The Humble Designer

the humble designer

“We’re not saving lives here.”

I’ve said this out loud more than once when I’ve grown a little full of myself. My portfolio displays my best work, all polished up so you’ll be impressed. What you don’t see are the horrible first ideas, the mistakes, and the projects that went sideways.

Acknowledging this fact doesn’t take anything away from my talent or my passion for helping entrepreneurs discover their true brand. But sharing my design struggles keeps me humble.

straight outta incompetence

I graduated from RISD straight into a recession and design jobs were scarce. After roofing houses for a couple of months I landed my first design job in a small print shop. The work consisted mostly of typesetting business forms and the occasional direct-mail postcard. I was frustrated because I felt this kind of mundane work was beneath my talents as a designer but, after a few screw-ups (like mistaking a 5,000 copy order for 50,000 copies) I began to realize that maybe there was more to learn from this first design job than I thought. The most valuable experiences that I took away were: interacting successfully with customers is part of being a designer, knowing how print production works is useful (many designers don’t have a clue how to prep a file for a printer), and that it’s just as important for a mundane business form to be well designed as it is for a glossy catalog.

Oh, shoot.

Next, I was hired as a junior designer by a small agency in Providence. Without even asking if I had experience, the art director sent me to supervise a photo shoot for a jewelry client. I showed up at the photographer’s studio with a few notes and a sketch of the ad. Thankfully, the photographer had experience with these projects and knew exactly what to do. I stood by quietly watching as he worked, feeling as useful as screen door on a submarine. To his credit, the photographer told my art director the shoot went great and please send me back for the next project. I spent the next three years learning as much as I could about how to art direct a photo shoot, a skill which I carried forward into my next job.

I’m the designer, dammit!

During my tenure as an in-house designer at a university I learned a lesson about maintaining a healthy perspective about my role. I had just returned from a very difficult photo shoot at one of the university’s satellite campuses and was pouring over the 35mm slides (remember those?), desperately trying to find some decent images for a new catalog. The Director of Admissions came into the studio to micromanage, um, I mean review the project. He randomly pulled out 10 slides from the sleeve and said, “Use these.” My pride was crushed and the voices in my head got louder with each passing second. “He wasn’t even at the shoot!” “He has no idea how difficult it was to get any useable images at all!” “He has a f***ing business degree, what does he know about design?!” I never said any of this out loud (thank God) but I spent the next several years learning how to deal with difficult clients and difficult design situations without getting my panties in a twist. 

what did I learn?

There have been many more missteps, faux pas, and hard lessons in the years since, but one thing I’ve learned as a result of my experiences is that clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.

If you’re tired of dealing with know-it-alls and prima donnas and are ready to partner with an experienced (and humble) designer, let’s talk.

Justin KerrComment