Being pigeonholed is an issue I struggle with regularly. When someone asks me what I do, I find it harder than I should to explain.
Let me set the scene. Designers in advertising fall roughly into categories; online, offline, motion and other. Others often being the 3rd parties that cover the stuff advertising agencies don't understand. Post houses in Soho, digital production agencies. High end production specialities usually.
The first thought might be that old school creatives don't know how to work with designers from unfamiliar disciplines. This isn't the case. Designers are designers. They are creative people who come up with visual solutions, and in my experience, once you get in with creatives you can communicate with them and get something good made.
Of course the term 'designer' has never been enough for the wider world. You could be a fashion designer, product designer even a toilet roll holder designer. But day to day in advertising you're a designer in context.
"This is a print design job, let's have a print designer work on this."
Mistake number one made made by someone, certainly not always, but often in a production role. Assumption is made, task assigned, something gets made, production completed in the perception of the assigner. We get paid, client gets a product.
It's a well-trodden path of least resistance. Something award winning and beautiful could get made this way, but it does not equal good work. Let me explain.
I think the advertising world wants people with a broader range of capabilities, but they don't really know how to articulate that. Internal process is a good example. I've found the separation of project management departments - TV, print, digital etc.. is a huge barrier to a designer looking to cross disciplines. JWT where I currently work is making great efforts to fix this by having graduate project managers who work across those departments in rotation. Their experience will sow seeds of change.
When you do manage to get over those barriers and talk to people about different types of work theres no method or process established to support that in practical terms. They're just not setup for it. However i'm talking with production management people here at JWT who actually are really up for change. This comes from the designer who wants to do more.
Job role segregation of any kind is a tricky situation. Where does it start and finish? Many designers certainly have a bias to one practice or another and this from a pure business perspective has its advantages. Here's an example.
A client wants an invitation designed. They want it to be A5, full colour, with the text on it. So they find a designer who markets themselves as a stationery and invitation designer. Perfect the client thinks. They agree on price, job gets done. Instead, what if the designer had looked at the content thats been supplied by the client and decides that actually this would be better as an email, but has never designed an email? That designer could use their perfectly good design skills to produce a layout that shows off the content well. But having never built an e-mail or spoken to someone that has, they are unaware of the restrictions and considerations of designing said email.
Because they don't know how to do it, they don't suggest it to their client and the client therefore does not get the best solution to their problem. This is terrible. It's up to the designer to deliver the best solution and if they have been pigeonholed, by their client or themselves this is the end result.
Over the past 5 years I've really expanded my skill set. My work ranges of course from where I started - pure graphic and web design but encompasses things like mobile design, motion design, 3D, sound design, editing and ideation. It's been fantastic, rewarding and i'm a better designer for it. I'm still learning as I go, but I only learn by doing. If i'm pigeonholed, how can I expand as a designer? Talking with other designers I know i'm not the only one keen to learn new techniques.
You could describe me as a jack of all trades, master of none. But design practices like Fosters or Heatherwick design books, buildings, olympic torches and London buses. And they do it bloody well. I guess I'd need to setup my own studio, but becoming known as a multi-discipline studio has parallels with becoming a multi-disciplined designer within an advertising agency. It's hard.
People have said to me "You're not a regular designer - you're a.. 'James'." Certainly a compliment I think, A good signifier that i'm starting to crawl out of that pigeonhole. But it's because they no longer know how to describe me.
Because we established this design role segregation in the traditional advertising industry, we're inclined to give our clients one of those 'roles' as a solution before it even gets to design thinking. Even worse than that, clients are coming to us saying they need a website, poster or a TV ad. In those instances we've lost total control before we even had it. They are guessing at what they need and they're paying us for execution. That's our fault. and as a result you could say I'm getting close to becoming an art worker.
If we don't become a unified, multi-disciplined single role, a single place to go to for visual solutions and good work, we won't be able to offer our clients the best solutions to their problems. After all, that's what a designer should do. Specialists will always exist. I can't learn everything, but core function should be all-round competent.
It so easy to blame the production manager for placing jobs the way they always have but they are doing their job and working a process setup long ago. No, we have to strive for knowledge, be professional, grab onto responsibility and start to own the title of designer again. The cracks in the ice start with us.
Please note, views here are my own and do not represent the view of any employer.