sound advice from khoi vinh

by judyko

Students, Don’t Do As I Have Done

The Canadian graphic design organization RGD Ontario was kind enough to invite me to speak at their annual Design Thinkersconference in Toronto last week. It was a quick trip for me — I flew in and out of the city on the same day — but they made it really fun. In addition to a lecture I gave about the difficulties that the practice of art direction has in finding a place in digital media (I’ll post some notes from that talk in a few days), I also appeared on a question-and-answer panel for design students, the theme of which was providing advice on ‘making it’ in the design world.

In that session, I heard from another of the panelists that, due to inexperience, newly minted designers should understand that their productivity will barely cover the cost of employing them. It was his belief that businesses who hire fresh graduates essentially sign up to provide a kind of on-the-job training — at a loss to the business. He didn’t put it in so many words, but the inference I made was that employment is a kind of favor bestowed by the company on new entrants to the job market.

What’s more, this person insisted that these freshly graduated professionals should be prepared to work for very little and for very long hours, that they should dedicate themselves to their work in tireless fashion, potentially at the expense of many other priorities in their lives.

I have a hard time with this advice, but for complicated reasons. It’s not that I think that the advice is not valid. On the contrary, I think this is an accurate reflection of the way the design industry ingests new talent. Rather, my quarrel is that I think this advice makes some unfortunate assumptions about what the quality of life within a design organization should be.


First, I’ll say that the graduates that I’ve hired straight out of college have been bargains. They’ve been incredibly talented, driven and very, very productive. In fact, I once hired a very inexperienced designer straight out of high school, and he was one of the most productive people I’ve ever worked with. More importantly, these people brought an enthusiasm and alacrity to their work that lifted the energy of the workplace, that contributed meaningfully to the quality of life for their colleagues. That’s gold.

I acknowledge that this won’t be the experience of every employer. Many designers hired straight out of school are all talent and no skill, and employers who take those folks on are in fact signing up to provide a significant level of training. But it hasn’t been my habit to hire people like that, because I think it makes for a poor work culture. I’m a capitalist and maybe a bit of an Objectivist in that I don’t think granting employment to an unqualified applicant is a favor to anyone.

There’s some amount of necessary training that comes with hiring every new addition to a team, of course, and in the past I’ve been willing to bring on inexperienced designers who need a modicum of extra training, but never so much that the training outweighs their usefulness to the operation. Having folks on your team who can’t pull their own weight — regardless of how much college loan debt they own — is a surefire way to create an unhappy workplace (more on that later) and makes for bad business. A company that hires anyone who can’t effectively pay their own keep through productivity is probably a sweatshop or not a very good place to work.


Regarding the issue of long hours for little pay, I’m more conflicted. I can’t argue that countless hours of unpaid overtime directly contributed to my own modest professional success. At the same time, I think the prevailing thinking that life for twenty-something designers should be spent at the office first and foremost is bad advice. It might make good business sense for an employer, but it’s bad life advice.

Looking back on all of those overtime nights and weekends from my first decade as a designer, I would say that at least a third of that time was unnecessary. For me there was a romantic allure to the idea of toiling away on the work that you so desperately want a chance to prove yourself worthy of. I wanted to be at the office more than I truly needed to be there. This romantic ideal can be consuming; when you’re trying to make a name for yourself, it can dominate a disproportionate amount of your worldview. In my twenties, I clearly overdid it by creating the expectation among my peers and superiors — and within myself — that I would stay at the office as long as it took to create the impression of enormous sacrifice for my ‘art.’

Meanwhile, I missed out on so much. I had no meaningful equity stake in most of those employment situations, so all that overtime was true foolishness, was tantamount to throwing money down a well. More importantly, I was oblivious to a lot of what was going on around me — friends, family, relationships. Working late nights and weekends made me an unpleasant person. I spent years like that, and in retrospect it held me back more than it propelled me forward. That is, whatever success I have today, I feel like I have it in spite of the unhealthily skewed perspective on the importance of work that I held so tightly. I’d have gotten much further — not just personally but professionally — if I’d taken a bit more time out of the office.


That’s why I bristle when I hear established designers and employers preaching this line. When I had my own design team I never had any qualms about asking an employee to stay late if I thought it was truly necessary, but I also felt it was my responsibility to make sure they got out of the office regularly more often than not. I wanted them to experience nightlife, to go on road trips, to indulge outside interests and even outside clients, and to start families when the time was right for them.

I wanted people who would bring a diversity of experience back to their work, but more to the point I wanted people who liked themselves enough so that they contributed their demeanors to a pleasant work environment, one free of negativity, backbiting and petulance. If they were there late day in and day out, I regarded it as an indication I wasn’t doing my own job. Among a design director’s unique responsibilities is fostering the conditions for great design; if your team is overworked and unhappy, you’re not doing that job.

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