Is it possible to be JUST a Graphic Designer?

I know that asking this question is opening a can of worms that some might think is best left alone, however it’s become a question I increasingly ask myself, and therefore, think it’s worth discussing.

I know many designers that think of themselves as strictly print designers. Their work all points in this direction, however they are occasionally approached to do something like web design, illustration or animation. While some of us look at this as extra work and would gladly take it on, a few see it almost as an insult to their profession.

So is it really possible to simply be a designer and nothing else?

Seven years ago when I started working at the agency I was simply a Graphic Designer, as if simple is a term that can be applied to the position. I designed signs, ads, billboards and several others that were all comfortably seated within what I felt was my job description. For the first month or two I happily went about my work, until one day I overheard my boss talking to a client about websites.

“Sure, we can do that for you.” Those words sent a chill up my spine at the realization I was about to step out of my comfort zone and into a realm of things I didn’t understand.

That first site was as agonizing as a root canal, the process dragged on and on as I struggled beneath the weight of code and uploading proceedures. When I was finally finished I swore I would never build another website again. An ignorant exclamation if there ever was one.

You can replace the particulars with just about anything, (illustration, copywriting, packaging, the list goes ad infinitum) – however the underlying message never changes… you will be called on to do something outside of your realm of experience at some point in your career.

Design is the trickiest of worlds. If you were a bus driver, you would simply drive buses, not be called on to fix or paint them. An architect deals with the fundamentals of a building, it’s look and functionality. He does not get a phone call to fix faulty wiring or leaky pipes.

I suppose to find the answer we have to look at the history of Graphic Design a bit. Historically it took an entire team of people to create, let’s say, a magazine ad. The conceptual people would bounce their ideas back and forth and when one really stuck, they would go to an illustrator to sketch the whole thing out. The sketch would be developed into a more refined idea, then it would be taken to the production team that usually consisted of an Illustrator, a typesetter. When the illustration and type was proofed and approved, it would then be handed off to someone that would cut the masks or ad the border tape. This final version would then be sent to the photographer who would shoot it with a process camera to get a negative, sometimes with color separations. From there on to print.

What does all of this actually have to do with graphic design? Graphic Design is an amalgam of many of these disciplines. We often come up with the concept, design a layout, decide on or create just the right typeface, then package it all or create a PDF which is then sent to a printer. Notice the parallels?

So this multitasking, jack-of-all-trades approach has been refined into modern Graphic Design. Stands to reason that a designer should be expected to do it all, right?

Not necessarily.

Keep in mind that even though Graphic Design merges many fields, there is room for specialization, at least eventually there is.

Specialization in a time when the entire world can communicate would seem to be the rule for success. While it’s perfectly acceptable to cover as many bases as possible for the paycheck, it shouldn’t be overlooked that with specialization comes notoriety and, eventually, a much better paycheck.

If you do one thing and you do it well, sooner or later someone will notice. Then the trick becomes how to get them to pay you for it. Just do a search for book cover designer, web designer, any specific title that a graphic designer might hold and you will find many success stories.

As for me, well I still do websites, freelance, do a little bit of troubleshooting on office computers, design email blasts, create simple illustrations…

check out http://www.designhistory.org/index.html for some interesting history.

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