Creative people sometimes bemoan not having caught a break; or, they blame their circumstances for the lacklustre assignments they’re tasked with. I think such arguments are weak at best. For the most part, our lives are a product of our own devisal, and the choices we make define our realities.
Do you take the new job, or stick with the old one? Do you stay at the growing agency, or start your own studio? Do you accept a high-paying assignment, or put time into a side-project you are unable to get out of your head? Each of these sorts of choices can be contemplated in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, when considered for long enough, they can also become paralyzing.
I’ve faced a number of these sorts of questions over the years, and I continue to. Although I can’t say these choices have gotten easy, I do have some past experiences to reflect upon. From these, I’ve learned that one point seems to matter more than the others. When I use the question, “how interesting will the work be?” to help make the decision, I seem to be rewarded for having done so.
Sure, situational needs can make choosing interesting work less viable. For example, if you have young kids and need to pay bills, your decision might need to be influenced by other factors. However, I think we all too often allow our fears to get in the way of choices that could work out for us eventually.
There are many reasons for choosing interesting work, but the most important ones relate to your long-term prospects. We all start adulthood thinking money is scarce, and time is in limitless supply. This belief is false and proves to be a most vicious trap. Following is an example to illustrate my point.
You start a small studio, and are struggling to bring in new projects. One day, a group calls and offers you an assignment that’s not quite right for your studio, but pays well. Although the project isn’t within your direct area of expertise, you reason that this diversion will only require two months—and at the end of it you’ll have some cash to play with. This is sound logic, but rarely ever plays out as one might like.
This sort of situation is almost always impacted by the way work begets work. Upon completing this project, another group will call, asking you to do something similar for them—followed by another. Although the money at the end of each project will seem to have evaporated, you’ll find yourself accepting these projects—because not doing so would be irresponsible.
Soon enough, you will have become a specialist in an area you’d never even properly considered. Demand will grow, and so will your studio. This is how the rope tightens. You’ll add staff, and as you do, you’ll need more space and equipment—becoming even more reliant on cash flow. This financial need will make you increasingly receptive to projects that aren’t quite right—but you’ll now need. Ultimately, you’ll become a kind of design junkie, taking on any gig you can, just to feed your studio’s growing appetite. You’ll also realize that you’re no longer working as a designer; instead, you’ll have transformed into a manager—of projects, which might not even mean anything to you.
This scenario might seem dreary and fatalistic. I appreciate such sentiments, but must stress how common these situations are for many designers.
Now, let’s play this scenario out somewhat differently. Perhaps, you say no to the “not quite right” job, and instead work on a personal project you think interesting. Maybe this is an information design project of public importance. Or, you might choose to produce some design work for a not-for-profit whose cause you believe in. Alternately, you might find yourself building some kind of an application you feel there’s utility in.
Regardless of the project you choose, you might just find yourself doing your very best design: because you care about the work. Meanwhile, the rule I mentioned before—work begets work—remains valid. If well executed, your efforts will (perhaps not right away, but eventually) attract other like-minded people and clients.
The information design project leads a prestigious magazine to hire you to produce something similar, for their next issue. The not-for-profit you once helped receives a grant, and is able to hire you for paying assignments. Or, the app you built gets picked up by users who are willing to pay for it.
Much like in the earlier scenario, such instances are just the beginning. What you create attracts like matter. Work on a website for a law firm, and you’ll end up working on another. Create a beautiful poster, and someone will ask you to make one for them, too. Alternately, you can do nothing and you’ll likewise attract nothing. See how this whole deal works?
Regardless of what you choose to create, you’ll find yourself busy. (Because everyone is busy.) So, the real question for you is whether you’re going to be busy with work you loathe, or work you love. Both scenarios come with consequences. I know folks who make a lot of dough peddling breath mints and breakfast cereal—which is fine if that floats your boat. My choice is to forsake such work, in favor of that which I deem interesting. This decision means I’ll at times have to skip the occasional pay check or trip to Maui. Again: pros and cons—only you can choose what works for you.
Choosing to do interesting work doesn’t mean you’ll be free of tedious chores. Every job involves some less-than-thrilling parts. That said, if you’re invested in the work you’re doing, the overall experience will be more positive. For example, I wasn’t euphoric while close-cutting images for the new SNAP website; however, I’m so excited about what The Nature Conservancy stands for—and the purpose behind the SNAP initiative—that I was quite fine with a little grunt work. Interesting work can be so because of what the design accomplishes, who the project helps, the opportunities to explore new possibilities, and/or how the work helps you grow.
Should you wish to use “interesting” as a criteria for making decisions, I’ll leave you with a few supporting suggestions. First: Keep your expenses low. Doing so affords you more freedom to say no to projects that might lead you astray. There’s a simple formula at work here: the more money you spend, the more shit you’ll have to deal with.
Second: Don’t grow your studio. Instead, stay as small as you can. The moment you add people to your operation, you start getting pushed away from the work. This will lead you to spend time on business development, determining hiring policies, and all kinds of other tasks, which have little to do with making. (Should you want to grow your studio, you can disregard this point. But, if you’re committed to that dreadful exercise, you should also disregard this entire post.)
Finally: Avoid being tempted by the work of others—because doing so will right mess you up. There are countless interesting paths one can take, and accolades to be achieved in doing so. But, those aren’t for you. You need to cut your own path. Getting distracted by other possibilities will only slow you down. You haven’t won a Clio? Who gives a shit! Can’t afford a shiny Mercedes? Awesome—you can also save yourself the repair bills. Don’t have as fast of a Mac as your friends? Suck it up and use a fucking pencil. Perhaps I sound harsh, but I think such antagonism is warranted here. If you want to do interesting work, you have to concentrate on what you’re doing—not what someone else is.
I’ve been on both sides of this equation. I’ve been excited about growing a company, and subsequently worked myself right out of the job I loved. (Incidentally, I did, in time, remedy this misstep.) On the other hand, I’ve also made some seemingly impractical—but interesting—choices. In these instances I’ve gone on to find myself getting out of bed every morning, excited to start the day.
Although I can’t guarantee that choosing interesting work will pan out for you, this approach certainly has for me. Were I able to go back to the beginning of my career, I’d make more choices using interesting work as my guide.
One other note: Interesting work rarely pays well, at the outset. However, over a long enough timeline, such work can become lucrative. For example, I bet Matthew Inman made far less money than his friends when he started The Oatmeal; but he seems to be doing OK, now—and is able to spend his days telling stories and producing visuals that delight millions.
Should the same sort of path turn out to be your destiny, you’ll eventually get paid (handsomely) for doing work you enjoy and care about. If you don’t fare quite so well, you’ll still get to do interesting work. I’m of the mind that this is a kinder fate than being stuck in endless meetings—and having to take part in team-building exercises. The life you lead is up to you.