I'm tired of graphic design. What next?

I think I've plateaued and need a new challenge

By Cary Tennis
July 28, 2009 2:20PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I'm a regular reader of your column, and love the unique way you respond to people's questions. Just so you know, I'm also a regular poster in the comments section, and want to assure your readers that this is not another "angsty artist" question (although I do love those). I am trying to make a sensible and truly informed decision.


I'm 40 years old, female, very happily married, and living in a (small) city I love. I work from my home as a freelance graphic designer (specializing in print), and make a decent living at it. I also teach design twice a year at a small but vibrant art college, an "extra" that I enjoy because it keeps me in touch with what the hip young kids are doing. All in all, my life is very good, and I do consider myself very fortunate.

So what's the issue? Well, I think I have reached a plateau in my career, and am not sure whether this is just a normal thing that I have to "work through" to get to the "next level" (of skill, project quality and earning power) or if I really have exhausted this field and should start preparing for a new direction.

Here's some background:


Graphic design is often considered a young person's game, especially in obviously youth-oriented specialties like fashion, advertising or music. Many designers tend to get floated into project-management roles as they pass those "zero-year" age milestones, whether they want to or not. Quite often, they are happy to get the bigger paycheck and leave the creative sweating to the younger kids anyway. (I may have an opportunity to apply for something like this later this year.)

I did come to design later than most, for a number of reasons including a false start as a political science graduate and (disastrous) two-year stint as a high school teacher, so I was 30 when I graduated from design school. This means I have never been that "whiz kid" or "young hotshot" that younger graduates are sometimes expected to be.

Because of this late start in my career, I am late in coming to many of the other usual "grown-up" achievements: higher income, home ownership, kids, world travel. It was only two years ago that I was finally able to start building some savings. Today my financial picture is still quite modest, but at least it is stable. My husband and I are now considering buying our first home. (Incidentally, he has a great job in a different field. He could work anywhere.)


Here's the odd part: in my spare time, I have continued to take courses to keep my brain active: art and design stuff, of course, but also math, chemistry, physics. I used to be terrible at math and sciences, but as an older and more serious learner, I am not only enjoying them immensely, but -- to my surprise -- actually doing well in them. Almost by accident, I have suddenly acquired the credentials needed to apply for retraining in any profession or trade of my choice, if I wanted to.

So now, with these new skills, I can't help wondering if I would have still chosen this career, or if I would have chosen a different (more respected? more lucrative?) path if I had the math and science "under my belt" much sooner. Sometimes I suspect that I only do this because my clueless younger self thought it would be "cool." (And it is kind of cool, some of the time. It's just not, you know, "dazzlingly cool" like I envisioned at 20 ... and this is OK because I suspect it is true for most of the careers we get sold on as teenagers.)


I do like graphic design, but I also know that I am very far from ever being a "star," or even "really great," in this field. 

Essentially, I am at that point where everything in my life has reached the "middle." I am middle-aged (although I feel, and look, much younger), I am a competent, intermediate-level graphic designer and financially stable. With no children to worry about, my husband and I have more flexibility than most in what we can choose to do with the rest of our lives. And for the first time in my life I have absolutely no idea what the best choice really is.

How do you know it's time for the "fond farewell" to one thing in your life so you can make room for something entirely new?


Stuck in the Middle With Me

Dear Stuck in the Middle,

Here is what I suggest you do to get out of the middle: Find out what you don't know about yourself. Slip into something uncomfortable.

You are amply aware of much that is true about yourself. Now that it is time to change your life, it is time to find out what is untrue about yourself -- what beliefs you hold that are no longer valid, in what ways you may have been kidding yourself, adopting modes of being that satisfy your outward sense of propriety and value but which do not satisfy you essentially. This is hard. The world makes sense to you today. You are in a good place. Yet what you are experiencing, I think, is the beginning of a deep sense of insufficiency that can only be addressed by asking deep questions and facing honest answers. What is now just a hint of dissatisfaction will only grow, I think, if you do not treat it as a sign and follow it vigorously.


You cannot change your life without encountering things you didn't know about yourself. You cannot change your life while still believing that everything you think you know about yourself is true. Change involves shedding beliefs. Though we may consider ourselves accomplished and in control, we cannot change our lives and still remain in control, and act like adults, and not make any mistakes, and not ever exhibit any of the symptoms of the "angsty artist." So it will be healthy now to push yourself, to take risks, to entertain possibilities.

That is how you bid a "fond farewell" and make room for the new.

You don't do it by looking for a new job.

You do it by connecting, perhaps for the first time, with your deepest sources of motivation.


Where do you find them? You find them in unexpected places.

How do you find them?

Well, you could start by taking some tests on personality and motivation, and having somebody really smart and intuitive help you figure out what the results mean. You could start by visiting with a psychotherapist, or connecting with your neglected musical self, or your spiritual self, or your unsophisticated, rebellious self that is not afraid to make mistakes and try new things.

There may be some surprises in the results. Surprises are good.


It might be that you want to make decisions that affect large numbers of people. Or you might want to gain expertise in a field of interest to you. There are clues in your previous experiences. You studied political science in college. Something about it appealed to you. What was it? Also, something about teaching high school deeply challenged you. What needs did it not meet, or what values and beliefs did the experience violate?

In the answers to these questions will be your clues as to how to proceed.

There's lots to do. The world is your oyster. If I were you, since you have the resources, I'd get some help to prepare you for finding out whatever it is about yourself that you need to find out, and get some support accepting whatever you find out, and putting your plan into action.


Changing your career? Changing you life? Yep, there's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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