last child, reasoning that if something happened to the breadwinner, I would need to be computer literate because all jobs were so tending and there were three little open mouths to consider. Got a used Mac Plus for my 40th birthday and embarked on 16 classes in PageMaker at the suggestion of a friend. Self-taught Word, Canvas, Photoshop (not necessarily well, of course). Embarked as a mom at home with a small desktop-publishing business, which was not marketed but operated solely upon word of mouth. Did some good work, earned a little cash, and learned a few things, some of which I’d like to share, though they may repeat advice already given. I also taught for a few years at a local junior college, in courses like “visual literacy” (computer design), basic computer skills, business skills and English and public speaking. I was not retained as an instructor after they developed a full-fledged multimedia program, because I didn’t have the professional credentials. At present I have no clients but still love design and my computer.

    Here goes:

    1. Good design, in whatever form, is classic, timeless. It stands up when all the glitter has faded. Many designers who are hot are like kids using all the Crayolas out of the box. The clean, understated, clear communication of solid design lasts longer. Your designs are clear and solid.

    2. If design is what you love, you are by nature a creative soul. That creativity will emerge (as it must) in whatever arena is open to it, as dictated by life paths. You may be working, may be a mother at home, may have a disabled spouse or an elder to care for that precludes working for money. But your creative side will emerge in your sock drawer, in the kitchen, on the bookshelf, in the pro bono work you do for your friends or church, in your garden, in the way you order your house, and give gifts. You may design greeting cards or presents for friends; you may design a cookbook or pamphlets to illustrate the workshops you teach on bread and using the processor; you may design a series of cartoon cards while you are undergoing cancer treatment. The creativity is there. It will out. If you are not working for pay, you may be designing instructional materials for the quilting classes you teach children, or doing a memorial book for a late parent, or designing the layout for a book of poetry or children’s books for your grandkids.

    3. Learning is unending. It is part of the package of being on the planet and drawing breath. As I have been known to complain, my learning curve is permanently welded to the upgrade spiral, but this is not a bad thing. You will stay younger longer with your brain chewing away to push the envelope. I am in my sixties and have barely scratched the surface of what I want to do in design. You will never be satisfied with what you know but will always want to learn more and strive to improve, and with repeated performance, you will improve. This is part of the creative drive.

    4. As McWade hath writ: good design costs no more than bad design, and there are many things generated daily that require designing. One need not limit oneself to the most remunerative of jobs or the most popular; the advice on doing what you love for a cause you believe in is good. I designed an excellent church logo for no pay with no particular training other than Before & After and various books on what constitutes good design, and some which housed fine exemplars.

    5. My father was a successful commercial photographer, and a perfectionist. He would do six shots of a product that were excellent (thinking things like “how do you make a tire important and magnificent?”) and then throw in some schlock that he knew the owner of the company would select, because he had started out in the stockroom 35 years ago and worked his way to owning the company, and while he knew nothing of marketing, he by gum knew what he liked. But Dad had to satisfy his own instinct to create and to do good work, honest design. Before he died, after I had done a few jobs for a local school system, I could show him the work and we could agree that journeyman work, well done, in a medium one enjoys, is extremely satisfying. To know one has done one’s best and done a good job, communicated cleanly and well, honoring the product or the client, and resulting in solid design, is eminently satisfying. There are few greater rewards in the field.

    It would appear you have all the components you need: continue as you have begun, learning more and producing good design. You are obviously solvent, so that is more than half the battle. If you find you wish to take your design into a different area, designing for yourself, there is great scope there. Judge your work by the best standards of design, not by what other people are necessarily doing. You may learn from their output, good or bad, and may emulate techniques and expand your skills, but should not judge yourself by them.

  58. Hello there! Yep, it’s me . . . the designer who “put her guts out there.” Wow, what a sharing of incredible experiences and insights. Aren’t you glad that John asked me if I dared having my e-mail published? John, it was a superb idea (I believe). I hope that everyone is enjoying the conversation as much as I am. It is so rare to have the opportunity to share our paths, our passion, and our thoughts about our businesses. After all, most of us are “one-man shops.” We speak to our clients, we speak to our spouse . . . but to fellow designers like us . . . so openly?

    I can read that we are all doing what we are doing because we are all passionate. It reminds me of the book on the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, of course) I read a couple of years ago. So many cooks start a second career in cooking after being a “suit” at IBM or for an insurance company. And they do it because of their passion for cooking.

    I can read also that we all strive to always be better, not always satisfied with the results, but willing to pursue, and keep learning, and learning more.

    It reminds me what a great friend of mine says about a saxophone player. You can feel that he has the music in his head, and sometimes you realize that his fingers are not fast enough to play the music that is in his head!

    Well, thanks for the nice compliments about my work (who doesn’t enjoy compliments?), but more importantly, thanks for all the insights. I hope we all learned something in the process. I won’t do justice today to all that has been written. In a few days I probably will write again and highlight a few things that particularly resonated with me.

    There are tons of practical tips and general concepts in what everyone has written. This is golden stuff!!

    I have to say that the comment about working in your client’s office made me smile. I wish I could find it again in the long list to credit its author . . . but I am searching in vain. [Randy Martin, June 3 — ed.]

    I had a dream for five years of a mobile office. I was going to transform an Airstream — shiny, round, cute little Airstream — into a mobile designer studio. I was going to have a large company logo on it and drive the roads of Vermont from town to town with it, stopping at various offices to do their work. What about that for an “outside-the-box” creative idea? The funny thing is that some practicality was what ended up killing the concept. Imagine: I hate driving and parking a pick-up! How could I even conceive of a pick-up pulling an Airstream every day!? Well, any of you, feel free to use the idea if you like it!

    And for now, thanks again for so many good insights. (Hey, and thanks for my Google Analytics traffic data — they have been “off the roof” for the past couple of days!)

    Good luck to all of you, and keep up the passion!

  59. Angela says:


    I have a BA in Graphic Design and an Associates degree in General Business. In my career field as a designer I encounter many other designers who wish they were more business savvy. My advice to you is to stick to what you are really talented in, which appears to be business/marketing. From looking at your work, it looks to me like you have more talent in design than do most business-minded individuals, but maybe that talent is not as developed as necessary to make a career out of it. Realize that you may not be on the designer level yet, but you have to start somewhere. My advice to you is to pursue your interests in the design world and see where it will take you. If you really want to be a serious designer, it is my opinion that you need to get a BA. Your work looks good — you have a great foundation to build on!

  60. donna says:

    Wow. Kudos to everyone for their comments. Everyone is so supportive. I’m a self-taught, in-house designer (I chose journalism school over art), and I’ve been struggling with this very problem myself, and it was great to see that I’m not alone in this. It’s really bolstered my spirits, so thanks to all of you.

  61. Annette Denbeau says:

    Ahhh . . . the age- (20-year) old question of how technology made people “feel” like they could be artists. As in every discipline there are those who are gifted and those who work harder to achieve results. Both are worthy of participation. “Real” talent may be able to lead on the edge of creativity and be paid accordingly, but there’s something to be said for getting the job done, too. I came out of an era where, if you were any kind of artist getting paid for lending your talent to a commercial venue, you were a ho, compromising your ethics. I question the “need” to feel aesthetically fulfilled when I look at a deodorant label. If you find joy and fulfillment in what you’re doing, you’ll do it because you love “it,” so where is the compromise in that? Technology may not replace talent, but it keeps it honest.

    The second bubble I’ll burst and offer some real advice about the next step . . . Develop an eye. Beauty has a ratio. The reason ballet is compelling from every angle is balance and a beautiful line. When you can move someone’s eye from one place to another and their thoughts from one objective to another, as an artist you’ve done your job.

    Enjoy your purpose in life; it’s the only shot you’ve got.

  62. Miguel Chiner says:

    Hi, Christine,
    I was in a similar situation when I started out, 20 years ago. I studied graphic design in a school in my hometown, Valencia (Spain). But it took me years of professional practice to become a real designer. What I want to tell you is: It is not the system that teaches you, it’s you who learns from the system. You have the most important thing: the will. Who cares if you are 50 or 25? This is my advice: keep on looking, keep on learning, keep on dreaming. Life is too short . . .

    Good luck, hope I helped you.

  63. L.S. says:

    Hi Christine!

    I have been and still am where you are, even to our age! I started in fashion design! With no work in that field, I took the first job in the design field — sign design — and love it! Am I the world’s greatest graphic designer? Not by a long shot. But I enjoy my job, and I work for a company that likes my work and has clients who like my work.

    If you’re looking for additional education in the art/design, etc. field, look into the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online. I graduated with a Digital Design Diploma in 2007 and still believe that it was a great decision. The best part is that it’s online classes — you attend on your schedule. Don’t let anyone fool you that online classes are easier, because they’re not; they’re harder in some ways. The classes are far more condensed than traditional classes. The people you initially talk to are not pushy or hard-sell. The other students I worked with — people of all ages — were some of the most talented people I’ve ever seen, and they are so supportive that you never feel inadequate. Not only that, but it was fun! Look into the online school. If you’re feeling undereducated, it might just be the thing you need! Best wishes!


  64. Mike Daymon says:

    Hi Christine,

    You no doubt have all the advice you can use by now, however:

    1. Nelson Tavares Matias is right; if you have an opportunity to teach, you will receive more than you offer. Teach anywhere you can, to anyone who wants to learn. If you can’t teach somewhere, then start writing articles and teach your readers. Be the expert, and you will, surprisingly, learn a lot.

    2. Not all clients want creativity. A lot of clients detest creativity (real creativity involves real risks, you see). In fact, one’s greatest creative effort is often expended on appearing to not be too creative. So keep in mind that you are, as Paulie says, a craftsperson — do a quality job. Creativity will come when both you and your client are willing to take risks (emphasis on “and your client”).

    3. New generations of designers are discovering that there are no longer mentors, art directors, creative directors, or experienced designers in the workplace from whom they can learn. Most positions today are terribly isolated one-designer-per-company slots, where the unfortunate designer is expected to be designer, production artist, illustrator, copywriter, media buyer, print buyer, photographer, color separator, editor, typesetter, and whatever else the company needs. I know of one government contractor that set up a new graphics department, then staffed it with six people, with the most-experienced individual having been in the field for only 24 months. If you can find a mentor, then by all means, establish a mentoring or supervisory relationship. Form a “board of directors” to review your design work each month — buy them dinner or something.

    My mentor, Newt Heisley, who designed the POW-MIA flag, died two weeks ago. He provided friendship and guidance for over 30 years. Eventually, it was (admittedly) mostly lunch, but we always, always discussed design!

    4. As a designer, I’ve always known that what it takes to succeed in this business is to be . . . a marketing person! Think about it: designers romance, entice, entertain, and cajole, but marketing people sell. You’re in the ideal position to have a wonderful career as a designer. Believe in what you’re selling — believe in your creativity and experience.

    Best regards,


  65. I’m 47 years old and a completely self-taught designer. I work with other designers who have degrees in fine art and graphic arts. Some are much better than I, and really, some are not, despite their education.

    Your portfolio is very strong. While you may never consider yourself a proper designer without the “degree” — if you are doing what you love, making a living and continuing to create, you are doing well.

    I find avoiding clients who want it “cheap” keeps my life simpler. I have fewer clients, but I am paid fairly and respected more.

    Good luck.

  66. Tom Semmes says:

    I am not sure that I have any good advice, because Christine’s query brought up more questions than answers for me. I had to laugh a bit, because being about the same age I have had many of the same thoughts. I thought I was the only one. I have been a graphic designer for so many years but still don’t feel that I exactly fit that job title. For one, I don’t have a degree or education in graphics arts. I fell sideways into my career, after dropping out of fine arts school (RISD), where I studied painting. I couldn’t see becoming a painter as a living, and, needing income, I took on a job doing paste-up (how many people know anymore what that is?) and then moved from one job to another where (with the help of Before & After) I became the solo designer for a non-profit and now work as a consultant Web/designer for several businesses. But part of me still feels that my true calling is as an artist, and I have been taking classes and participating in shows for the last ten years. I know that both design and art are creative fields, but somehow design just doesn’t satisfy some part of me. The Web site I listed is for my art Web site, since it is the one I put more time and passion into. I worry a bit that with my focus divided I might begin to lose business, but I just try to trust that it will all work out and that I can pursue my passion and make a living, though right now it feels very confusing. Maybe I need advice more than I have any to give.

  67. Mary Koster says:


    As many have already said, you are not alone. I too have been at the same crossroads — wondering whether my talent is good enough, strong enough, or will get me far enough to lead a comfortable life. I love design and art, and it’s all I have ever wanted to do. But somewhere along the way, I also discovered I liked managing a team and marketing, and other tasks that fellow designers shied away from. So, while I may not hold always the most glamorous positions, I hold out hope that my next job will find a better fit for my skills and allow me to explore more of what I enjoy. I love to design, but I love to manage. I love to draw, but I love to photograph, too. It’s a strange world where we have to do ONE thing and one thing only our whole lives. I am now of the opinion after going back to school at 33 (I’m now 35) that it was the best decision I have ever made — it made me realize that we are never too old to change our direction and move into a different career or avenue with our work. And we’re never too old to learn. Never give up on yourself. There are always those better than us out there, and those worse, so hopefully what makes us unique shines through to the right people. I hold out hope that I find a good match in my next job . . . I just graduated, so it’s time to see what this degree will do for me after being laid off from my last job! Good luck to you — and really, you are definitely not alone in how you feel. All the best.

  68. Mike Roche says:

    I stumbled into paste-up layouts and rudimentary design work in my first job out of college. I have a B.A. in business communications, and had thoughts of teaching, but landed a job as a customer-service rep for an insurance company in an otherwise very tight job market, so I put my head down and settled in. Can you picture something more boring than redesigning insurance forms, manually, with a glue stick, a typewriter and a copy machine?

    It was 1987, the dawn of DTP, “Aldus PageMaker 1.0a,” (I still have the diskettes), Postscript and the first LaserWriter. There were no classes, and no one I knew could afford the hardware and software needed to run these. So I read everything I could get my hands on about this revolution.

    Two years later, I knew enough about this stuff to convince a boss to make the plunge, but bowing to “MS” pressure, they invested in a PC DTP system. Talk about a learning curve! Windows’ “Unrecoverable Application Errors,” driver conflicts, hardware failures, long nights, poring over user manuals and waiting on hold for software tech support that never quite solved much. I became my own hardware and software tech support guy.

    After trading a lack of a pay raise for a change in job title, I moved from insurance forms to making price charts for a window-coverings manufacturer — yes, tables and calculations changing on the fly and trying desperately to typeset real fractions. Did I mention that I was still on a PC system, running Lotus 1-2-3 and PageMaker 1.0a? . . . (from whence I saved my treasured diskettes).

    Having beaten my PC system into submission, I took a class at a community college. My first look at a Mac, SE’s, phone-net connectors, etc. After my first classroom session, the teacher asked me to run his lab sessions, even said he’d pay me! Based on my telling him what I knew about PC DTP systems, he said I could do what needed to be done for Mac lab work with one hand behind my back.

    Insurance forms, price charts, all the glamorous stuff.

    Moved onto newsletters and user guides in my next job. (Does it get more exciting than this?)

    And then I jumped to the other side of the fence. I went to work for a printer based on the quality of files I supplied to them. Preflighting and typesetting business cards, forms, and yes, diplomas by the thousands.

    I’ve had a few other jobs since then. I’ve even managed a few prepress departments, but I found myself missing the satisfaction of doing the actual production work, making a few minor tweaks so a file can be reproduced well on press. Catching a typo before we print up 50,000 copies of an annual report. Color-correcting an otherwise perfectly good image so the company looks good, etc.

    Good enough? Creative enough? I was able to parlay my knowledge of prepress and production into a part-time teaching gig in the publishing program of a highly reputable university here in Chicago.

    Take heart. You have the skills you need. You have the interest to keep learning, and, having earned an MBA, I know you have the diligence to persevere. Muster your talents like an arsenal before you do battle with the next project, and go at it confidently, knowing you have more tricks up your sleeve than some 20-something designer who doesn’t know the first thing about actually “communicating” a message, whether it’s in print or online.

    Age and wisdom will overcome youth and exuberance.

    — Mike Roche

  69. Jim O'Donnell says:

    Christine, you’ve got background that most designers don’t: a lifetime of traversing that perilous gap between clients and their audience. You’ve been practicing the synthesis of relevant messaging that moves people, and design is a communications tool. From the perspective of another 50-something practitioner who added design to his toolkit later in his career: keep going. While I strive for great design, I won’t compromise on message and always, always focus on results. Did the phone ring? Did the cash register ring?

  70. Scott Wallace says:

    Wow, you have a lot of replies. Sounds like your story has resonated with many. For what it’s worth, I’m a clinical psychologist with no formal design training, yet I’m in the enviable (to me) position of being the brand developer and graphic design resource for a large national health services company. I’ve found that my degree opened the door (as your MBA would open many) and, once inside, I began rebuilding the company brand, editing and rewriting every bit of copy I could get my hands on (all customer and client materials . . . to help establish our unique voice in the marketplace), voluntarily presented a website with a marketing concept/brochures/posters, all of which has been adopted to rave reviews. I still contribute specific psychological expertise to what I do, but I’ve managed to marry my education (psychology) and passion (design) by doing, showing and demonstrating, never asking and waiting. All the best to you.

  71. T Cyprus says:

    So nice to read that many of us are on the same path all over the world :-) Good luck to all on our journey of design. I’m glad we are all doing what we love.

Comments are closed.