Columns / Insights

Transmedia Buoyancy

Petrula Vrontikis

Where are you seeing the most growth in today’s economy for young designers? At the Art Center College of Design, where I teach, graduates are in high demand at top tech companies such as Google and Facebook.

Here are 2014 statistics of the starting salaries for recent graphic design grads at top-tier design schools in the United States: $42k for small boutique firms doing primarily print work; $48k for small boutique firms doing print and interactive work; $55k for interactive work; $65k to $85k for high-tech companies doing interactive, branding and strategy work. These numbers are a mash-up from postings on the company ratings site Glassdoor, the AIGA 2014 salary survey and information from the alumni office at the Art Center.

Salaries are from $20,000 to $50,000 more per year to work for Microsoft, IBM and Google to create a new culture of virtual communications and short-term ephemera. This difference in compensation as a driver of the future of our field cannot be underestimated, as designers are swayed by these salaries to work for tech companies.

What kind of work can a designer expect to create at top tech companies? For the graphic design field specifically, traditional, highly skilled analog expertise has lost much of its value because most young designers are not making money creating artifacts. Designing minute details and implementing elegant behavioral nuances within the parameters of existing templates—UX, UI and visual design issues that are not considered as traditional graphic design—is now the new normal.

Art Center graduates who have worked for Facebook, Google and Microsoft complain about the work being limited to these minute details and behavioral nuances that are boring and tedious. But these small moves are exponentially important in social media contexts.

An example would be designer Josh Higgins’s work on the donation page for Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign website. In a presentation at the AIGA San Diego Y Conference, Josh showed no less than ten slight changes in the color and position of the donate button. Each change made an enormous difference in how the public responded and contributed to the campaign. Interestingly, the design was always data-driven because Josh and the team could test, evaluate and retool in real time.

The hiring landscape today is very different.

 

What is the current hiring landscape like today? My experience starting my career was similar to most Baby Boomers and Gen Xers: the apprenticeship model. After four to six years of school, we’d work closely with someone who we deeply admired. We paid our dues. Consistency and repetition within a studio structure let us slowly and carefully achieve our goals over time.

But studio principals today are not mentoring younger people at the same rate they could years ago. They simply don’t have the time and don’t want to invest in an employee who will leave in eighteen months. Opportunities like I had in my early career are few and far between these days.

The hiring landscape today is very different. The 18-­ to 24-month career gigs build quickly upon one another to create a much more interesting and lucrative career than if a designer stayed at any one place. Today’s creative nomads are agile, and mobility is the most efficient strategy for exploiting scarce resources. In this case, the resource is the elusive perfect job—a well-funded ecosystem of creators, editors and evangelists that collaborate to solve problems.

Companies must ask the question: how can we get the most from—and give the most to—an employee in such a compressed period of time? For the new creative nomad, it all comes down to working with an organization that will provide the best experience: one that promotes a culture of learning.

What are the business skills that designers need in order to make it in today’s economy? The answer depends on how you define “make it.” To make it means that you thrive in a variety of business cultures: your own business, as part of the larger economy and in team collaborations.

My business skills wish list for designers is in four categories: fundamental, social, cultural and aspirational.

Fundamental: These skills are necessary to be able to run your own business or to understand—or design—the systems that underlie basic studio functions. These include small business practices such as state and federal tax requirements, licenses and regulations, creative briefs, proposals, terms and conditions, copyright law, corporate structures, and hiring practices.

Social: Such skills support an optimal way to collaborate with other designers and with nondesigners involved in your ventures. These include empathy, emotional maturity and the ability to lead teams.

Cultural: If what a designer creates has value, then she has a responsibility to understand the environment that is most conducive to its success. To be credible, a designer needs to understand her place in a larger ecosystem. The best designers are aware of economic trends locally and globally, know how nonprofits work and why shareholders have power, and can attain a vocabulary fluent enough to speak of industry trends and forecasts.

The ability to pattern seemingly unrelated events to create future scenarios is one of the most valued contributions a designer can make to the process. Without cultural literacy, skillful patterning—such as designer Michael Bierut’s rebranding of the MIT Media lab or digital media artist Aaron Koblin’s innovative work—cannot take place.

Aspirational: This category extends to leadership participation in industry blogs and forums. This commitment includes ongoing contributions to business communities about the value of design and an insatiable curiosity about how design influences local and global economies.

What are the top dilemmas for today’s design programs? The top dilemma comes down to mediating time versus money. Most design programs in the United States are expected to prepare grads with all they’ll need to succeed within three or four years, putting an enormous amount of pressure on students, faculty and programs. Given the time frame allowed, it’s inevitable that gaps will appear in the cultivation of design skills, business skills or social maturity. Filling these gaps now falls in the lap of the first employer.

As the complexity of the industry is increasing, so is the cost of higher education. It used to be common to take six years to earn a BFA. If you combine tuition costs with the cost of being out of the workforce, today’s students cannot afford to be in school for very long. Schools are luring students in with significant—but short-term—entry scholarships and financial aid that often dries up after the first year or two, leaving the student in the difficult position of acquiring massive debt upon graduation.

Art Center’s philosophy has always been to appeal to a more mature student, often one who has already earned an associate or bachelor degree. Over the last five to seven years, competition has been fierce for recruiting students right out of high school. They and their parents are eager for them to get through a program quickly and start making a living right away. Who can blame them? But, as an instructor, I see this as unrealistic and often detrimental in the long term.

Younger students have very little life experience to draw upon as they are asked to solve very complex problems. Many underperform because the rigor is too much for them process at this early age. It’s common for them to experience emotional difficulties that block their ability to learn because the pressure is too great.

How do you stay inspired outside of the workplace? Ultimately, career sustainability requires personal resilience. I don’t postpone cultivating happiness and inspiration outside of the design world.

One of my passions is scuba diving. It’s the best antidote for being frozen behind a fifteen-inch virtual portal. Scuba diving is certainly a cross-media, multi-sensorial experience. To survive, you must be agile—equipped with everything required in an ever-changing environment—very much like a nomad, just underwater.

An accomplished diver attains something called neutral buoyancy—a kind of mastery of the underwater formal skills where you float weightlessly without effort, neither sinking nor rising. The equivalent for a transmedia graphic designer could be called “creative ambidexterity,” which combines the skills, equipment and mindset to swim confidently between 2-D, 3-D and time-based media.

For both the designer and the diver, this toggling becomes second nature, so we no longer have to think about barriers. We become free to make left turns, travel upside down and sideways—becoming fearless and playful.

Petrula Vrontikis is a designer, author and educator based in Los Angeles. She is the creative director and owner of Vrontikis Design Office and has taught senior-level graphic design and professional practice courses at Art Center College of Design for more than 20 years. She is an avid traveler and visual translator. It’s not unusual to find her 85 feet underwater, climbing a steep and rocky slope, or twisting her body like a pretzel in a yoga class. Clients include the Carnegie Observatories, University of California, Los Angeles and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, among many others.

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