Getting Back to the Basics
How to deal with your midlife design crisis
by Eric Karjaluoto
I’m turning 40. For the past year, I’ve been preoccupied with my age. As hard as it is for me to believe, I’m entering the last half (at best) of my life. And although I don’t regret many decisions, lately, something’s been amiss.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this reflection. Many of my peers who run design studios are also grappling with how to move forward. One or two are growing their agencies aggressively. A few closed their studios and became employees (with weekends off). Others are moving to idyllic rural settings and becoming one- or two-person consultancies.
Most of these people share similar backgrounds. They opened design studios in their early to mid-20s with great enthusiasm. Limited demand for their work led them to put extra effort into every job and create side projects to showcase their skills. Soon, they had so much to do that they couldn’t handle the workload.
So they brought on employees, and learned how a business works. Their focus shifted from doing design to coaching staff, scheduling resources and chasing the next project to keep the cash flow even. Working with ideas soon lost out to deciphering government forms and negotiating leases.
Some find this experience rewarding, more so than any single design project. So long as companies are reasonably well run, staff can be added, while project budgets and capabilities increase. However, others realized that growing a studio leaves you managing design instead of doing it. This can prove a significant loss.
At certain stages, studio owners evaluate their progress and recalibrate. The ten-year mark seems like a common time for this analysis. Some go big, others close shop and a few reconnect with their craft. Over the past year of reflection, I chose the latter. For me, no other activity beats practicing design. I love making things, and the following are five tenets to help dedicate more time to this pursuit.
Stay small. A studio is often measured by how many it employs. This is faulty logic, as large head counts are costly, and quickly deplete cash reserves. This can force studios to take on less profitable work just to cover costs. By staying small, you keep overhead low. This allows you to turn away work that isn’t right for you, while reducing administration, sales and management requirements. Eliminating these tasks affords more time for creative activity.
Practice selectivity. All tasks take longer than expected. Given the scant time in a day, the question isn’t how to fit more in, but rather, what to skip. Mostly, this means avoiding low-yield activities. This selectivity also demands that you are pickier with projects, choosing ones that are both suitable and profitable. Also, you should only collaborate with those as motivated to make good design as you are. This choosiness even extends to your equipment. Hold out, if need be, and only buy tools that make your work more pleasurable.
Remove ego from your work. As a designer, it’s difficult not to stoop to envy. You want to work on the most interesting projects, and ones that will see wide use. Such aspirations are fine, but can become overwhelming when not kept in check. So, avoid resenting others’ achievements and instead revel in the triumphs of your colleagues. Measure your own success by how happy you are. Make few promises, avoid hyperbole and be grateful for the projects you have rather than reaching for ones you don’t.
Act like a novice. Many put inordinate effort into looking like experts, in hopes of securing new work. Stop worrying about seeming like a professional, and accept that in most cases you are still a novice. Investigate more. Reread common definitions, watch tutorials on rusty topics and try approaches you’ve never used. Doing so forces you to learn, and this makes you feel young.
Be patient. Our culture is captivated by early and immediate success: 25-year-old art directors, Top 40 Under 40 lists, and “rising stars” abound. Sadly, these are endemic to a race that focuses you on the wrong targets. The reward isn’t found in praise; it’s in work. That’s where to put your energy: Repeat and refine processes to master your craft. Take pleasure in the small tasks, and find joy in simply working with your hands. There’s no rush; you can “peak” in your mid-70s.
There are countless goals to chase after, but most will leave you wanting. At 20, you’ll do so because there’s so much time, and you might persist at 30. At a certain point, though, you realize you’re forsaking what’s right in front of you for what could be, and that seems like a shame. The way I’m managing my midlife design crisis is to delve deeper, and spend as much of today as I can, making design. ca