Andy Cooke

Design & direction across brand identity, screen and print

It’s time to change the rhetoric of the ‘designer’ role

  1. 1,178 words
  2. 5 minute read

Recently, I’ve been consumed with the notion of being a designer. I mean, in my mind, of course I am. I studied graphic design. I taught design for 4 years. My books have been about the subject of design. However my official title for a long time hasn’t been a ‘Designer’. But if I’m not a designer, then what am I? A director? Well yeah, sure, I guess.

The semantics of the industry norm around titles, and how this relates to being a practicing designer, is interesting. Does being a ‘director’, of creative, or art (or anything), really connect to those who are very, very good designers? There’s a clear difference here. I mean, say you’re one of these very, very good designers; you’re fast, consider the form vs. function necessities, have incredible attention to detail, focus on your craft, define trends with your work and can pull visionary rabbits out of the hat—and so on.

Why then, does the conventional career path of moving toward a directorship title remove these skills from one’s day-to-day duties? Isn’t it the very reason that person got there in the first place?

When we start out, we are more than happy to be the one to take direction, it’s how we learn and develop. This is essential — everybody needs it. There have to be designers out there who are great at directing people, which is a default requirement in any director role. The term director defines that trait.

Then, when we start to develop, to grow and understand the role and industry, there is an innate desire to gain more and more seniority in our job title. A dash of ego, a sprinkling of pride and a big old mixing bowl of being more in control of your own work are the main drivers. But with that seniority comes responsibility that some very, very good designers are very, very bad at. Maybe they’re not great with other people, or they can’t sell the work in to the client. They don’t understand the business side of things, or are bad at budgeting. Should they be called directors? Well, probably not, in honesty. Because then they’re not really directing. But what are they supposed to do, be Senior Designers forever..?

Designers either see strengths and weaknesses in themselves or others, and if they can be spotted at the right time and then put on the relevant track, they’ll end up doing better work that is more suited to them. Nobody has got time to do a career’s worth of work that they don’t enjoy, moving up a ladder they just think they should be. We need a happier workforce that will produce more meaningful work because of it. So how might we solve this?

We all need to feel as if we’re progressing in our careers, and an official title is deemed a suitable recognition of that. Nobody wants to be just a designer their whole career… right? Or do they?

Well… what’s wrong with that idea? Curiously, when people I meet for the first time ask me what I do for work, my most common reply is “I’m a designer”, and only after further conversation does the plot thicken. Some of the greatest creative minds in the industry, who are cornerstones of mood boards on studio walls around the globe were ‘only ever’ designers. Take Paul Rand and Dieter Rams, for instance. Do we reference these industry titans, but look less upon their achievements because they were ‘only’ ever labelled as designers? Of course not.

They defined industries, practices and thinking with their work.

More recently, I was reminded of something Stefan Sagmeister spoke about when I saw him speak at AGI Open last year. It’s been well publicised that he and Jessica Walsh have parted ways in a professional construct, with Jessica taking the commercial client list over to a new venture called & Walsh. What is Stefan doing? In a slight paraphrase of his words, he is moving on to stay focused on “creating beautiful things”.

Essentially, he has gone full circle to being a designer again. He’s been through the trope of designing, moving on to directing others, only to return to focus on the craft of design once more.

How beautiful is that?

Is then, the ultimate goal for a designer, just to be a designer all over again?

Honestly, after all the career laddering, posturing, ego building, politicising and directing—what would we rather we doing every day (gun to your head, come on)? There’s something romantic in the idea of being a designer forever. It shouldn’t take somebody an entire career to figure that out, either.

When I really think about it… man, I do love designing. It is what I studied. It is what I teach. It is what I write about. And sure, I still get to do some design in my day-to-day. But a lot less than I used to since taking up various directorship positions these past five years or so.

I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one, too. Have I been happy in my Creative Director role for the last however many years? Absolutely. I manage, I make.

Both interest me in different ways.

But I believe making is what many of us are truly longing for, hand on heart. To be able to create, away from all the meetings and bureaucracy that gets in the way. Sure, there are those that truly relish the managerial aspect of a director role. There are others that make the transition from solely being a designer to being great managers of design and designers. They excel at it, and together with other talented creators, come up with great work. Good, the industry needs that.

But there has to be a way to make people want to be a designer all the way through their career, rather than chasing the director title for the sake of perceived progression. The goal has to be to pour the same meaning into the title of ‘designer’ that gives the same pride, respect and ambition that a directorship does.

It’s a task that’s bigger than just one company. But if these very, very good designers—who are makers rather than managers—are really allowed to keep on making, then we’re going to need to have a wider conversation across the entire industry, and switch up those conventions.

Even with the obvious monetary issues, we can figure this out. We’re all innovators, right?