As of today, I have officially paid off all of my student loans. Hooray! It feels good and it’s a big occasion for me, as well as an occasion which prompts me to reflect on the experience of my education as a whole, six years after graduation.
I have a bachelor of science degree in graphic design and a degree minor in studio art. I don’t work in graphic design or art, and I sometimes worry that I’m a disappointment to everyone who helped guide me through the path of my education. Even when I know personally that I’ve made the right choice for my life, I experience occasional moments of stress when I feel a disconnect between the expectation that I should be what I studied for, and the reality that I’m not.
So what happened? Why am I not a graphic designer?
Being good at something is not the same thing as being passionate about it.
I enjoyed graphic design in school. It was the only major I ever picked, I never changed it, and though I had to struggle my way through some health issues at the time, I followed the courses diligently. For the most part, I enjoyed the work and the assignments and was usually happy with what I produced. The course load heavily emphasized thought, problem solving, research, and communication as much as if not more than the actual aesthetics of design work, and in retrospect, I realize that this is the part I loved best. I never cared about being on the cover of Communication Arts. I was exhausted at the prospect of staying up to date with the newest and best type families. I had no interest whatsoever in designing my own websites, portfolios, and side projects. I wanted to dig my hands into the question of “Who are the people I need to reach, why do they do what they do, and how can I communicate with them in a way that is meaningful?”
Education not only allowed me to play with those questions, but rewarded me for it. I received good grades on my projects. After graduation, however, everything seemed to fall apart. Freelance work was a disaster that made me hate clients, design, and myself — I’d fallen from the heaven of satisfying inquiry into a world where no one cared about any of that, and just repeated over and over that they wanted the logo to “pop.” Job applications were sent out into the world and met with complete silence. When I read job descriptions to apply for, nothing about even the best ones seemed compelling or inspiring, and every time, I thought, I don’t want to do this. I never expected to have that thought, and I was confused and depressed. Why don’t I want to do this?
I think that in most cases, “real world” design necessarily places less emphasis on the back-end research of design and more emphasis on the production of a finished product. This was opposite to what I wanted to do, which was an emphasis on research with less concern with a finished product. I found out too late that while I was good at graphic design, I was passionate about something which was related, but different. I often wonder if I would have figured this out sooner if I’d done some internships or student jobs, but at the time, the ongoing health issues just didn’t make it possible. I also wonder sometimes if I could have found my way to a better design studio that did care about research if I’d been more passionate about the search, but I wasn’t.
Sometimes a job you love comes at a price higher than you’re willing to pay.
Happily for me, my “dream job” did exist. I landed a job at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and it was everything I ever wanted. Working at a museum was educational, informative, quirky, and fun. Everyone I worked with was brilliant and interesting. My job was to research the behavior of museum visitors through observation and interviews, and develop reports, infographics and exhibit prototypes based on this research in order to assist and inform the exhibit design teams. It was the most perfect application of my design degree that I could have hoped for, and I was over the moon. It seemed too good to be true.
In the end, it was indeed too good to be true. As a non-profit organization, the museum never had enough money to go around, and our two-person “Evaluations” department was last on the list for every type of resource funding, including staff. My job was under constant threat of not being funded any longer, and the museum would never guarantee that the position would be permanent. They gave me one day a week, three days a week, full time, “by the way your job is ending next week,” “never mind we’re keeping you, but only for six weeks, only for two days a week”… on and on. The constant uncertainty meant I could never move closer to work and had to pick up another job in order to make ends meet. I spent over four hours a day in my car commuting, and I worked seven days a week at 2-3 jobs. It was brutal. I loved the work, and I hated every single other aspect of my life. I was miserable, exhausted, and awful to everyone I cared about because I was constantly worn down. I tried for a year to jump ship to another informal learning institution to do the same job there, but all I found was the same position of instability, over and over.
Ultimately I had to make a decision about exactly how much I’d be willing to sacrifice for my dream job. I think that the creative industry and academia (such as museums) both reward people who are willing to make those sacrifices, but it was too much for me, and I started questioning a “dream” job’s role in living a passionate, challenging, rewarding life. How healthy is it to love my job if I hate everything else?
You don’t need to be in love with your day job, if your job supports the parts of your life in which you find passion and meaning.
My generation was told from childhood, “you can be anything you want to be,” and there was tremendous emphasis placed on making your passion into your career. In retrospect, I’m not sure that this should have been presented as the best and most worthy path for one’s future. Through various serendipity and knowing the right people, I now work in a telecom job which has nothing to do with anything I ever described myself as being passionate about. No five year old wants to grow up and be an Application Administrator. But this job allows me to work from the comfort of my (tiny, tiny) home, and it pays well enough to support said home. It allows me flexibility to pursue my farm-and-ranch lifestyle, flexibility which no other job has yet afforded. I didn’t even know I wanted a farm-and-ranch lifestyle when I was in college, much less considered how to make it compatible with my career. I work with good people whom I love and respect, and I enjoy my own art projects more when I don’t spend every minute of my professional day trying to be creative. Telecom is not in any way my passion, but it supports the things in my life which are, and I don’t necessarily feel I should be ashamed of that.
An education is more than a job in that field.
So I’m not a graphic designer, and as of right now, I’m not feeling any particular inclination to become one again. Was 6 years of school a waste, then? I don’t think so. I still feel that I use my degree, every day. Having the degree at all opens employment doors which would otherwise be closed to me, and I’m definitely grateful for that. I am a more educated, better informed, well-rounded person post-education, and education made me both willing and able to think critically about the world around me. I am aware of the messages being sold to me by media, and I translate, accept, or reject them based on my understanding of visual communication. I write, design, and speak with my college skills every day. My technical skills in my own art projects are better thanks to my education, and I am able to design and create with aesthetic intent. When I pick up a pen, I know what I intend to do with it, and that makes me happy.
My design education orders my thinking and makes sense of my world. The skills of this education make up a toolset I still use every day to explore, question, learn, communicate, and understand the people and things around me. People often laugh at me when I tell them I’m a shepherd who works in telecom with a design degree, and maybe it is a little ridiculous. I think they’re wondering why, and whether it was worth it. Well, I’ve paid for the entire thing now, and I can confidently say, “yes.” It is worth every penny.