i love design / i hate design

June 18, 2009 |  Category:   art + design life me


Most of you know I’m a designer. I split my working days 30% W&S business to 70% freelance design work (roughly on average). And although I’ve been a designer and art director for what seems like forever, it has never been something that I truly and absolutely loved. I am not one of those graphic designers who love love love to design (and there are quite a few designer friends who fit this description quite well). If you were to ask me then, what it is I love to do, I wouldn’t be able to give you a definitive answer. I think that this has always been my “problem”. I never could commit to a major in art school and so I floated aimlessly around for 3 years before I finally decided that it was enough. Interestingly, when I went back to college to study music, I was focused again and prolific and excited like my high school days making art. My family and friends didn’t understand why I left art school (and my parents never took an interest in any of my music stuff), but what they may never truly understand is that if I had stayed, I may have never regained any inspiration or motivation to do something creative again. So to me, there is great irony in the fact that I make a living doing something that I actively avoided while in school – graphic design.

Although I did have many solid years of fine art education, I guess you can say that like Mark, who never went to culinary school, I learned how to design on the job and from mentors. I first learned about typography from a job in the beauty industry when I moved back to NY. My creative director boss was a real kook – emotional, irrational, disorganized, impulsive, tardy, but super stylish and immensely talented. When I applied for the job, I knew nearly nothing, but she took me in on a risk and we would sit together and work on layouts and type for cosmetic and perfume clients. She once frantically told me that I had to board a plane to Paris in 2 hours and take her place at meetings because she had been feverishly looking for her lost passport that morning and couldn’t find it. At times her impulsive nature terrified me (no, I didn’t go to Paris that day) and on one particularly emotional afternoon, she quite suddenly quit. My new boss, a copywriter, was the opposite of my former boss – older, level-headed, petite, shortly cropped silver hair, usually dressed in black suits with custom made ballet flats, arms dressed in multiple chunky bangles, and always a fabulous Chanel handbag. She could probably make any kid cry with just one look as she was very severe looking and no nonsense in personality, but she was also very generous, endearing and we developed a great friendship. So why am I remembering these people from my past? I’ve been struggling with a design that I’m working on for a client (hello design angst!) and it made me think about the origins of my design journey and how I ended up here. Even after having spent a few years at that company, I realized that I didn’t possess a strong passion for graphic design, so I left and went to grad school at NYU to study art and technology. I saw it as a chance to do something different, but you know what? After I graduated (and this was when the web really exploded) I just ended up designing for a different medium – the web. So here I am, still plotting my escape from graphic design 9 years later.

Many years ago I realized something about myself that was interesting. I was a really focused kid in high school and spent all of my time painting, drawing, sewing and playing music. But that summer before college I suffered a breakdown. I had worked really hard for nearly 2 years to compete for scholarships and so when I had achieved those goals and got into some of the best art schools in the country with full scholarships, I was suddenly left with nothing to do. Being a goal oriented person, I didn’t deal with that well. When I got to college my interest in making art just disappeared. I think this is why I couldn’t focus while I was in school. I STILL haven’t painted anything since I left Cooper almost 17 years ago. Sometimes I will draw, but there is no real desire or inspiration to draw with any regular frequency. I am not one of those “I carry my sketch book wherever I go” type of person. I don’t have this compelling need to make art. It is rather strange, no? Considering how I spent the first part of my life drawing all the time? So I’m still trying to figure that one out. Trying to figure out what it is I want to do. Trying to figure out what I like to do and what makes me creatively satisfied, but excited. Despite working on some very interesting, high profile projects, I know that it’s not this…but, what then?

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  • Gabriel June 18, 2009 at 7:03 am

    i don’t recall having to commit to a major at cooper at all. i identified myself with one group because of studio space and the clique mentality of art school and the art world. when i have to answer people’s questions of what i did at school it takes a long essay(!) to describe everything. because of this freedom we were given i lacked the focus to learn any practical skills to take into the work force – computers, design, etc. (and i still refuse to learn those skills.) but we really focused on theory, presentation (ahem), leadership and networking skills.

    like you, i haven’t made any “art” since school either, mainly because i have no financial interest in the business of marketing/selling it. but i am happily engaged in creative projects every single day of my life. as you are too with your camera, websites, businesses and personal life. the art of life.

    your path seems quite clear to me and everything you’ve shared with us is keeping you on that track. stick with everything you’re doing in regards to w&s and this blog. that publisher and that agent will knock on your door. be prepared for that day.

  • Anna June 18, 2009 at 7:09 am

    Oh man, I know what you mean.
    I went to culinary school to turn my hobby into a business and now that I have, I have no hobbies and I’m kinda sick of cooking.
    Oh well.

  • jennifer June 18, 2009 at 9:23 am

    you’re so open and honest, i love that. i dreadfully miss painting but I just can’t pick up a paintbrush right now, and i have no idea why. everything was hunky dory until a little breakdown i had several years ago when i shipped all my materials and nearly all of my paintings out of state, where they sit to this day in a dark closet. i think i might still be a little hung up about it though…therapy, anyone?

  • Amanda June 18, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I absolutely know what you mean. I have been floating around trying to figure out where my “passion” is too – for far too long. I was in art school for two years, then changed my major to something very different and ended up with a ‘park ranger’ degree. Now, six years later, I have a background in fundraising, which I dislike immensely, and have been out of a job for a year. I want to go back to school for something completely different (speech language-pathology) but wonder if I will like that after I have been in the field for a few years.

    I think about finishing up my art degree, but have decided that I like to dabble in different arts and wouldn’t like to force my creativity every day. I tend to get stuck and frustrated if I push it. Thanks for the post – I never hear any other artist talk about feeling this way. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone here.

  • rifferaff June 18, 2009 at 10:35 am

    dunno if you caught this when i posted it last week. i keep coming back to it because it’s so simple yet so hard to actually do. http://rifferaff.typepad.com/make_it/2009/06/how-to-be-happy-in-business.html

  • karen b. June 18, 2009 at 11:10 am

    I can reelate in so many ways! I’m an artist – a painter who likes painting but is really no longer making a living at it. Two young kids, now in my 40s, I can’t figure out what is next. I keep mulling over learnign design, illustration , etc.. .but if I’m perfectly honest with myself, it’s not because I want to do those things but rather I’m tryign to figure a way to make a living. It’s ironic because I actually dream of baking and cooking ( which is originally brought me to your blog – the photo on Etsy of your butterscotch chocolate bars!) but I don’t want to work in restaurants.

    Can I just say for me that confused and starting over in your 40s is not so fun. I write a blog about my general murkiness and starting anew but havn’t figured out the soultion yet. But it’s actually incredibly refreshing to hear others talk about it so thank you for this post.


  • Tumus June 18, 2009 at 11:42 am

    There was an article published by NPR on All Things Considered about how adults should keep drawing, even it’s doodling a little because it’s good to let the little kid inside out.

    The more you share with us here, the more we see you as a really cool person. You struggle with the same stuff alot of us do or did, work, kids, college, family, but you are still unique because of all the choices you’ve made.

    If I could pick just ONE path it wouldn’t be enough. Ever. I think making sure you have a real “hobby” that you promise to never turn into a “business” is the best path anyone can take. For you I think it’s photography.

    Sorry for the deep post πŸ˜† (((hugs)))

  • viva b. June 18, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    great post….can totally relate as a graphic designer

  • Angela June 18, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Jenna, I can completely identify with a lot of what you’re saying. Especially working really hard in school until you’ve gotten into everything you wanted to… and then what? Once you’ve achieved what you were striving for, it’s like you finally have a chance to look around and say, do I even like this? Especially once I was out of college and in the working world, staring down 40 future years of a career, it really made me analyze and worry about the choices I’d made. I try to appreciate the journey and be ok with not knowing all the answers, but it’s really hard sometimes. Sometimes I want that experience that some people have where they find the thing they just LOVE to do and want to do all the time, but I’m not there yet. I feel like I have design ADD, with a lot of different interests, and I don’t know that one will ever be The Thing for me. And I think I’m ok with that (or at least I’m trying to be.) Good luck with everything, I know it’s hard, but I think what you’re doing is wonderful.

  • Lois June 18, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Oh Jenna, I remember you writing me back and saying we could be twins. Your post rings so true with me. I was in sciences for 3 years before I switched to my design degree program because I used to love to draw, paint and sew all the time. I studied piano for over 20 years as well and although it was something I loved, it wasn’t enough to pursue it as a career. So now I’ve been working as a designer for about 10 years and I am not a designer’s designer, the way you described in your post. I like it but don’t *love* it… but don’t know what else to do at this point. There are lots of things I’m interested in but there are bills to pay. Thanks so much for sharing your heart with us, I love reading your blog and think what you and Mark are doing is courageous and exciting.

  • Karin June 18, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    wow, a lot of what you said also describes me and how i feel about art/design. i studied graphic design in college and i have had a couple graphic design jobs but i don’t love it. i’m kind of going through a mini career crisis at the moment. i really can’t figure out what i’m truly passionate about.

  • nole @ oh so beautiful paper June 18, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    You know – this post describes me 100%. I had the same pre-college freak-out, which ended up affecting the rest of my life (in both good ways and bad). I actually started out pursuing a career in photography and haven’t really picked up a camera since I quit art school and switched to political science. I got really lucky right out of school in getting a great job and have spent the last 6+ years doing something that I’m really good at, but that I don’t necessarily “love” (and certainly don’t love the way I did when I first got into it, although that’s a loooong story). So now I’m trying to figure out what that next thing/step is – and since I’m also extremely goal-oriented, it’s an immensely difficult process since I can’t really “see” the next step the way I could before. Anyway, all of this is to say that it’s just really nice to know I’m not the only one…

  • Jenna June 18, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Gabriel, no, we didn’t have to declare majors at Cooper, BUT without a major, you didn’t get studio space and so you were without a “home”, which is what I meant by floating around for 3 years. I didn’t hang out exclusively with Cooper friends either and so I didn’t have a group I clicked with (and the friends from school I did hang out with seemed to be experiencing the same ambivalence towards art as me). So you say that my path seems clear to you. So spill it, man! What is it?!

  • erinn June 18, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    My Cooper experience was different being in the architecture school. And I won’t go into that. πŸ™‚ But now that I made it through Cooper, made it through my first crappy intern jobs, took nine exams, got my license and supposedly ‘practice’ architecture, I am left thinking “what next?”. I know I love architecture and design but is working in an office 8:30 to 5:30 M-F week after week all there is? I am more disillusioned with my profession than I am with design. And my reaction is to look to other design fields for an alternative. But now I realize I might just need to redefine for myself how I fit into the field I am already in. I don’t know how to do that yet and I am struggling deeply with it.

    This is probably totally off base with what you are dealing with. But it got me thinking. Thx.

    It might seem cloudy now, but you will find your way through it. I am sure of it.

  • Beth June 18, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    I used to be artsy too. Draw and paint, I stopped a few years ago, unable to pick up a brush. I’ve found other ways to feed my creativity (namely photography) I can understand design getting stale after a while, anything done over and over can get boring.

  • Lecia/A Day that is Dessert June 18, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    This is so thought provoking. In my adult life I never thought of myself as creative until recently; my oldest child is quite driven to create every waking second and my mother tells me I was exactly the same way as a child. Where did that go? I’ve recently gotten quite interested in photography for the sake of art not just documentation, perhaps that’s where I’m picking up that thread of my life again.

  • Gabriel June 19, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    what i see for you is so grand that describing it will intimidate. and thinking too much about it now will impede your openness and creativity.

    let’s just say that you’re able to articulate (visually & verbally) for an audience that has much in common with your family’s life. a group that can’t fully relate to martha stewart, rachael ray, etc. when i heard you speak on that interview a lightbulb flashed – jenna has a great sounding voice.

    a few other bloggers are on the same wavelength. eventually one of you guys has to up the ante and market this lifestyle with highly-profitable products.

  • jennifer June 19, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Funny you should post this now, as it is also relevant in my life. I was recently involved with a layoff as a huge media company, and have worked as an interactive art director for over 10 years. In these last few weeks I have been wondering “what do I want to be when I grow up?” do I still have a passion for all this or is it just a paycheck. Sometimes I look at what you and Mark have built and wish I had the courage to do what you have done.

  • jean June 19, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    a very big difference between doing what you like and doing what you’re good at.

  • Jenna June 20, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Gabriel, those are some ambitious words. wanna be my agent?

  • wendy June 20, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    thanks so much for sharing theses thoughts with us jenna. i thoroughly enjoyed reading it. i realized that the reason why i don’t really enjoy graphic design is because i don’t get to design something exactly the way i want it.. yet i know many designers who enjoy the challenge of making something both they and the client likes! i’m amazed that you’ve stuck with design as long as you have — you’re so very talented (and there’s gotta be some satisfaction from doing what you’re good at, no?), and hope you find your “thing”.. but even if you don’t, i hope you keep on searching, and keep on having fun!

  • Jackie June 21, 2009 at 1:05 am

    I get this feeling completely, thank you for sharing so openly! I was the kid always writing stories in the margins of my notebooks and watching movies endlessly–thought I’d be a filmmaker. My undergrad degree was a double major in Studio Art and English, but that was only arrived at after changing my major 4 or 5 times (film, journalism, photography, and interior design before landing in Studio Art and English) and transferring universities. I painted like a force of nature in college, and I was never a visual arts person in HS. And I’ve barely touched a paintbrush since. I have lots of other hobbies, but I’m not a “painter” the way I was in college. And my Masters is in Library Science, and I ended up as an elementary school librarian. Never saw that one coming, I still don’t know how I got from my HS passions to this. I love what I do, but I have trouble imagining myself retiring from this career. It’s what I love right now, not sure I’ll still love it in 10 years. No idea what I’ll do then, but I’ll worry about that when I get there.

  • Gabriel June 21, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    as someone who has had an agent most of my adult life i don’t think i’d be a good one in practice. theory yes. we can hook you up.

  • Anna August 15, 2009 at 12:38 am

    Graphic design is a low-risk, practical way of making a living at being creative. There is a paycheck with design which doesn’t require too much suffering. I’m a designer, I know. I’ve grappled w/ doubt. I’ve got a degree in International Business w/ a German language concentration. (I also speak Spanish, some Dutch, Polish and Portuguese.) I ended up freelancing in Berlin for 3 years as a graphic designer. My passion is international travel/exploration and I found myself not doing it much this last decade since returning from Berlin. Earlier this year I quit my job and spent 3 months in Rio de Janeiro on an invitation. After those three months I am so happy to be back. We are so fortunate here, we have choices on how we want to live our lives. It’s up to us to take the risk, live boldly. I saw such poverty in Rio/Brazil. So many lives w/ few options. I found there was no excuse for me not to pursue my dreams. When I look around here (U.S.) w/ a new perspective and saw how wealthy this country is and how many resources I have available to me, I realize that there is nothing stopping me except for me. So, I recommend a dose of confidence with some risk taking…and maybe travel to a 3rd world country. :o)

  • sarah November 10, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    wow just stumbled upon your blog tonight. this is a refreshing post – thank you for writing it.

    you are such a talented writer and photographer.

    i am a self taught graphic designer/web designer. while i loved it when i started – i’m getting bored now. and am considering side launching. and am even looking beyond that. i think i’d really like to work part-time or full-time for a non-profit when my husband and i can afford that – sometime in the future after we’ve had kids.

    anyways thanks for your very honest post. it was great to read tonight as i was procrastinating, avoiding working on my dreaded freelance graphic and web design!