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A Career in Graphic Design — in Three Acts
Guest Editorial by Dyske Suematsu

I see three stages of growth in business. The popular business book, The E-Myth uses these three terms: the Technician, the Manager, and the Entrepreneur. The book doesn’t talk about them as stages—it treats them simply as different aspects of business—but I see a natural progression in them. Everyone starts out as a Technician, someone who does the actual work. In graphic design business, it is the designer. There is a good reason for this: Because being a Technician is the easiest. The wisdom required for being a manager and an entrepreneur cannot be taught in schools; you need to learn it in the real world. Using people as a tool is far more difficult and complex than using a computer as a tool. So, fresh out of college, the only role you can competently fulfill is the Technician. You won’t be able to suddenly jump into being a manager or an entrepreneur. Even if you tried, you wouldn’t be good at it.

To be a good manager, you need to work for a variety of managers, good and bad, and learn from their successes and mistakes. And, more importantly, you should experience what it is like to work for someone before you start bossing people around. For similar reasons, if you jump straight into being an entrepreneur, you will end up wasting a lot of time reinventing the wheel, and making the same mistakes others have made millions of times before. In life, it pays to experience things in proper order.

In graphic design, you become the Manager when you are promoted to senior designer or design director. How new business comes into the firm is not your concern; your job is to manage the workload by delegating responsibilities. In other words, your focus is inward, not outward. Once you are a partner or an owner of your own design firm, you are the Entrepreneur. You then must look outward, lead the company and bring in new business.

In most other types of business, this progression comes naturally, but in graphic design, there is a resisting force: the love of the craft. Most graphic designers get into this business because they love creating beautiful things, but once you move on to the Manager and beyond, it is a business like any other business. So, the more you love the craft of graphic design, the more resistant you would be to take the natural progression, but there is danger in that resistance.

The older you get, the more competition you have to face, because every year, design schools churn out fresh new Technicians. The more talented you are, the longer you can stay competitive, but this is both good and bad. By the time you feel you can no longer compete, everyone else of your age might be far ahead of you in terms of managerial and entrepreneurial skills. So, your competition in that area too would be tough. Also, just because you are a talented designer, does not necessarily mean that you would be a talented manager or entrepreneur.

This is a tough decision we must make as graphic designers. You can always do some degree of hands-on design, but as you mature in this business, your skills or talent as a Technician is not what the market values. I’m curious to hear other people’s opinions on this topic, especially from those who are in senior positions.

Dyske (“Dice-Kay”) Suematsu is a graphic designer based in New York City. He spent half of his life in Japan and the other in the US. He is quite opinionated and writes a lot of what his wife calls “Jibba-Jabba”. His personal site is dyske.com and his business site is fullfrontaldesign.com.

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PUBLISHED ON Nov.11.2004 BY Speak Up
ps’s comment is:

it depends what your skills are as a "technician", which i think might just be a bad term. your concern might be true to some extent, when it comes to production people, photoshop wizards, etc. -- the implementers. but if you are a more concept oriented " technician", your theory might not apply. (?)

On Nov.11.2004 at 11:07 AM
Armin’s comment is:

While the divisions as career path is interesting I am not completely sold on the premise. I think that graphic designers move and shift through these divisions at different points in their career. They will certainly excel at each one differently as they get older but I don't think stepping from one to the other is the best course to follow — maybe the most "logical".

> To be a good manager, you need to work for a variety of managers

Yes, sort of… but to be a good manager you have to have the right personality and mindset. You can learn from previous managers but one must have an innate ability to lead, to teach, to delegate. Some people, no matter how many managers they work under will never be "good" managers.

Moving on to entrepreneurs… again, it comes back to each person's character, there are many designers who right out of college open up their own shop and they are technicians and managers under their own entrepreneurship. Sure, they might fail and stumble but by nature they can't be just technicians waiting to be managers to eventually be entrepreneurs.

It all does come down to the love of craft, many managers and entrepreneurs are not willing to "give up" the part of doing stuff, because that is what we do, do stuff. Graphic designers start their own firms so that they can take control over the creative output so when you hire "technicians" you are in a sense giving them control of the creative, so yes, there is a resisting force. That is why this division is not that realistic.

On Nov.11.2004 at 12:07 PM
graham’s comment is:

yes three stages yes only three indicating i.e.

the primary (induction) filament insertion:

initially brainward, out through chest (lively up yosen) to pierce first one, then many of crowd (a) "acquaintance", then following "family", "lovers", and all up to "unknown", all while screeching "my machine my machine my machine (do not make me destroy you):

the secondary (flow) push through ventricle:

secondly just ju-ju, but competing nicely you hear or we'll buy this bloody place and put a whopping great jukebox in or some phrase as indication of (i) stupendity, (ii) roil, (iii) tarnish and (iv) boca lotta chocolatta:

the triendriary (ultimate wonder) mind burst:

because now you are what you dreamt you always can of be.

On Nov.11.2004 at 01:27 PM
Frank’s comment is:

Dyske made good observations about how

ideally, one may progress through different

stages in the industry and the effects of such.

Armin pointed out some alternate possibilities

which contrasts with the 3-tier chronological


I personally have seen or heard of examples from

both angles.

While there may be a standard "protocol" to follow,

one's ability/personality/temperment will

shape an individually unique path.

On Nov.11.2004 at 02:22 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

Guest Appearence.

From the Native Son

or Favorite Son.

Which is it, I ask !!!!!!!!!

There are exceptions to every rule.

Rules are made to be broken.

Neither are they etched in stone.

Off Topic:

As an Identity Designer/Consultant. There's no

Curriculum leading to a Degree in Identity Design.

Universitiies, Design and Art Schools are now teaching courses in Identity Design. Still doesn't lead to a Degree. Albeit, covering the Full Scope and Magnitude of the Profession.

Yet, Identity Design Anchor the Design Profession.

Continue to yeld the Highest Income.

On Topic:

Graphic Design as a Curriculum; must be coupled with Marketing, Communication and Business Curriculum to address these weaknesses in the Design Profession.

One of the problems I see. Many Designer(s) have difficulty discussing the merit of their work. Marketing and/or Communication classes, will help them to sell their ideas.

Any lapse in Entrepreneur skills. Business classes will address this issue.

And any Management Issue. Because many Business Curriculum offer Management Training Classes.


Graphic Design, should observe Mass Media Curriculum. Where the student takes courses in Fine Art, Advertising, Graphic Design,Film, Television Production, Photography, Printing. etc.

Most important writing.

Many people with Degree's in Mass Media. Become the Designers Boss within

certain Professional Enitities.

Sorry, everybody can't be a Born Leader like


That kind of Business Acumen comes along once or twice in a Lifetime.

Back to my Retreat.

On Nov.11.2004 at 02:45 PM
Tan’s comment is:

My career has been Dyske's outlined path — which is the typical path for many professions, not just designers. I think it has a lot to do with the structure of business organization and dynamics as well — that doers are managed by managers, who in turn, eventually become business leaders.

Personally, I'm happy with where I'm at and what I'm doing, but it's not for everyone.

The question you're asking is more introspective than role-related. The answer to "What do you want to do next?" is complicated and non-linear. Perhaps a better question is "What can you do (or have learned to do) that makes you the most valuable?"

For most veterans, it's not that we can't design anymore — it's that we've learned to do more. More thinking, more perspective, more scale, and more scope. The trick is to find the next stage in your career where you can offer and apply all that knowledge and ability — but without changing the fundamental creative nature of being a designer. Mind you, it's an elusive trick that many never find.

I've always felt that for most designers, a senior designer position is the most optimal place to be. Most of us just want to produce stuff. It's our sweet spot and where most are best suited. But designers always think that they want more client interaction, more account responsibilities, more management duties, etc. Eventually, they find themselves in a different role, with business responsibilities they struggle against, and wonders of how they got there.

On Nov.11.2004 at 03:08 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Maven, I appreciate the sentiments, but you gotta stop man.

I'm just an average Joe trying to make a living. Debbie's the badass one among all of us...she's who I idolize.

On Nov.11.2004 at 03:16 PM
qua’s comment is:

This article addresses some the hierarchical dilemmas within design that I have been ruminating over recently. The steps outlined in the article are logical and probably advisable for most designers, with some exceptions granted to more motivated individuals. Here are the thoughts I offer - in no particular order of importance.

Young designers need to find a position out of school that will allow them to be mentored into potential manager and Entrepreneurial pursuits. In general, I see a definitive lack of competent mentoring in the design field. I think this is affect can be attributed to the residue of the dot-com boom, where designers with very little experience were being promoted to positions they were not qualified to fulfill.

As a designer moves into his/her 30s they are faced with the fact that younger designers are entering the field every year. Experience trumps youth, but for how long? I know of virtually no 40+ "technicians" as described in the article. Where do these veteran designers land?

As I see it the answers are simply: 1) as an art director (manager), 2) as an owner (entrepreneur), 3) as an educator (back to school for the masters/PhD) or 4) enter a different career. The first three items are somewhat exclusive. I don't think mediocre technicians are capable of being highly successful in any of these rolls.

I agree that a force which prevents designers from making a step beyond technician is "love of the the craft". I think most designers can persuaded to move on by the increased salary that comes with a manager's position. Those that elect to remain a technician run the risk of planning themselves into obsolescence.

As a final note, there is virtually no mentoring associated with developing into an entrepreneur. A technician in the right environment can gain it through daily osmosis, i.e., watch your your boss and emulate their success when you decide to go solo. However, I am honestly confounded by the fact that most design schools don't offer something in the way of rudimentary business courses tailored for designers. This only serves to restrict their legions of graduates to fulfilling technical positions upon entering real world.

I'm curious as to what other designers think.

On Nov.11.2004 at 04:19 PM
Mahalie’s comment is:

I found this entry/article quite relevant - that is, this hierarchical progression is a reality in larger firms - and there are many industries that parallel this progression.

I currently work in marketing for a landscape architecture firm and previously worked for architects and engineers. In all of these professions these "levels" were very clear and caused many people dilemmas.

I know many talented designers that forego promotions because they don't want to manage projects or people - they want to design. Similarly, I know designers that want to become partners/owners/principals what have you (the entrepenuers) but they are simply terrible at leading, delegating and moreover, bringing in new work.

I think most people who get through design school and into a career can do fine as technicians. I've personally seen the evolution of new, younger, more technically savvy designers displacing stubborn designers who don't capitalize on their experience to become managers and leaders.

Do you have to follow this progression? If you want to succeed in a big firm you'd probably better try. If you want to maintain design as your main responsibility for the life of your career...start your own business. (By the way, you'd better be good at the others stuff or partner up with a great admin/accounting whiz/sales genius.)

On Nov.11.2004 at 07:13 PM
bonker’s comment is:

I have so far followed this model and have been managing a large art staff for 6 years at a large newspaper.

For me, hiring and developing new designers is very fulfilling. My input into the creative direction is much smaller than that of an art director at an ad agency, but I see my role more as creating an environment and nurturing designers to do there best work. My creativity does not manifest itself in designing but in developing systems, procedures and managing 20 different creative personalities who interact with 140 sales people and pushing technology as far as it can to be efficient. With 20 artists and hundreds of ads it would be difficult to even see every ad before printing if I chose to.

I also have some of those “technicians” that do not want to move on and managment. I have two artists in fact that have been working at our office since before I was born…

I became a manager after only a year with the company as a designer and without any desire or consideration that I even wanted to be a manager. The first year was a horrible experience, and I was not equiped to do the job correctly. With the right instruction and some good insite moving into a managment role wouldnt need to be so painful.

Another phenomenon that I don’t know whether it is unique to my industry is the fact that I have three designers that work for me that used to have my job. All three had become managers because they were good designers but couldn’t handle the stress of managing and resigned back to being designers again.

Luckily for me I wasn’t made a manager because of my design skill.

On Nov.12.2004 at 12:12 AM
Michael H.’s comment is:

My observations...

Perhaps Dyske's point of view on the natural progression of individuals in the graphic design industry (his choice of the word business further illustrates my point) is a result of the fact that he falls into one of the two categories that designers exist in:




Designers are problem solvers by nature. Some prefer to solve layout problems (microdesigners), and others prefer to solve the "if there needs to be a layout" problem (macrodesigners).

The microdesigners usually are not overly ambitous for moving up the ladder, gaining positions of power and influence. They are mostly very content working with the shapes, colors, lines and typography of the layout.

The macrodesigners are the ones who like to see the big picture. They generally choose to ask if there should be a layout or if there is another (better?) solution.

The microdesigners are your technicians, and the macrodesigners are the managers and entrepreneurs. I think Dyske falls into the latter categroy, as do most of us here on SU. It's probably why even like to talk about these things.

On Nov.12.2004 at 05:22 AM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

Graham Wood,

You need to throw down some more of that. The most entertaining piece of creative writing I have ever seen. And making sense. I'm going to keep it forever. I guffawed.

On Nov.12.2004 at 08:55 AM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

If the engineering field (which proceeds graphic design as an organized profession by how many hundreds or thousands of years?) is any indication, this may be a model that is eventually recognizable in graphic design.

In the engineering firm that I work for (I’m a right-brainer in a left-brain environment), the newer --generally younger -- professionals are at a technician level (although in the engineering field, that actually encompasses many different levels of education, specialization, and certification in and of itself). At the company I work for, you have to take x number of hours of training and coaching before you get officially certified as a project manager. And eventually, with more training, coaching, and mentoring, you can be certified to be a client liaison, which is a role that manages the client portfolio, contracts, and selling...which is basically the entrepreneur role.

Besides the fact that engineering is a much more mature profession than graphic design, the foundation for this stratification is very practical. It is not at all unusual for engineering projects to involve millions of dollars, multiple subcontractors, a host of regulatory agencies, and span many years. (As Bob Gill supposedly said to Theo Crosby, “That’s a long time to wait for a proof.”) Leading such projects (as well as the client interface) is a bit more complicated than the bulk of graphic design work as we now know it.

But we could see more of this in graphic design.

On Nov.12.2004 at 08:56 AM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

A good, thought-provoking piece, but as Armin opines, not an entirely accurate overlay of the design world. I agree with Mr. Vit that perhaps there are very soft edges between these distinctions in creative professions—and that's a good thing. The author has solicited thoughts from people in senior positions, so here are a couple:

I'm currently a partner at an intentionally small firm with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Part of the intention behind the small (fewer than ten total staff) is that the partners wish to remain intimately involved in active projects, as creatives. We've all done our time in large organizations well-noted for their creativity (Virgin, Pentagram, IDEO), but we've chosen to create a smaller firm precisely to erode the administrative and process stratification that seems endemic in larger organizations.

Certainly, the issue of what you do is a personal evolutionary journey for all of us, but I think often the author's 'stages' are [as often as not] hierarchies imposed by organizations needing to manage staff of significant size, and frankly while I see them as tools that might help organize a large firm, I'm not sure I see them as helpful to a natural and agile creative process.

Again, I applaud this piece of writing as a thought-provoking tool, but I'd encourage people to think outside these boxes—it's quite possible.

On Nov.12.2004 at 10:04 AM
Micah Sonderman’s comment is:

I find success in my freelance work by balancing all three at the same time.

Technician: 40%

Manager: 40%

Entrepreneur: 20%

As a manager I document and out source all of my production and development work. This leaves me with enough time to do the conceptual work. The other 20% is all business: gaining new work, billing, etc. I think I would be bored to death if my time was spent performing only one of these roles for more than a day.

I do however, believe there is a certain amount of experience that leads to the natural progression that Dyske has discussed. Maybe for now I'm just in a stage between Technician and Manager.

On Nov.12.2004 at 04:05 PM
Dyske’s comment is:

There may be more to come, but I would like to thank everyone who has contributed opinions so far. They are priceless.

On Nov.12.2004 at 11:35 PM
marctaro’s comment is:

I work in a neighboring industry ~ video game design. My particular case was accelerated by circumstance — being a technician for only a year or so after graduation before being forced into management. I suppose this isn’t that unusual in games - people with as little as one or two year of experience often being considered �ready to move up’.

For us this seems to be due to:

> Tech changing very rapidly — your production skills become hopelessly outdated in about 2 years…

> Workload at the tech level is extremely harsh (steady 60-100hr weeks) — pushing married people, or worse — parents (!) out studio and into management…

>Competition is fierce and cost of production is rising with Moore’s Law — so there is an increasing demand for �proven experience’ in the art department lead…

>Salaries are so low (as compared to say advertising or film (gasp, union!) that turnover of staff is very high…

We have a �solution’ to undue love of craft — which is that stubborn lead artists/art directors do their creative work at night, on weekends, and holidays.

I imagine this is all pretty much the way it works in �conventional’ design — possibly just happening at a more gradual pace?

On Nov.13.2004 at 04:35 AM
Dino’s comment is:

I’ve always believed that an old dog can still learned new tricks, and can have the creativity now as she/he did years ago-- Old age does not rob you of curiosity.

Management does relate to having people skills: meaning, years of experience working with all types of people, personalities and departments—not everyone will understand your design worldview. In management there are compromising, subtle bullying and politics to deal with. Management skills in the work place were not taught at my school years ago, perhaps that situation has changed. Luckily some companies offer management-training classes as part of internal career development—nevertheless management and entrepreneur requires a person to go outside their comfort zone. If the designer is comfortable to let go of control and is willing to drive into the politics of working with people then more power to them.

On Nov.13.2004 at 07:45 PM
Michael Browers’s comment is:

Comments made about personality traits contributing to success in managment every bit as experience ring true with me. I recently was let go from an art director position I was hired for that I didn't know I was hired for until after I got the job. I had answered an ad for someone with at least two years experience and thought my four years experience was perfect for the advertised position. After I had a good interview I was offered a job which I accepted. Upon starting work I found out that they had fired their creative director and web designer and only kept a kid who didn't even graduate from school and had only very basic photoshop, illustrator, and quark skills. Unfortunately I was unable to make the situation work and bring order to a business and art department that had many projects held up and was losing money every minute.

My lack of experience certainly didn't help and it was a very difficult and unfair situation... However, I am glad for it because I also learned that I don't have the personality to be a strong manager. In my reflection on the situation I gained new light on why I always seem to fall in the role of the person who works under a manager one on one and helps him or her keep the department or project running smoothly. Prior to this experience I thought I was close to being a manager and just needed the opportunity to be one... now having accidently gotten an art director position much sooner than I should have I learned that I don't have the makeup to be an effective manager, that my strength is in supporting a good manager and making his/her job easier because I am very self directed and am very good at manager support.

Also, as a result of this experience I changed how I interview at places because I realized that I was talking in a way that may have suggested that I had managerial experience and that that must have contributed to my past employer thinking I would be perfect for their needs.

I had an interviews at a place this past Thursday and Friday and went out of my way to explain exactly my role at my first job on all projects in my portfolio from my occasional project management to my more common role of working closely with a project manager working on projects. My clear communication of my strengths and weaknesses seems to have paid off because I seem to be exactly the type of person they are looking for and they were visibly excited at everything I told and showed them... they were even impressed with my attitude toward just losing my job and what I had learned from the situation. I have a good feeling that I wil get a job offer soon and land on my feet.

So I my point is that each person has their own strengths and roles they are suited for and some people like myself really aren't well suited for art directing an entire art department. Some people like myself excell when they are an empowered role player that work closely and supports a manager or art director in their management tasks.

On Nov.14.2004 at 10:33 AM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

Michael B: thanks for having the boldness to share such a personal story, and great luck to you with your new opportunity.

Of course you're right—a manager's role requires if not different personality traits, then certainly a [potentially] different public persona. I've worked with many great designers who are poor communicators and who need isolation in order to really get work done. They need to stay designers. Peace and quiet and single project focus is a luxury that few managers get to enjoy. I also believe that good creative work requires emotion, and creative thinkers can't afford to suppress feelings and cares—that said, a manager needs to be very aware at how their mood will spread to a team, and a good manager has to develop a great coach's sensitivity for when to lift everyone up, or when to have a 'I expect more from you' discussion. It's a very different set of skills from designing.

Managerial tasks start to blend into entrepeneurial ones when the manager has the willingness, instincts, and abilities to understand business realities and internal and external politics. This is more like playing chess than pushing pixels, and doing this well requires refined skills at picking what battles to fight and when to fight them. Getting good work done [unfortunately] often requires more than just doing the good work—it often entails making the case, inside the studio and with the client, as to why an innovative approach is worth the risk. This can be very difficult, scary, and fun. It's great exercise for the grey cells.

On Nov.14.2004 at 11:06 AM
Robin Andrews’s comment is:

It is exciting to move forward in your career from technician to manager to entrepreneur in an attempt to learn, grow and be happy in your profession.

Even while I was a young technician working at a firm, I was an entrepreneur, freelancing trying to make extra income. At the time I did not understand I was going to become a manager and never had a clue that I was going to have write so much (a skill set I though I was avoiding by going to art school). Nor did I realize doing the freelance work was giving me experience as an entrepreneur.

While as a manager, at a large firm, I was still a part-time technician and still freelancing on my own projects in an attempt for creative freedom rather than extra income. I spent many years as a manager gaining valuable experience but moving further away from the technician to the point where I needed hone my computer skills on my own time.

As an entrepreneur I wear all the hats, as Micah outlined it. I have found working for myself to be a challenge because I am learning without the "comfort zone" of a large firm. I miss the IT guys and sales team. I do not miss my bosses (I say this with great respect, as I would not be the technician, manager, entrepreneur I am today without them).

Is better to teach young designers how to be managers and entrepreneurs while in school or is best to let them learn as they go along, like we did/are doing?

Dyske, all the best as you move forward to the next stage of your career as an entrepreneur, even though you were already wearing that hat while creating your topic content websites.

On Nov.14.2004 at 11:33 AM
Randy’s comment is:

Graham -

Am I reading on exposition on heroin use or a design career? I'm thoroughly confused and simultaneously curious.

On Nov.14.2004 at 11:58 AM
graham’s comment is:

now you say it could be both and for why the difference?

initial peristaltic word spurt in unequivocal infinite upholding of tripartite business vision; after all, there are only three jobs available to an elf.

On Nov.15.2004 at 05:38 AM
Portland Graphic Design’s comment is:

I made the jump to entrepreneur rather fast and it's worked out well.

On Oct.04.2007 at 06:39 PM