I recently posted about my experience at a freelance gig where I was the interim head of the design department at a medical technology firm and the work I did there. Most of the work was print, but like many corporate clients, much of the work consisted of consisted of things you’d never put in your portfolio, much less admit you were involved in.
Among them was the development of PowerPoint presentations for sales staff. Many designers may mention that the are proficient at PowerPoint but it’s usage as a business applications overshadows any utility for the high-end designer it seems to me… As it works out, working with these folks, I stumbled into some PowerPoint projects simply by doing other work and being around to help solve interactivity issues with the program. All of a sudden, I’m a “PowerPoint God”. When I heard this I wasn’t sure whether to be proud or take a shower.
Turns out its a little of both …
On the one hand the ability to go in and answer communications problems in a business environment is golden in picking up new business. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll be saving those PowerPoints for my portfolio. But this got me to thinking about the “why are we here?” No not on earth, silly. Why are we designers? And for me and possibly you it’s a mix of things.
Take a listen to a little Seth Godin’s The Dip and you’ll muse on the value of being the best you can possibly be if you’re going to bother to design/illustrate/photograph. Secondly, this may lead to your whittling down your best you and absent that the best you in your projects that you can find. To illustrate this point, I’ll rely on Jim Collin’s book Good To Great: Why some Companies Make The Leap and Some Don’t.
The book has a theory called the HedgeHog Concept which is illustrated here:
Well, as this goes, the being a PowerPoint god was worth it in that it was financially valuable, but not exactly the way I’d like to be contributing to the world. Perhaps your job is similar: you’re making charts, designing brochures that meet some business function, but fall short of your passion. What does this mean? Well, pursue that passion in manageable chunks.
Find a project that’s high on passion, even if it’s short in other areas. When Michael Beirut came to UMBC late last year, he reinforced this notion: “What’s stopping you from (re)designing whatever you want?” He also said: “the only overhead to designing is [ultimately] your time.” So, if no plum design project is coming along the road—particularly in a recession, what’s the harm in taking an otherwise limited assignment and doing it the way YOU want it?
Enter a competition for no one else but yourself if, for no other reason, because design is inherently a democratic thing (as in it gains power in the voice of each individual—not a particular side of the aisle) and that voice is only heard when our best voices are actively contributing to it. So make something over and spend your time developing the craft, without worrying about the financial end of things all the time…
But until they start taking time credits at the gas pump, keep work at converting that “time” to expertise, so that you can find the nexus of the hedgehog aspirations you seek. Go from designing widget catalogs to designing—I dunno—the new J. Crew catalog. Go from highly paid PowerPoint presentations that never see the light of day in the design world to possibly re-thinking what the presentation looks like in the first place or go from taking that project that you put your passion into and parlay it into a project that pays you some dough.