A plea to agencies: let designers get back to designing

Stewart is a cofounder at Work & Co, a digital product design and development company.

My friends and I have this running joke: “I got so good at designing, I never get to do it anymore.”

Admittedly, it’s not all that funny. It’s sad. A bit scary. And indicative of a huge, never-discussed problem for the agency world.

There’s a mentality in corporate America that to advance in your career, you must aspire to be a coach. This mindset has been polluting the agency world for years. For young designers, the message is that to be successful, you need to stop designing and start directing — which seems to mean just going to meetings and writing emails.

Why should a talented designer have to stop practicing his or her craft just to rise through the ranks? Another mystery — why do agencies want to turn their best designers into managers or salesmen?

The result is that people are beginning to look down on designers who remain hands-on. I’ve actually had creative directors give me an “Eww, gross” look when I tell them I still design everyday. The implication is I’m a lower class of designer. I’m baffled by the notion that a superior designer is one who solely presents other people’s work.

It’s time all shops took a hard look at the roles they expect their most senior designers to fill and considered whether they might be harming their prospects for producing great design. Here are three reasons agency leaders should encourage their designers to keep doing what they love.

You’ll get better quality.
Agency management has promoted designers out of hand-on work on the belief that spreading talent across dozens of accounts instead of devoting them to one or two can boost revenue. But if a creative director works 10 percent on 10 projects, you’re going to get 10 “just OK” projects. If you have that same CD 100 percent on a single project, the chance of creating something great goes way up.

It’ll help the industrywide talent shortage.
Increasingly, senior talent in agencies is so busy pitching new business or stuck in meetings that they haven’t maintained their craft. That best candidate could be passed over simply because the hiring manager can’t conduct an adequate interview or doesn’t have the skills to spot a killer talent.

Designers risk losing their skills without the opportunity to practice.
Practically every month there is a new design tool you need to learn to stay current. Designers can get better or forget how to do it.

So let designers keep designing. Designers shouldn’t be turned into pitch candy, salesmen or talking heads. They are not HR people, resource managers or babysitters. Join us in promoting an industry of makers, not managers. I promise, we’ll be ensuring a healthier, happier pool of people for years to come.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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