Where are all the older designers?

Is graphic design a young person’s game? Following research that suggests a lack of older designers, Patrick Argent (50+) tries to find out what has happened to them all.

Ken the Spring Chicken, designed by NB Studio with Mike Dempsey and Michael Wolff
Ken the Spring Chicken, designed by NB Studio with Mike Dempsey and Michael Wolff

The recent Graphic Designers Surveyed study illustrated an intriguing factor that has been previously little discussed or even remained largely unnoticed within the profession.

According to the research, by publishing house GraphicDesign& conducted among designers in both the UK and US, the number of designers aged in their 50s is surprising low – at 4.1%.

The majority of designers – over half (56.6%) – are in their 20s and just above a quarter (26.9%) aged 30+.

Even at the moderately youngish age of 40 the figure drops dramatically to 10%. For the true veteran professionals over 60 however, their numbers almost disappear at just 0.8%.

Same story in advertising

Interestingly, these figures roughly mirror a survey of advertising professionals from 2003 that David Stuart (60+) co-founder of The Partners had left on his desk when he retired in that year, which stated that only 6% were over 50.

Similarly then, is graphic design also an age-related profession almost exclusively for the young?

Accordingly if so, where then have the majority of the seasoned, experienced designers gone to?

Pinnacle of their careers

Much like the careers of architects or painters for example, an initial assumption could be made that after 25 years in practice, most graphic designers would then be beginning to reach a latent creative period, forming the pinnacle of their careers where they achieve their finest work?

Surely an inherent passion and drive for the art of design would ensure that any designer’s career would sustain itself well beyond the moderate age of 50?

The reasons it seems for the apparent lack of mature designers are manifold, some are inter-connected while others are not always immediately obvious.

Apple Mac revolution

Intrinsically, an important historical factor will have been the irreversible effects of the graphic industrial revolution that took place with the advent of the Apple Mac in the late 1980s/early 90s.

Some older designers who, having been both trained in and subsequently practiced using traditional, hands-on craft techniques, would have found that much like the late great John Gorham, the transition to digital tools was a task too difficult or too complex for them to essentially overcome.

Gorham found it difficult to accept that his once-trusted methods and finely-honed craft skills had been suddenly rendered obsolete by the new technology.

Re-learning profession

Having to re-learn one’s profession mid-way through one’s career just in order to continue practising, would have been a formidable challenge for many.

Chris Frampton (60+) of The Drawing Room confirms this industry-changing period. She says: “Many older designers may have given up, feeling that younger designers, who knew nothing else, had a built-in advantage”

In post-90s graphic design, technology and its ever-developing innovations and youth were to become almost a mandatory combination.

“Cooler and cheaper”

Additionally, graphics being an occupation that has become ever-increasingly driven by the rapidly shifting vagaries of fashion and all-consuming trends, it will have left behind many designers, those possibly entrenched in a particular pre-digital visual style or approach that was then seen as passé.

The ultimate 50+ practicing graphic designer is undoubtedly Milton Glaser who, at 86, continues to run his New York studio, supported by a small team of assistants.

Glaser says: “Because graphic design is frequently related to changing fashions, many older practitioners are shunted aside for a generation that is cooler and cheaper.

“Alas, this is a consequence of modern capitalism and won’t change unless the world does”

A young person’s game

Design grandee John Lloyd (70+), formerly of Lloyd Northover, says: “There is no denying that graphic design is a young person’s profession.

“Visit any design firm and you will immediately notice that the majority of the workforce comprises of young people. Fresh ideas often, but not always, emanate from younger minds”

The topic of age and design raises other aspects that leave the over 50’s as something of a rarefied rear-guard.

Disillusioned older designers

Both David Stuart and Michael Johnson (50+) contend that there may also be the case that after some years in practice, the profession simply ceases to inspire some designers the way it once did.

Simple disillusion may take hold or the competitiveness and the sheer commercial grind of design leading to them becoming eventually on the verge of being burnt out.

“Could it refer to my contention that most design becomes very boring after 10-15 years? I think a lot of people in small 5-7 man companies leave it because it no longer stimulates them” says Stuart.

Johnson, co-founder of Johnson Banks, adds: “I can see how the stresses and strains of design could start to take their toll – I actually see it settling in much earlier when designers begin their second decade in the business and start to question whether they truly love what they do.

“Fast forward another 20 years and any doubts are just amplified further.”

Constant need for stimulation

Another senior creative director I spoke to (50+) suggests multiple reasons as to the exodus from design and agrees with the idea that there is a constant need for stimulation that designers seek, which may lead some to subsequently explore other fields.

Additionally, selling their companies, setting up as freelance operators out of the mainstream business, moving to other sectors of the industry, running in-house teams or becoming clients themselves.

Financial considerations and looking for new opportunities are other elements, as people change or re-assess their future in mid-life are also motivations to leave the profession, he believes.

College over-supply

The contentious issue of over-supply by colleges where annually the enlarged cohort of graduates outstrips the jobs market also then also leaves the more mature designer at a profound disadvantage in competing for jobs.

“Older designers can’t compete price-wise, computer skills-wise and may end feeling it’s a young people’s game and simply bow out” adds Chris Frampton.

This expansion of design education is a theme reiterated by creative director James Beveridge (50+) of Fleishman Hillard Fishburn, who argues that this simply reflects the enlargement in the number of new design companies and in particular those in specialist digital fields. He believes the small percentage of mature designers might be due to the fact that there are just so many more younger practitioners than ever before.

“Some of us 70 and 80-somethings are still at it”

Elder statesman Mike Dempsey (70+) agrees that the figures relate to the combined factor of “the enormous increase in design graduates over the last decade and the expansion of the industry in new areas”.

Although he then states from a personal perspective: “Contrary to popular belief, some of us 70 and 80 somethings are still at it, and Michael Wolff and I are living proof (just).” [Wolff and Dempsey worked on the branding for company Spring Chicken, aimed at older people, which can be seen at the top of this article].

Many older designers will potentially have moved to occupy other administrative or managerial roles within the industry and may then be a hidden sector as John Lloyd believes. He says: “Senior people from creative backgrounds are likely to describe themselves as consultants, planners, or directors, rather than designers.”

Hands-on to hands-off

Likewise running an established business day-day and being a hands-on designer also may become practically incompatible for many where meetings, supervision and administration take over from actual designing.

An unexpected facet of the ever-changing face of design is also stressed by Frampton, where she points out a surprising parallel trend within the clients themselves:

“In The Drawing Room we had noticed for a long time that the clients were getting younger, possibly because younger people cost their companies less in hard times.

“Younger and less experienced, which made for difficult conversations sometimes when the young clients, in whatever capacity, suggested ideas we knew from experience were not likely to work.

“Nobody likes to be told by their ‘grandparents’  that they are wrong. From our side of the fence, it just gets boring trying to re-invent the wheel all the time.”

Hidden band of older designers

Designer Malcolm Garret (50+), whose studio pioneered the digital transition in graphics in the early 90s, thinks that the number of young people pursuing a career in design has been significantly on the increase over the last 30 years and that perhaps many mature designers who are still involved, may not have been included in the survey.

He suggests that there is actually a hidden band (albeit a potentially small one) of experienced practitioners still out there.

Those designers still out there include ex-pat New Zealander Dave Clark of Dave Clark Associates (60+) who takes a pragmatic view in defending the older professional in what he says is essentially a fashion industry. He says: “There is a way indeed for older designers to inhabit this terrain I believe, as organisers, mentors, business owners and innovators.

“Once they move away from the front line of deadline-induced frenzy, they can use their years of experience and knowledge as guides to assist design companies to work out strategy and creative approach.

“With money management, by the time the grey hair and laugh-lines appear, there will be a lot of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of handling cash and keeping the overdraft within liveable limits.”

Moving to mentorship

Clark’s fellow Antipodean designers Grant Alexander (60+) and Garry Emery (70+) both subscribe to continuing their practice well into their senior years. Grant Alexander in particular finds working with his team of younger designers greatly rewarding in a mentor/teaching role with the added bonus of being able to also share his experience with his junior colleagues and subsequently encourage and nurture developing talent within his studio.

Emery recognises the importance for the senior designer to adapt to a changing business. He says: ”The democratisation of design tools and the media has undermined the value of graphic design. It has become a commodity.

“I have focused on areas of design that have been less influenced by trends, by youth culture and consumer demands and have managed to sustain interest and keep my curiosity alive by evolving and by practicing at the intersection of other disciplines, in architecture, industrial design and art.”

Will younger designers working today face a shorter career than perhaps they may be contemplating, where built-in age constraints within the industry remain and related outside factors restricts them also or will there be a more significant 50+ design generation in the future?

Perhaps with the expansion and development of visual communication technologies and new areas of design in the future, those designers wholly trained and immersed in the digital world may be more likely able to adapt as they mature to the new challenges ahead, far more successfully than their previous counterparts have done.

Discover more:

• “Designers are a nightmare to survey…”

Hide Comments (9)Show Comments (9)
  • mark glynne-jones February 9, 2016 at 10:55 am

    A very talented and highly regarded designer friend (58) is now a Uni Senior Lecturer as he felt that was ‘more appropriate’ and where his extensive experience in TV etc was far more appreciated and valued. Sad but I’m sure he’s not alone…

  • neil whitehead February 9, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    Well, I ‘retired’ to the south west of France ten years ago after working in many agencies in London and running my own design consultancy in north Essex. I still do a bit of work – there is a low level of design awareness down here and in the rest of the country generally which I am trying to redress particularly among the local wine producers.
    I love my Mac and at 68 am still finding new programmes – sorry, apps – to try out. I have gone back to my first love of landscape painting and illustration as well.
    There was a time in my mid thirties, around the early eighties, when I was employed by Cato Johson, part of Young and Rubicam, when they wanted me to take on a more managerial role (I was a group head) but I love solving client’s problems in a visual way and wanted to stay on the board so I decided to leave and never regretted it.
    Of course Design Week is one of the ways I keep up to date with the outside world.

  • Neil Littman February 11, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    Maybe I am bucking the trend but I am nearly 62 and enjoying designing more than ever and still learning all the time. I like the variety of working with agencies and for myself. Nobody asks my age, they just want me to get on with the work.
    My question about the article was whether the 0.8% are full-time employees or freelancers. I still know several people in my age group who are designers or working in some capacity in agencies except they do not have full-time employment because many of them were made redundant several years ago on the grounds of their age though nobody would admit that all the time.
    I am thinking of starting an agency called 0.8%, that should get people thinking!

  • Neil Littman February 11, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    Just to add two small points, one of my mentors was Dick Negus who was in his 60’s when we worked together and a designer called Derek (forgotten his surname) who ran consultancies from the late 50’s until the 1980’s and he was in his 80’s when I met him and an inspiration. I don’t this attitude towards age is as prevalent outside the UK.

  • Martin July 9, 2018 at 4:33 pm

    The only mature designers I see are in management roles, or directors. I feel that I am more creative than ever before, thanks to the flexibility of using a Mac and the online inspiration generated by sites such as Pinterest, plus the perspective and experience that age has given me. But I doubt if I will be considered for any creative jobs in my area and I suspect that being 52 I am considered ‘on the shelf’. Ageism is the elephant in the room in our industry… and we need to change things now!

  • Sean September 10, 2018 at 11:22 am

    Being in my late 40s this is something I’ve been asking myself recently. I know many designers and people in our industry that think their age is an issue. They talk of ‘young man’s game’ etc. I believe age is a state of mind – I’m actually happier now than I ever was – I find clients respect my honesty and experience.

  • Jez December 3, 2018 at 9:08 am

    I have been self employed for 20 years as a creative after leaving the advertising world. All up, 40+ years in graphics/art direction. Extremely disappointed with the marketing departments in business these days. They are young and enthusiastic, which is great, but they have no f*r%;ing idea and have no respect for the experience that we bring to the table. I may be oldish, but I still love a great design brief. Its a different world now and respect seems to be only shown in email ‘trails’ by the young, not in reality.. As Sean said, my clients have always respected my honesty and experience.
    Keep going as long as you love it.!

  • Chris March 3, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    I think they are all off doing creative things for themselves and giving clients the middle finger. I’m 38, have been designing for 12+ years and am contemplating exactly that. Thanks for a rare and excellent article.

  • James November 18, 2019 at 6:31 pm

    The problem that I see is that older designers like myself, need more money and the employers don’t want to pay what I and a lot of older designers are worth. Young designers are hungry and are willing to work for less money to get experience.

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