Working wannabes

Designer by day, tortured artist by night? Hankering for more creative freedom can bear valuable fruits from extra-curricular indulgences, says Jim Davies

It’s never enough. However successful we are in our careers, we always greedily seem to crave that extra dollop. More money, status, power and – especially in the case of graphic designers – more creative freedom.

Have you noticed? Inside every designer of a certain age, there’ s a photographer, musician, painter, sculptor, illustrator or video-maker just dying to get out.

As a kind of vicarious substitute for the real thing, these artistic wannabes invest in truckloads of the latest shiny books and equipment, and pay through the nose to attend exclusive courses in exotic locations. They drop obscure, Eastern European-sounding names, and affect the posture of a wistful Romantic poet.

They’re in the grip of a quiet yet insidious obsession, yearning for something that’s ever-so slightly out of reach, that they’d grasp with unmitigated delight – if only they had the time, the opportunity and their day job wasn’t quite so demanding.

Why is this? It’s part vanity and part false expectations. Design is a creative industry all right, but only up to a point. Designers can’t live on original ideas and general brilliance alone. At some point, that ‘light bulb moment’ has to be made flesh, which involves hard graft and boring, repetitive slog. And once you’ve got your feet under the studio table, you soon realise that the perspiration side of the design industry far outweighs the inspiration side. And that the financial imperative is, well, imperative.

The uncompromising, fiery outlook you had as student gradually wanes. At work, you are less inclined to argue finer points with clients, happier to settle for an easy life. You wouldn’t call it selling out, so much as being pragmatic. Design is a job, nothing more, and most of the time, you accept this. It’s not a bad life.

And yet… and yet… there’s always that creative demon still nagging away at you, telling you you’re better than this, that the world deserves the benefit of your true talent, the bitter-sweet fruits of your innermost soul. That’s the trouble. In design, you can’t get away from the promise of creativity – tantalising morsels surround you all the time, but there’s never quite enough of it to satisfy your aching hunger.

So you devour your pricey specialist journals, take time out to gratify in extra-curricular artiness, or stay late in the studio to put the finishing touches to your latest, hugely ambitious self-initiated project. It’s your indulgence, your escape, your self-affirmation. Without clients or budgets to rein you in, at last you’re free. Blind embossing? No problem. Another metallic ink? Bring it on. Overnight processing by hand? Yes, sir.

This scenario may sound extravagant, self-obsessed and even slightly self-delusional, but it’s perfectly understandable. Sooner or later, creative people all have that ‘intimation of mortality’ moment, when they realise that if they keep putting off until tomorrow, there won’t be any days left. For designers, extra-curricular activities are a way of endorsing their self-worth, putting down a small marker for posterity. But more than this, finding an alternative channel for creative expression can be invigorating and inspiring. It spills over into other areas of your life, giving you renewed impetus and gusto.

And this new-found enthusiasm will feed back in to your design work, rekindling the long-lost fire in your belly, and putting that spring chicken-like spring into your step once more.

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