Like a Fine Wine: Aging in the Creative Fields
by Taylor Slattery | August 19, 2021
Age is a concern in any field of work. Hard-earned skills can quickly become outdated as technology evolves, changing the parameters of our work and the tools used to create it. The more heavily dependent a field is on technology, the faster the speed at which this process occurs. For creative fields, the problem is twofold. The battle is fought not only on a technological front, but one of style as well. Remaining relevant in a rapidly changing landscape is difficult, and even more so when you’re already working full time. Unless measures are taken to keep your skills and design sense up to date, you may one day wake up to find yourself in a world you hardly even recognize.
Beyond just the fears of the demands of our jobs outgrowing our abilities, many also worry that their field will disappear altogether. While agriculture and manufacturing have already felt the impact of these advancements, as we continue to move toward automation and finding more efficient ways of completing repetitive tasks, these concerns will spread to other industries as well.
While automation doesn’t pose an immediate threat to our livelihoods as creatives, that isn’t to say that creative fields are not immune to change. Like any other profession, the way we conduct business and the types of products we produce bear a direct relation to both the technology at our disposal and the technology used by our clients and society at large. As this technological landscape changes, new demands are placed upon the market, necessitating new products and new tools for their design and production.
In this sense, the technical aspects of creative work leaves its practitioners subject to the same sorts of vulnerabilities that result from change, just like any other job. The tools we use in 5 years’ time may look very different from those we use today. Unlike other fields, however, design seems to possess some special qualities that grant it substantially more lasting power. Take a look at medicine, for example.
In the present day, we find ourselves comfortably at the tail end of a long chain of trial and error―one we wouldn’t dare venture backward through. What was once considered sound medical advice is now so absurd it’s hard to believe that anyone could have found it reasonable. While we can thank past generations for their sacrifices and contributions to the foundations upon which modern medicine is built, their remedies have not aged well and are unlikely to ever leave the pages of history books.
Design and other creative pursuits, on the other hand, offer a wealth of information and solutions equally viable today as they were the day they were created. From the intricately detailed, and carefully crafted letterforms of a 500-year-old manuscript, to the simplicity of mid-century modern furniture, we can travel to any point in time or location on the planet and marvel at the beauty and ingenuity of the objects being created.
If you look at the work studied in schools, the kind of work most admired by students and professionals alike, chances are it wasn’t created recently. The principles that govern good design, whether that be the typesetting of books 100 years ago or the responsive sites of today, remain largely the same. This is why so much design from the past still holds up and work from the likes of Dieter Rams manages to feel fresh despite having been created over 60 years ago.
While design & medicine may have little more in common than the fact that both are forms of problem-solving, perhaps the biggest difference lies in the nature of the problems they hope to solve. While medicine and other sciences are more absolute or binary in their measure of success and failure, because creative fields concern themselves with problems of beauty and communication, there is a far greater number of acceptable solutions
For humans, beauty seems to be something we understand inherently. When proportions are just right, whether words on a page or intervals between notes in a song, we can feel it. Tapping into this beauty and harnessing it for our own use is something much fewer of us seem to be capable of. This ability to organize and command the instruments of beauty in order to achieve a desired effect is in high demand. As increasingly more jobs give way to automation, the value placed upon fields that require this kind of creative thinking and decision-making will only continue to grow.
In many fields, age is seen as a liability. It’s assumed that with age, one’s skills and way of thinking become outdated and less relevant in today’s world. To an extent, this line of reasoning is understandable. Moore’s Law, which charts the number of transistors in an integrated circuit, establishes that computers double in computational power every 2 years. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the tools and processes we use change at quite the same pace, because computers play such an integral role in our work and education, this exponential increase in processing power has a profound impact on the rate at which new tools can be developed and adopted.
In effect, this means that the tools you’ve learned how to use in school, though cutting edge for the time, may have changed vastly within two years’ time. Moore’s Law is exponential, so add another 5, 10, or 20 years to that and the difference in technical abilities between a fresh graduate and the class of 20 years prior are worlds apart. This fact combined with the ever-present need to cut costs often means that older workers are the first to go in layoffs as it’s typically cheaper to hire fresh graduates at lower salaries than retrain older employees.
While it may be true that older workers may lack the same technical skills that fresh graduates possess, there are other areas in which the differences in experience are incomparable. When dealing with tight deadlines, high-pressure situations, and demanding clients, experience is invaluable.
As fast-paced as the creative world may seem, there are aspects of the job that never change. Communication skills, the ability to manage time and teams, and how to best understand and serve your client’s needs are some of the hardest parts of the job. Expertise in these areas can only be gained through time.
This is why, contrary to the way other industries may view older workers, when it comes to creative fields, your value increases with age and experience. Though it may come as a surprise to many, thanks to the ever-present starving artist trope, creative careers may be some of the most resilient, future-proof jobs today. Especially as we move into automation, the ability to listen to your clients, connect dots, and read between the lines becomes increasingly valuable.
As new tools allow the general public to try their hand at design and achieve decent results, the bar for designers raises. It’s becoming harder to stand out from the crowd and more clients will turn to bespoke design solutions that are authentic to their brand and voice. Those who can dig deeper for information to find what clients really want and may not even realize or be capable of articulating will have no shortage of work.
Finding your creative voice is all about trial and error with a few happy accidents along the way. There’s no shortcut for getting there. In an industry where time is of paramount importance, having a perspective that is strong yet flexible enough to be readily adapted to the needs of clients across different fields and situations is an irreplaceable asset.
There are certain aspects of the job a creative education simply cannot adequately prepare you for. The ability to make quick, calculated decisions, while clearly communicating your reasoning in a way clients and teams can understand is a skillset that one matures into. It takes time to cultivate these skills, which is why there is no substitute for experience.
Another plus of the creative fields is that the further you progress in your career, the less important technical skills become. As you move your way up through the chain of command you gradually advance toward positions like art director, where, as the name suggests, your role becomes more about guidance and less about hands-on work. Other doors will open as well. Your career may take you to consulting positions or maybe even to a studio or agency of your own. It’s here that that kind of expertise you’ve cultivated will best serve you and your clients.
Age-related concerns may also extend to those just beginning their careers. Seeing the work of talented artists and designers half your age can be disheartening and intimidating or it can serve as motivation and help to light a fire under you and kick things into high gear. The same sort of experience that I’ve attempted to illustrate here isn’t unique to creative industries. The kinds of soft skills that become important when working with teams and clients can be gained in any industry for the most part, which puts those on the older side considering a career change at an advantage over their inexperienced counterparts.
One of the greatest benefits of creative work is that it’s merit-based. Seeing a resume where one’s most recent education was 20 years ago may be a non-starter in some industries, but in creative fields, your work speaks for you. If you’ve got what the client wants, it doesn’t matter how old you are so long as you can deliver the goods.
While age may be viewed as a negative in some lines of work, creative fields are one area in which age translates to valuable experience. Creative work relies on taste and expertise, and these take time to develop and mature. Whether you’re considering a career change and wondering if it’s too late to get started or starting to get older and worrying about job security, creative professions offer a path where you can look forward to aging gracefully into a rewarding career.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.