Remarkable or Marketable
by Taylor Slattery | January 27, 2022
When we start down the long road of becoming a career creative, we usually do so without even realizing it. The journey typically begins when we see something that speaks to something inside of us. Whether that’s promotional illustrations for a video game, an album cover from your favorite band, or a meticulously organized magazine spread, it’s that initial contact that sparks an intense curiosity, compelling us to learn more. From that point on, the initial first steps and the early stages of our learning process are similarly fueled by a purely intrinsic fascination.
As we immerse into this new world and familiarize ourselves with our surroundings, the initial fascination and sense of wonder are replaced with a drive to improve.
As we learn, we continually surprise ourselves with our output, producing work beyond the capabilities of a not-so-distant version of ourselves. We get hooked on the feeling and it propels us forward. Over time we bear witness to tangible growth and we become even more invested in our creative development. We also learn more about the space and its occupants, finding inspiration in those above us while also feeling a strong urge to close the gap in skill that separates us from them.
At this point, our studies take on a different tone, and we adopt a more structured, intentional approach. Before we know it, we’re so deeply ingrained that what began as a curiosity has transformed into an inextricable part of our lives and identity. All of this typically takes place before we even entertain the idea that this sort of thing can be done professionally. That’s why for those working in creative fields, money is rarely the motivation.
This is why when we do reach that point when we begin to think about our careers, it can come as a shock when we’re suddenly faced with the reality that we need to make a decision. Up until this point, our desire to improve is sustained by passion alone—the work is the reward in and of itself. To continue moving forward, we will require monetary rewards and actual sustenance in the form of food. The creative decisions we make will have a direct bearing on our ability to acquire these.
Over the course of your creative journey, you’ve taken the time to develop your technical skills, and hone your decision-making abilities. As a result, a strong creative voice has emerged. This voice is unique, and yours alone. The harsh truth of the matter is that your voice may not be what people want, or at least think they want, and unless you create work that others are willing to pay for, you’re going to struggle.
Personal value doesn’t translate to market value and there is a big difference between producing creative work for yourself and for a client. You may come up with an absolutely killer concept that checks all of your personal boxes, but if the client doesn’t like it, you’ll have to throw it out and move on. In the case that your creative vision doesn’t align with your client’s goals, you’ll always have to concede the point, and this will take some getting used to.
If you have a hard time accepting that all of your creative exploration and time spent honing your skills has culminated in you designing brochures for someone who hired you more because you know how to use Indesign rather than for your creative thinking and problem-solving skills—you’re not alone. Fortunately, this route isn’t the only option.
It’s at this point in your creative journey you may find yourself at a crossroads. Before you, lie two different paths, and the direction you choose will have a direct impact on your ability to earn money.
On one path, you can double down on what makes you unique and hope that clients will place as much value on your creative vision as you do—or at least enough to put food on the table. On the other path, you can become a stylistic chameleon of sorts, shifting your work to match market trends and constantly refreshing your portfolio to ensure you will always be able to find work.
Clearly, neither path is without risk. Should you choose the former, your pool of potential clients shrinks immediately. You’ll have a harder time building your client list and due to inconsistent work, it will take you longer to establish yourself. This path can be hard mentally as well, truly testing your resolve. Without sufficient confidence in your skills and faith that everything will work out in the end, the droughts in work might wear you down to the point of giving up entirely.
Should you choose the latter path, you sacrifice your personal voice and jeopardize your connection to what got you started down this road in the first place. Without that connection, the sparkle in your eye will slowly dim and the work will start to feel more and more shallow until eventually, the thing you loved has become just another job. If that’s going to be the case, then you might as well just choose a more lucrative field from the beginning.
As you can see, neither route feels particularly sustainable. They each have their unique stresses and both pose a serious risk of leading to burnout. That being said, both paths have their merits as well.
Should you achieve success on path one, you’d be on track to becoming one of the greats. Your work would be so strong and undeniable that there’s no shortage of work opportunities. The clients come knocking on your door, and you can pick and choose only the work that excites you. While having talents worthy of such attention was a prerequisite, getting here required a great deal of self-promotion and some plain old luck. Reaching this point was no easy task, but you can’t imagine a more creatively fulfilling career.
On the other end, success on path two would see you become incredibly well-versed in your trade. Having reinvented yourself so many times, you’ve become extremely efficient at analyzing trends and learning new tools. You truly believe there is no limit to your potential to learn. As a result, the depth of your design skills and knowledge has allowed you to work with a wide pool of clients on projects you would have never imagined. These experiences have taught you to think both from and for different perspectives, making you a more empathetic designer. As a jack of all trades, you’re comfortable in any room and an asset to any company.
From this point of view, the potential benefits of both paths seem pretty enticing and may even seem well worth the risks. To complicate things further, I’ll now offer a third route, because, in reality, things aren’t nearly as black and white.
Your personal creative goals and career aspirations aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and it can be harmful to think of them as being two divergent paths. Your career will go through ebbs and flows and the balance between your pursuits of personal creative fulfillment and career growth will shift in response. At times, your job will require you to engage with a less than interesting project. During such a time, you’ll have to look to your personal projects on the side to scratch your creative itch. Other times, something will land on your desk that will strike a personal chord and have you fully engaged. In this case, the work provides all the creative enrichment you need and you’ll naturally want to lean in.
It’s important to challenge yourself both creatively and in your career as well. It may be hard to continually place the needs of your client above your own, particularly so when you’ve worked on three boring projects back to back, but being a professional means having the discipline to give it your all even when you don’t have a strong connection to the work. If it feels like the creative part of you is slowly withering away, that’s your cue to look elsewhere for fulfillment and start a personal project on the side.
Your long-term success depends on your ability to accept this cycle for what it is and adapt. You can’t wait for the perfect window of opportunity to pursue goals in either arena because that ideal period of time may never come. It’s all about carving out time where you can and staying focused and disciplined. To be as successful as possible requires that you capitalize on opportunities in both areas when they present themselves.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.