Have you ever been judged by your age in the design industry?

Last week, coveted fine art award the Turner Prize lifted its age restriction on applicants, which has previously stopped over-50s entering. We ask designers of all ages if they have experienced ageism in the workplace.

Tessa Simpson, design director, O Street

“Once, a client mentioned that my shoes looked to be the same ones his teenage daughter wore. It wasn’t meant as a slight and I wasn’t offended, but the comment did make me reconsider how he – and other clients older than me – might see me. Being youthful of face does often mean that people make assumptions about your age and therefore, perhaps, your experience level. It can be a barrier if that leads to you being dismissed outright. I’ve luckily never experienced it to that extreme, and never from peers or colleagues. In a way, it means you get left with a desire to prove yourself, or perhaps like me, just a desire to invest in a good pair of ‘reading’ glasses for client presentations…”

Ben Tallon, freelance illustrator and Design Week columnist

“The closest I’ve come to witnessing ageism was in art and design education. You’d get a gang of creatively inclined, but school-system trained, slightly dependent kids. They would frown or smirk as an older and often eccentric lecturer shared their experiences and new ideas. The tutors would sometimes be a little quick to disregard the more cantankerous students. It worked both ways.

Personally, I immediately found immense mutual value in these age divides and my course leaders would learn from my ideas, with us remaining friends long after. I’ve sought those with a different story to mine ever since college, but for many, the difference remained a barrier, which was sad.”

Angela Drinkall, partner, Drinkall Dean

“There should be no place for ageism. Having said that, I feel we live in a world that judges us on our age and looks. As I get older, I do sometimes feel a need to prove I still have it, and I would love not to be bothered. I want to be regarded for what I do and how I do it.

A young-looking friend of mine, also in her middle years, recently applied for a job and the debate we had was around if her photo should be on her CV. She thought the employer would see her age and assume her ‘past it’! This was upsetting but we thought true so we agreed on the photo. How sad that we did not feel confident that she would be considered for her experience, considerable achievements and above all her immense talent.

Let us all recognise the unique contributions we make as individuals, celebrate each others’ achievements, and acknowledge that, whether younger or older, we can all have off days!”

Paul Cardwell, executive creative director, Brand Union

“I’ve met ageism twice on the staircase. I used to be considered too young to present my own stuff to clients so the agency would get some senatorial guy to do it, who was suited in Saville Row and had a hyphenated name. It might not have been age, of course – I looked ridiculous, sporting flares and a dandelion-clock haircut.

Then suddenly I was too old. Of course it’s insulting and annoying. But that’s a good thing – anger keeps you sharp, keeps you up to speed and gives you something to prove.

And people will underestimate you. That’s helpful too. I welcome other people’s prejudices – it’s like playing cards with someone who has a mirror behind them. It makes them transparent.”

Chris Harrison, creative director, Harrison Agency

“All the time. It’s ageist to assume that the person with the greyest hair has the most valuable experience, or that younger people have all the fresh ideas. Age is irrelevant, but the great thing that comes with experience is knowing when to say ‘No’. Equally, a younger designer has the energy to say ‘Yes’ more often, and that mix is important in a design consultancy.

It’s like that great scene in Skyfall, where Bond and Q are sizing each other up at the National Gallery. Q quips that ‘Age is no guarantee of efficiency,’, to which Bond witheringly retorts, ‘And youth is no guarantee of innovation.’”

Dids Macdonald, founder, Anti-Copying in Design

“Lifting the age restrictions on the Turner Prize – good, and about time! We live in the world of brilliant ‘slightly older’ creators – whether through art, film, music or others in the creative sector. Art, creativity and design are not about age but talent and often maturity is the motivator for great works.

Look at some of the greats who achieved their best through maturity. Take Henri Matisse’s later works when he couldn’t paint any more. Cut-outs were a ground breaking reassessment of the colourful and innovative final works of a modern master.

Inspired by this sort of genius I have never thought about ageism in the workplace nor experienced it or believe it to be true. Relevance is what matters, not age; and as I work consistently with young, new and inspired designers and artists, I think they think this too, which is reassuring.”

Arjun Harrison-Mann, co-founder, Studio Hyte

“It seems as if the fundamental approach towards design practice outside of education is rooted in pre-existing models of age hierarchy. But through my experience I have found that individual practitioners are constantly seeking to break out of and redefine this at a grassroots level. I have found this when being asked to give talks that have an age limit, or apply for internships with the same premise. To me it feels that the current collective climate is prompting a replacement of these older models of bureaucracy, towards a more horizontal and open process.”

Natalie Maher, managing director, Good

“I’m a weird age. I currently sit on that cusp where I’m definitely too old to get away with coming into the studio on a skateboard, yet deemed very young in some circles to hold the position of principal of a design consultancy. My whole career I’ve watched clients initially gravitate towards the oldest person in the room, and in a world where classic ageism is rife, I actually find it quite encouraging that experience is so valued in the world of design.

That said, unconscious bias – held beliefs about how old someone should be for a job, what gender they are, whether they’re a cat or dog person – can be destructive. I’ve seen talented people held back from progression because of the status quo (a lot of the time by their own viewpoints) and so ‘the norm’ must constantly be challenged. As a manager of emerging talent, I couldn’t care less how old you are. Experience is important, but it’s nothing without attitude. Give me the latter over the former any day.”

Have you ever been judged or hindered by your age in the workplace? Let us know in the comments section below.

Hide Comments (15)Show Comments (15)
  • neil littman April 6, 2017 at 10:42 am

    I was made redundant from a well known design consultancy in 2008. On the same day five other employees were ‘let go’. We were all aged 50+. Not a coincidence. Have not looked back since then as the freelance world is only interested in results.

  • Richard Anderson April 6, 2017 at 11:07 am

    On the topic of ageism and my personal experience of it: https://medium.com/indian-thoughts/my-best-work-lies-ahead-of-me-8748bda3f82e.

    More recently, I discussed yet another example of likely ageism with a female friend, an example which we both experienced when applying for the same job for which both of us (but especially she) were beyond perfect for (yet neither of us got beyond a chat with the recruiter) at a company apparently known for its diversity problems (according to my friend, though they are also known for hosting events on diversity, one of which I attended, prompting me to think they actively sought a diverse workforce).

  • david milburn April 6, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    ive posted on your facebook wall, but ive been called a designasaur a few times, (51 with a mental age of 16)

  • David Busbridge April 7, 2017 at 11:49 am

    I walked into a large studio recently for my freelance booking and overhead someone saying “isn’t he a bit old?”. I bit my lip and cracked on with the job. I’m pretty thick-skinned so it’s just one of those things, but it can take the wind out of your sails a bit.

  • Bambi Montgomery April 9, 2017 at 6:58 pm

    I have been lucky enough to be employed by two communications companies since being in London despite my age. I did experience ageism though from recruitment companies.

  • Nigel Da Silva April 10, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    Fifty seems to be a ‘use by’ date in this industry. Winning four out of five recent pitches, having an impressive reel and folio and a string of happy clients just doesn’t seem to cut it. The rejection is often wrapped up in “I don’t think you’ll fit into the culture here, we have a very young team.” It’s a cruel world.

  • Ellie smith April 10, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    I have experienced not only ageism recently, but as a woman also discrimination. After having my first child was dropped my a large design and interactive company. The design world is not easy for women.

  • Ross Edwin April 11, 2017 at 10:39 am

    I’ve had a number of altercations with senior leaders which involved commenting on my age, including one saying that I’m a ‘victim of the arrogance of youth’ and another saying that ‘you earn good money for your age’. I was also victimised by being the only one in a team to have a pay drop, being told that i should be ok, as I don’t have children or a mortgage. So many arguments… all experienced in the public sector.

  • John Watters April 11, 2017 at 6:33 pm

    Milton Glaser 87. George Lois 85. Dave Trott 70. Michael Wolff 84. Michael Bierut 60. Paula Scher 68. Sir John Hegarty 72. Karl Lagerfeld 83, Norman Foster 81. Tommy Hilfiger 66. Ridley Scott 79. Steven Spielberg 70.

    • carmen j. michaud April 27, 2017 at 8:44 pm

      Grace Coddington 78( OK just retired), Bill Cunningham 86(still on his bike shooting the streets when he passed) ,Vivienne Westwood 76….so many….and Diana Vreeland was 60 when she became editor at Vogue during what she termed the “Youthquake”….

  • Michael Darby December 6, 2017 at 11:04 am

    As someone now aged 60 – and yet still feeling that my graduation was only very recent (it wasn’t, it was 1981) I continue to strive to keep an open mind because I still feel that I have much to learn.

    That said, I have come across ageism in many forms – and at both ends of the spectrum – throughout my career, including meeting a potential client in reception at the age of 31 and being looked up and down and told, somewhat witheringly, “Oh, I was expecting someone with more experience.” (I was the youngest divisional director in a 400 strong consultancy at the time and felt that I had earned my stripes. I was canny enough at the next meeting to engage the supporting services of a suitably grey and balding external consultant to make that client feel more comfortable; it worked – he was visibly more relaxed and I was able to get on with my job, unencumbered by his narrow prejudice.)

    Then, somewhat paradoxically, a few years later, being called an “f-ing dinosaur” in a lecture theatre full of degree level students, because I had challenged them that if they had a power cut that day they’d be screwed. (Expanding on my view that ideas and solutions don’t exist within the motherboard of an Apple Macintosh, moreover that when I was at college I was taught to think, not to obsess with mastering the latest version of Adobe whatever.)

    In fairness, the student concerned apologised afterwards when I explained that I had a bag full of technology in the staffroom, my MacBook, an Apple Newton – remember them? etc. and that I wasn’t, as he had assumed, “anti-Mac” but that I was anti-obsession with technology for its own sake: it’s far easier in my view – and lazy “teaching”– to fill a room with machines training students on the ins and outs of software than it is to stimulate problem solving with open and enquiring minds.

    He admitted that no one had ever given him that perspective and he thanked me for it.

    I left him with one further thought – when I employed students, either on sandwich placement or as a new graduate, that I always told the candidate one key thing, “You could well be infinitely more talented than me, but I will always be more experienced, you can’t become more talented, but you can become more experienced, so if this relationship is to work then we’ll both learn lots from each other and our mutual experience will be to the benefit of both of us.”

    Needless to say, while the more I learn, the less I feel that know, I also happen to believe that there is no substitute for experience.

  • Pearly January 10, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    Where’s the open-mindedness, out-of-the-box creative thinking in “creative” people when they judge others at first sight? In the 80s, I learned to disregard people’s age, racial, gender, social, cultural, geographic, and education discrimination. As a young intern at a top studio in a big city, I heard a super talented woman discriminate on this point— attractive people are hired to be decorations, not for their talent. Essentially, discrimination limits the discriminator, and is an indicator of narrow perceptions, small minds, small hearts, limited experience with the world at large. Any kind of discrimination puts people into their own very small box indeed. The pettiness of the few ego-tripping “talents” we meet in the design and marketing world should fade into the background when our work brings us joy and fulfillment. I’ve still found the most joy and fulfillment in the design I did and still do for social and cultural causes I believe in. Now I look forward to viscom for the environment. These causes mean more to me even than the fun projects I’ve done for Simon and Schuster, Star Trek TNG, Apple, Google—marketing goods and services to a consumerist society doesn’t really bring me deep fulfillment. Design is fun. Prejudiced, stupid creative people shouldn’t spoil it for any of us one bit.

  • B. Joyner March 12, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    I was told after 25 years
    We found someone younger, with a younger look for cheaper.

    • Georgia Milner June 19, 2018 at 1:22 pm

      Hi B,
      Sorry to hear about that! Did you take legal action?
      My dad is going through a similar situation.

  • mike fox August 14, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    I found these articles always falsely balance up between discriminating because theyr’e too young than being chucked out, or not getting a look in because you are too old. The Design Industry is hugely, i mean HUGELY Ageist. 1000’s of designers if not tens of thousands are being consigned to the scrap heap because they are deemed too old. They end up doing part time or odd jobs or working in B&Q or stacking shelves and retiring early. Design companies are often proud of their ‘Young Vibrant’ workforce. They bring clients into the studios and show them how young and trendy and interesting they are. Clients really buy into this big time, that they are getting young, new exciting ideas. Older (over 40 – 45) Designers and even support staff are regularly flushed out of larger companies under re-structuring. The rare oldies you’ll see are owners and CEO’s or they see and old geyser or woman they will be explained away as not a part of the creative team. It’s sickening. 1000’s or Australian, NZ or Sth African designers who are touring Europe and travelling push out their older UK counterparts.! There is nothing to stop this. Even recruitment companies must be complicit with this unwritten Discrimination or they’ll lose contracts.

  • Post a comment

Latest articles