I Want(ed) to be a (Design) Rock Star

Once upon a time I was a graphic designer. Okay, I still am. But once upon a time I really wanted to make it as a graphic designer. In Chicago. Or New York. I wanted my work to be featured in Print or HOW. I wanted to be one of those people they profile in the “30 Under 30” lists. I wanted clients to ask for me. I wanted to be a rock star.


Mind you, this was pure fantasy, and I knew it. My portfolio coming out of college was “meh.” It was competent, it demonstrated my hyper-controlled, left-brain style of design, it got me a job. But it definitely wasn’t going to catapult me to stardom in a large market…or even a small one.

I was, admittedly, self-conscious about this. I wanted to be great. I wanted to prove that going to art school had been an excellent career move; one that would garner me both respect and monetary success. But over time it became very obvious to me that I didn’t have, and would never have, the raw talent and creativity nor the personality required to reach that level of stardom in the graphic design world.

I used to spend a fair amount of time perusing design blogs, reading design magazines, and watching actual rock star designers talk about their careers at design conferences. These things are crack for creative types. They inspire us, entertain us, spark our creativity. At least they’re supposed to. Me? They left me anxious, frustrated and panicked.

I hated seeing designers who were my age or just a couple years older up on stage flipping through slides of clever, edgy, high-profile branding and design work they’d done for the biggest companies in the world. That they were up on stage at all, speaking in front of hundreds of people, being witty and conversational and seemingly relaxed, amazed me. That’s something I would never be comfortable doing.

The master at work. Okay almost no one is as good a presenter as Steve Jobs...but some of the rock star designers come close.

The master at work. Okay almost no one is as good a presenter as Steve Jobs…but some of the rock star designers come close.

I’m the type of person whose voice quivers and who breaks into a cold sweat when speaking in front of even a few people. I’m the person that makes everyone squirm in their seats because they’re embarrassed for me. After lots of practice, I’m much better at public speaking than I used to be, but I’ll never be good at it. I’ll never be witty and conversational and relaxed.

Watching these rock star designers always reminded me of how far I was from where I wanted to be. Why hadn’t I started my own company while I was still in college? Why hadn’t I started screen printing Broadway posters in my garage? Why hadn’t I moved to New York when I graduated and fought my way into an internship at Pentagram? These presentations, for me, always devolved quickly into a festival of self-loathing. Fun!

My anxiety, frustration and panic reached epic proportions as I was preparing to launch my job search in Chicago in 2010. I’d had one or two projects at my in-house job that I was proud of. They weren’t rock star material, but I hoped they might snag me a junior designer position somewhere. My confidence in this conviction was flimsy at best. My upcoming trip to the HOW Design Conference in Denver had me both breathlessly excited and scared to death. I was supposed to be networking, getting job leads, talking about how awesome I was. It all felt pretty precarious.

Then something happened that changed my anxiety-riddled experience of design conferences, magazines and blogs forever – I decided not to be a graphic designer anymore! I landed in Denver one month after I decided to go back to school. The difference was incredible.

This excellent bear sculpture was standing outside the convention center in Denver. How could anyone NOT have fun here?

This excellent bear sculpture was standing outside the convention center in Denver. How could anyone NOT have fun here?

All the anxiety I had expected to feel listening to the presenters was gone. All that was left was joy. These designers were brilliant speakers. They were funny, clever and entertaining. As they walked us through their design challenges and their unique, creative solutions, I was inspired the way I had always wanted to be. Their presentations reminded me why I loved art and design and why (I thought) I’d wanted to do it in the first place.

I hate knowing that the success of other designers was the source of my frustration and anxiety, but for a long time it was. I think that was an unfortunate consequence of taking a passion and trying to make it into a career. At least it was for this hyper-left-brained perfectionist. Once I stopped measuring myself against the best of the best, I was finally able to just enjoy their talent for what it was.

The HOW Design Conference is in San Francisco this year. I would love to go to San Francisco, but my class schedule just isn’t going to allow for a five-day trip to the west coast in June. Bummer.

Someday I'll make it to San Francisco. Someday. Photo courtesy of Chealion's photostream on Flickr.com

Someday I’ll make it to San Francisco. Someday.
Photo courtesy of Chealion’s photostream on Flickr.com

So here’s my advice: if you ever get a chance to attend a graphic design conference – go! You’ll have a great time. The speakers are phenomenal, funny and creative. The audience participation (if there is any) is not lame (think drawing pictures, throwing balloons around the room or making origami hats). The people are fun, everyone is casually well-dressed (they’re designers, right?), and all the free giveaways are beautiful (again…designers).

I will miss design conferences. I have a feeling engineering conferences won’t be nearly so fun. Then, hopefully they won’t be quite so anxiety-invoking either. Engineering, after all, isn’t known for its rock stars.


3 thoughts on “I Want(ed) to be a (Design) Rock Star

  1. Thank you for sharing such an open and thoughtful reflection on your career and skills. I suspect that there are many people out there who share this passion for design, desire for recognition from their peers, and dream of “playing” at a really high level. For me, this kind of thing began when I was young and fell in love with the creative design, experience, and interactive work of video game extraordinaire Shigeru Miyamoto. The yearning and love of design only grew stronger over time.

    There is a part of me that wants to cheer you on and tell you to never give up on your design aspirations, admire the work of others while focusing on being yourself (i.e., have influences but don’t measure your effort based on people who are further along in their experience, opportunities, and skills than you). At the same time, I believe there is actually a ton of thoughtful and wonderful design in the field of engineering (so, you may find in the end that your dreams do come true — just in a different area). Otherwise said, you may still realize your aspirations — just in a different field!

    In either case, I’m rooting for you and really appreciated your candor and thoughtful post. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading! I appreciate your kind, encouraging thoughts. I’m definitely ready to be through with graphic design, but like you said, I think engineering has a lot of opportunity for creative problem solving and gaining recognition in entirely different ways that I think will work better for my left-brain personality! I’m excited to find out.

  2. Pingback: What We Should Be Doing | Extra Credit Life

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