Ever Feel Like a Designer Stuck in a Box

Do you ever get the feeling that you are stuck in a never-ending cycle of clichés and stereotypes? If you do, then you might be an in-house graphic designer.
Yes that’s right, If you, like me, once dreamed of that awesome job in the creative world, where you and high-end magazine publishers would rub shoulders and you have the ability to tell some of the best photographers in the industry that their shot doesn’t look quite right for the ad for Nike, you too would have been struck with a large dose of reality upon graduation from the creative school of your choice. If you did get that dream job right out of school, please stop reading, none of what is in this blog post applies to you… and you make me a little sick… kidding, but ya.

Reality hit me and my fellow designers hard, really hard. I graduated in early October of 2001, literally three weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, one of our nation’s biggest tragedies. The only people that showed up to our portfolio review were parents, crickets, and priest. The priest were there to give us the last rights to the new careers that hundreds of bright-eyed and hopeful creatives had just dropped many thousands of dollars on. It was dismal. Advertising budgets were slashed, and those fancy design firms were firing designers right and left. Fat chance on us squeezing our way into the industry.

Thus, I began my journey, with my overly large portfolio case filled to the brim with all of the exciting things I had managed to create … and some things I wish I had not. I went to marketing firms and magazine printers, to local publishers and marketing sweat shops. Finally, I found myself trying just to get a job. Both the grocery store and Blockbuster thought that the portfolio case was a little strange.

After a year of stomping the ground in the South Florida metropolises, I ended up in a small town in Central Florida. I interviewed, they liked my stuff, and I was commissioned an “In-house Designer”. And that is where I stepped into the box.

In art school, a person is told that the possibilities are endless. At a company, they are told to get it done, fast, and exactly how we want it. I didn’t mind pleasing clients when I did freelance, but now I was forced to please one client, the same way, all of the time. My first introduction to this world of design was a business card that had so much information on it and about 6 logos. I was told they wanted all of the same stuff on the new card, and that I had to make it look good. I went home and cried. Not because it was so hard to do, but because I knew, at that moment, that I would be doing things like this for the rest of my life. Troubling.

If they need a photo, I am the photographer. If they need copy, I am writing it. If they need a coffee, oh wait, that’s not my job.

I managed to do creative work as an in-house designer and, later, creative director for eight years and two international companies. Don’t get me wrong. The work is good, it pays well, and you get the benefit of a more solid environment. The only thing it lacks is the ability to be spontaneously and genuinely creative.

To beat this “in-the-box” mentality, there are ways to remain creative, fresh, and sane. Some of these techniques are quite simple, and some require more effort. They do work though.

•  Buy and look through magazines.  Get the most popular magazine available, in whatever is interesting at the time, and then peruse it for ads. Tag the designs that are most appealing, and if there is time, create a way to sell any product using that style. It can be quite difficult. Try selling soda using a wedding-themed background.

•  Another technique that can be used to keep creativity fresh is to work on freelance projects as much as time allows. By doing projects for other companies one gets to branch out and give unique companies, unique designs that match their style.

• Still Another way to keep fresh in the box at work is to design ads that the company would never use in a million years. Yup. Ads that are pure concept, beautiful designs, great art, unique approach to the subject, and so out of their character that they would never use them. Why do that? Because on the off-chance the boss gets wind of the fresh approach and says go with it? Never gonna’ happen. No, the real reason to do that is to remind yourself as a designer that you can do those things. You can make beautiful and meaningful designs.


So, If you are an in-house designer, or the creative director of a company with only two creative people in it…you and the new guy, then cheer up. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and hope for your artistic mind. Just remember not to settle, sit still, or let your creativity stagnate – and you will always be sharp. In or out of the box.

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