What happens to old designers?

Monty Python I'm not dead


I’ve written a lot about my lettering and illustration process, but not much about how I got into lettering and illustration. There’s no doubt that graphic design is a young person’s game. Stats show that only about 5% of designers are 50+ years of age. So where do the old designers go?

My college education was a bit … muddled. I entered into the Graphic Design program at Dawson College in Montreal in 1981. At the time, this was one of the few English speaking programs available in the city. and no, I didn’t speak French (more on that later). I initially wanted to enrol in their Illustration and Design program, because, hey, drawing. During the portfolio review, one of the program instructors suggested I go into their Graphic Design program instead. Um. Ok. I guess you know best. Plus, I’m a shy 19 year old who’s afraid to speak up.

During that first year, the same instructor who suggested I go into the Graphic Design program says to me, “Hey, you should switch over to the Illustration and Design program”. Wait. What? So I made the switch, and the clock got reset to zero.

When I graduated in 1985, Montreal was a somewhat gloomy place. Many companies had left the province after the PQ came to power in 1976. Jobs were hard to find, and even harder if you weren’t fluent in French.

So here’s me, an anglophile in a province where the official language was French, looking for work in a small industry, in a less-than-ideal work environment. My whole life, up to that point, was encased in the english speaking bubble of the West Island. In the back of my mind, I knew there would be a reckoning. Now here it was.

Here was the other hard reality: I wasn’t that great at illustration. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I mean, I didn’t suck, but it was still a struggle. While a lot of my friends in the Graphic Design program weren’t necessarily getting hired as full-fledged designers, their path was a bit easier. There was a big demand, at the time, for paste-up—or assembly—work. As the Mac was only introduced the year I graduated, all the work we did was by hand. There were no digital cameras, no layout or photo editing apps, and of course no digital typefaces. Assembly work meant you had to take all the component bits—sheets of typeset copy, black and white line art and photos, then cut and paste everything together on a board.

I stuck it out in Montreal for about a year, working at a few temporary jobs—electrical drafting, a bit of assembly, and illustrating (which I got fired from).

It was then that another instructor—whom we all loved dearly—suggested I pack up my car and go to Toronto. And just like the Beverly Hillbillies, that’s exactly what I did—except no fortune, and no jalopy.

My first job in Toronto was, yup, as an assembly artist. It could be mundane, but it taught me patience, and an eye for detail. I did get to do the occasional spot illustration, so there was that. I also worked with great people.

That job also taught me a lot about typography and layout. Even though I wasn’t the one designing the layouts (those came from actual designers), through a process of osmosis, I learned what worked and what didn’t. We couldn’t always follow the layout exactly—they never gave us enough room to fit the copy—so improvising boosted my skills.

Eventually, that did became boring. I wasn’t learning anything new, and there wasn’t anywhere for me to grow within the company. In 1989, I moved to K-Mart Advertising as a junior layout artist. It was here I got to employ all the things I had seen, but not been able to do, as an assembly artist. It was also a level of “illustration” I was comfortable with. We had to work fast, so the renderings weren’t finished, or even particularly detailed. We still had to consider typography, logos, and copy, so this was a great way to learn about balance and structure.

Eventually, this too became dull, and I moved to a small agency as a junior designer. It still meant I did everything, assembly, specing type and marker rendering. However, now I was also making conceptual decisions.

I worked at several other agencies after that, including freelancing for many years. The general duties remained the same, although I worked in different industries—manufacturing, software and pharmaceutical.

I suppose it was like most career paths—start green, get some experience, move on, rinse and repeat.


So how the heck did I get HERE?

I can’t pinpoint one specific thing that made me jump up and say “I’m going to be a letterer and illustrator!”, although I did eventually come to that conclusion.

At this point, I had been in the industry for over 30 years. A long time. I had gotten used to the status quo, and I just wasn’t happy. I wouldn’t call it burnout, but for sure I wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing anymore.

I had to ask myself: Am I doing this just because I know HOW to do it? Is this how it’s going to be from now on?

I was getting frustrated with some of my clients. I know, there are no bad clients, only bad designers. It got to the point where I dreaded hearing the chime of a new email—“Oh No. What is it NOW?” I had become frustrated and stressed out. I had become a technician, and not a partner. This is something I’m going to touch on in future posts.

There was also a lot of turmoil in the industry. Friends and colleagues who had been designers for many years were getting out of the industry. I’m not saying that was a general trend, but it was happening a lot in my small circle, and it weighed on me.

I had to do some hard thinking about where I wanted to go. Perhaps I wipe the slate clean, and consider a career completely outside design. A bit scary, but there was a certain appeal of a “regular” 9-5 job.

I started to work with a career councillor in the summer of 2016.

Over the course of several months, we discussed my wishes, goals, values and fears. We also explored a number of different career paths, including:

  • UX/UI Designer
  • Technical Writer
  • Human Resources Manager
  • Building Manager
  • Paralegal
  • Credit Analyst
  • Electrician
  • Medical Technician
  • Private Detective (yeah, really).

I was open to anything where I could leverage some of my existing skills. However, while we were keeping an open mind about possibilities, we had to be realistic. We developed a spread sheet based on the following criteria:

  • What’s the barrier to entry?
  • Is age a factor?
  • Is self-employment an option?
  • Is the market commoditized?
  • Is there a need in the market?
  • Is the market saturated?
  • What’s the time to retrain?

A couple of issues came up very quickly.

Many of the jobs I was looking at required many years of relevant experience. For example, Building Managers have typically worked for years in the construction industry. Many of the others—Paralegal, Electrician, Credit Analyst, Medical Technician—would require years of retraining.

Then there’s ageism. Let’s not kid ourselves. I was 54 when I was going through this process. There was the realistic prospect of two or three years of training. At the end of that, I would be in my late 50s. How employable am I going to be? For a time, I was really gravitating towards the UX/UI design. I obviously had a lot of transferrable skills, and the training wouldn’t take years. I reached out to a few people in the industry, and they all told me the prospects of a company hiring a 55 year old, with no practical experience, were almost non-existant. I’m not saying it was impossible, but it sure looked grim.

And yes, others have done it. But I had to ask myself if I was prepared to make the sacrifice.

The answer was pointing to no.

Hand lettering was increasingly getting my notice, and I realized this was actually a thing. I started pinning art that I liked, and buying books about it. I found it intriguing as it was a blend of design, typography and illustration.

It was around this time my partner pointed out a print of a funky, retro robot at IKEA. “You know, you could do something like that”, she said. So the bug had been put into my head.

Then my father passed away.

I took a few months off work to help out my mom. This also gave me time to process everything. I had been putting off a career decision, for fear that it may be the wrong one. But as the Rush lyrics go, it you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

I realized I couldn’t just walk away from 30+ years of experience. The idea of it actually made me sad. There were parts of it I still enjoyed, but anything new would have to be on my own terms.

This was where I decided to dive head first into lettering and illustration.


What happened to THIS old designer

The evaluation criteria looked like this:

  • What’s the barrier to entry? Low.
  • Is age a factor? No.
  • Is self-employment an option? Yes.
  • Is the market commoditized? No.
  • Is there a need in the market? Yes.
  • Is the market saturated? Unknown.
  • What’s the time to retrain? Low, with caveats.

Yes, there are some unknowns. In doing my research, I came across posts where people thought there were too many letterers flooding the market. I’m not sure that’s actually true, and I haven’t found any stats to back this up. The fact that people are getting into lettering shows there’s a viable market. If no one were doing it, that would make me nervous.

I put the time to retrain as “low”, but there’s an unknown here as well. While I’m proficient in idea generation, sketching, and using many different software apps, I haven’t SPECIFICALLY done lettering and illustration. My skills in icon and logo design, layout and typography will go a long way to make that transition easier and faster. It also took many years for my style to “brew” in the background, so perhaps I was only ready to “detour” at this point in my career.

The great thing with all this is I already had everything I needed. I could just sit down at the desk and start working.

Moving forward, it means I need to cultivate a different attitude towards client work. I’m not looking to transform clients. I want clients to approach me, not the other way around. I want to farm, not hunt.

I still have a lot to learn. Having a professional mindset means locking yourself into your process, and sticking with it. The lens at which I look at things is very different now. Making the switch means letting go of other things, and I’m okay with that.

I can’t tell you where all the other old designers go, but i can tell you where this old designer went.

(Ok. I’m not really old … 55 at the time I wrote this.)