What kind of graphic designer are you?

As with any profession, it’s important for graphic designers to be introspective. I have experienced life as a graphic designer in multiple stages: with no actual training in the field (1996–1998), as a graduate student in visual communications (1999–2001), and as a professional designer (2002 to present). I have witnessed all of the below subspecies of graphic designer (and I have been or continue to be one or more of them myself). Thinking about where you fall in these categories can help you understand your work and why some people look at you that way.

Uber Conceptualist
This designer says things like, “The single straight black line in a field of white represents human kind’s unwillingness to recognize its own shortcomings.” Then when his client says, “Yes, but we asked you to design a logo for the county fair,” he sighs and walks away. It’s important for design decisions to have meaning, but when the meaning is so abstract it has to be explained to everyone who sees it, graphic design crosses over into fine art—a different field altogether.

This person uses Comic Sans and starbursts. Also clip art.

Prima Donna
This person hates you. How dare you question his design decisions? If you don’t like it—or don’t get it—it’s because you’re too dumb. And who needs you anyway? Also, every other designer who has ever created anything is just so corporate. Bunch of sellouts. Especially Paul Rand.

People Pleaser
The yin to the Prima Donna’s yang, the People Pleaser takes any suggestion that comes along. Bold this? Yes. Add 17 photos to page three? You’re the boss!

Tech Guy
One of the great things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. Conversely, one of the terrible things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. The Tech Guy designer can tell you everything you would ever want to know (and usually much, much more) about all of the advanced functions in Adobe Photoshop, then uses the software to create fliers for book sales that look like laundry that got washed with Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Old Timer
The Old Timer has been setting metal type by hand since you were wetting your diaper, and doesn’t need any of these newfangled devices to help him.

Of course, these are gross exaggerations, and every good designer has at least some of the above in him. It’s important to balance the Prima Donna with the People Pleaser—to have confidence in your abilities and your decisions, but to be able to hear criticism with an open mind. It’s valuable to let your inner Uber Conceptualist battle it out with the Hack—to think in deeper meanings but to make your work accessible. And every designer should be able to make the best use of his tools—à la the Tech Guy—but to understand the origins of the principles of graphic design the way only the Old Timer can.

And while every designer should have a little of each of the above, maybe you lean a little too far in one of the above directions. And that’s why people look at you like that.

Uber Conceptualist photo by Fausto Giliberti. Old Timer photo by Leroy Skalstad.

10 thoughts on “What kind of graphic designer are you?

  1. I thought I knew examples of each, but it’s all me. I think I need to re-watch “Sybil”

  2. Where are the nerd / geek / dork / dweeb categories? You know, the font nerd, graphic geek, dork designer and dweeb dude?
    In all honesty, Paul and Shea have helped me understand graphic design, and have helped me on projects. Paul, Shea, elusive Lisa, and IBD all Rock!

  3. Go Rangers!
    You seem to have forgotten about baseball today so I thought I would help you out.
    Although I just finished Hambone’s book, I know it’s a couple years old, but… extremely inspiring and he emphasizes that baseball is not the most important thing in life, which I agree with, but I couldn’t let you all off the hook just because your teams are watching from home like the rest of us.

  4. Those winter sports don’t cut it down here. It would be too difficult to slide those giant stones in the sand so I’m out. And I don’t think I fit in any of your categories…yet (I’m still pretty new to all this, though I am rolling out my first set of trailhead kiosk posters, installed the first two today).

  5. What would you call a designer who will change anything to please a client, but only ever so slightly, so as not to mess with the design, but to make the client feel like they got their way? I think I might be that person.

  6. (I’m currently writing this in Comic Sans though I’m sure it’s getting filtered out) . . . Holy cow, I just realized you’ve chronicled my career as a graphic designer to a T (square). I started out setting metal type back at Ohio U., rubbed miles of Chartpack type, and wore out a couple of dozen keyboards. Somewhere I still have a Rapid-o-graph pen, non-photo blue pencil, and a french curve tucked away. I can’t wait to see what’s next . . .

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