The Creative Game of Titles (Part 1)
The Identity Riddle
If your job is to do any form of what is commonly referred to as creative work, I have a question for you:
Have you ever been in a situation where a family member, a new acquaintance, or even just a random person you once met in a casual event asked you “What do you do for living?” and you suddenly found yourself staring into the void, thinking of how to spell it out in a few clear words without making it sound either too trivial or too complicated? Do you usually find it difficult to explain your work to other people?
If your answer is “Hell, yes!” don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Years ago when I started digging my way professionally as an independent designer, it was a no-brainer to me to simply call myself a “Graphic Designer”. About two years later after successfully completing a web design course, with no hesitation I changed my job title to “Graphic and Web Designer” instead. As a self-taught designer, I admit that I was not fully aware in the beginning of many technical terms and the different roles and specialties inside the field. Along the way, I kept wondering if I chose the right title to describe what I do, or if there is a more accurate one. The more I learned and interacted with other creative professionals, I realized that the fine line between different jobs sometimes can be extremely fine, and that the structure inside the design industry is more divergent, blended, and complicated than it might seem from the outside.
I need to clarify that by “job title” I don’t only mean the two or three words written on your business card or your company ID, but more importantly the way you briefly address yourself to others, both in the real world and online, and whether you are speaking to a friend or to a prospect client. That sometimes can feel like a real source of inconvenience.
So, why is it much harder for creative professionals to describe what they do, compared to other professions? Let’s try to find out!
Note: I will be mostly tackling aspects that matter to visual design in particular (since this is what I do) but I’m also expecting the following points to be relevant to many other specialties as well.
1. NO SCHOOL, NO PROBLEM?
Realizing that I have a lot to write on this point, I decided to save all the details for a separate future post, so you don’t get bored (Ahem, in case you haven’t already!) For now, I just need to highlight that among the increasing number of people joining the creative business, a fair percentage — including myself — didn’t graduate from design or art schools. They are rather self-learners who primarily depended on standalone classes or online courses.
I will not be going through the pros and cons this time, but one point that would be relevant here is that the ease of access, flexibility, and the relatively lower cost of online learning encouraged many people to start studying too many things in the same time. While this is typically may be considered as something positive, but it also carries a few hidden drawbacks. The temptation to learn everything can sometimes lead to a sense of ambiguity and a lack of direction. You end up doing so many things, that you don’t know what to call yourself anymore. A jack of all trades, perhaps.
The confusion between what you are able to do and what you actually want to do might give you a hard time presenting yourself professionally. Not to freak out, settling on a direction is often a matter of time and gaining more experience. But it’s also worth mentioning that the guidance and career planning which — ideally — should be provided by formal schools and universities is definitely something that can help people feel more confident and aware of what they do.
2. JOKER-ING AROUND
I worked on different projects where I was not only the designer, but also the art director and copywriter. Should I call myself all of that? I occasionally created a few simple animations, does that make me an animation designer? Do I become a photographer just because I can take some nice photos with my phone? Well, maybe. But I don’t think this is how it should optimally work.
From a team perspective, both the nature of design projects and the way creative teams typically work make the boundaries between the different jobs very blurry. Even when there is a specific task assigned to each team member, their roles may end up overlapping more than it was originally planned. Brainstorming meetings is often an essential part of the process for every creative team, and that’s because the act of creative thinking is not exclusive to a specific job. A good idea is normally welcome, regardless of who came up with it, and whether it was originally her or his responsibility or was it someone else’s job.
This overlapping is very common in the creative business, and in many cases it is also healthy. Nevertheless, it may cause some disruption when it is not very clear who is responsible for what. Many creative professionals may end up feeling a bit lost or overwhelmed due to having ever-changing job descriptions or playing various roles in the same time. I suppose, however, that some creatives perhaps manage to enjoy this kind of rotation and embrace it instead of seeing it as a disadvantage. But anyway, I think you got the point.
Feeling lost already? Maybe high five this doggo then keep on reading!
New technologies have introduced hundreds of jobs that never existed before. The rise of advanced hardware and software not only has evolved the overall experience at the consumer’s end, but it also dramatically affected the structure of the creative industry.
The enormously increasing popularity of social networking platforms, along with the domination of smart devices over our daily lives — and more recently the introduction of VR and AI — created a need for a whole new species of creative jobs to make use of all the arising opportunities made available by these technology. Social media designers, content creators, UX/UI designers, and AR developers are just a few examples.
While many of these job tracks are still relatively infant, they are also likely to change and mutate with the same speed the technology is changing. In a way, that makes things more complicated for creatives who are specialized in many of these areas. First, because they are already struggling to explain their current jobs to the rest of the world, and answering questions like “What the heck is AR?” And second, because their jobs are in danger of becoming obsolete at any point, with any major update in technology standards. Double trouble!
4. DEEP AS THE OCEAN
With the sophistication of modern life, the creative industry is getting more mature every day. The importance of creative jobs is undoubtedly in a continuous rise, along with the increasing awareness of how marketing transforms the business world.
Nowadays, larger agencies and teams often assign dedicated professionals for each small task in a given project. And while all of these people usually end up collaborating as mentioned before, there is still more room for specialization, compared to the past times. Titles like typographer, photo re-toucher, UX designer, game designer, 3D animator and many others weren’t quite familiar in the past, at least not as separate jobs. Nevertheless, until the day I’m writing this post, in smaller teams — probably for cutting down the expenses — many of these jobs are frequently merged into broader titles with more responsibilities. For example, the graphic designer can be responsible for UI design and typography, and the photographer may handle photo re-touching and video production.
Two things to be taken here:
First, the fact that most people outside the industry — and even many clients — are usually unaware of our jargon makes it harder for us to explain what we do. When you say “I’m a graphic designer” a decent number of people will expect that you make banners and brochures, which is possibly part of your job. But if, for example, you say “I’m a UI designer” many of them will go like “What is that supposed to mean?”
And second, if you are working on a project and you find yourself responsible for too many things, you may wonder how many jobs you are actually doing. Another question may arise: “Am I being paid fairly with doing all of that work on my own?”
Why does it matter?
I guess some of you might be thinking: “Okay, what this fuss is all about?!”
The shortest answer is: Expectations.
The way you present yourself not only leaves a personal impression, but it also influences what others would be expecting from you. It can affect your chances of getting hired, as well as the type of opportunities offered to you by clients or employers. Keywords and hashtags are now major ways people find each other online, both for personal communications and for business. It’s not really wise to nest “3D Artist” for example into your twitter’s bio, if you are not interested to sell 3D designs anymore. Regardless of the fact that you do have the know-how and possibly also previous experience in 3D work. You don’t need to put everything online, nor to tell people everything you can do. Only the skills that are relevant to what you truly want to keep doing should be in the spotlight, while the rest can be either marginalized or completely wiped off the grid.
The more accurately and clearly you present yourself, the more relevant business opportunities you are likely to end up with. Not every work invitation is good for business. Some projects may actually drain all of your energy and resources, and even leave you with little profits. I understand, however, that it’s not always easy to reject a offer if your pipeline is running dry, even if the project is not particularly interesting enough to you. This can be a major dilemma, especially if you are an independent creative or a small team.
The bottom line is that effective self-presentation can save you much of the clutter and help you stay focused and maintain your desired direction, while in the same time keep your business sustainable. If you don’t yet have a direction, that’s alright. Sooner or later you should find it, if you’re really trying to have one. Until then, if you often find a difficulty in describing your job in one short sentence, this is an issue which I think you might need to start working on.