Tales of an Ex-designer

Tired of clients? Sick of toeing the line between artist and “mad man” (without the added bonus of the martini lunches)? Want to get paid? Want to get paid on time?

Me too.

photo by yushimoto

I was sitting on the plane from New York to Los Angeles racing to finish a project for a client. My battery life was rapidly dwindling and the pressures of design and technology restrictions put me over the edge. I closed my laptop in frustration and took a look at my surroundings.

Why haven’t I noticed this before?  The plane.  The passengers. The many small problems that were being solved by highly competent and professional people. I almost choked on a peanut as I came to a new realization; flight attendants do what we as designers do, only they do it 32,000 feet in the air. This was the strangest and perhaps the purest translation of design I had ever seen and there was no Helvetica in sight. I have seen design that lives in the web or on paper, but this was design that just plain lives. There was no way to but acknowledge that designers and flight attendants are peas in a pod. But it is more than just that. Are designers and flight attendants brothers (and sisters) in arms?

That observational moment changed everything. Instead of racing against my Macintosh death clock to try and finish my project, I decided instead to go analog. I pulled out a pen and some paper to do some proper thinking and wondering. I posed to myself the ultimate question, “What will I do if and when I become an ex-designer?”

photo by Melissa of craftgasm
photo by Melissa of craftgasm

Apply, then reapply

Before applying for any job, it is best to take an inventory of skills. The things that make this list are things that only we, the designers can bring to the table. It is important to also take note of what we want out of the job, for the sake of happiness.

Basic Skills:

Understanding of grids, hierarchy, filtering information, editing, mixing and combining of elements, sequencing, communication, multi-tasking, immaculate taste, the level headedness of a business man and the heart of an artist.

With these skills, we also expect to achieve a certain personal gratification; what I call the “design high.” That feeling is one of the main reasons we do what we do. I am certainly not ready to lose that feeling.

Basic Needs:

Control- Design is the ultimate control. Not only are we giving people something to use or look at, we are showing them how they look at it, how they approach it, and how they should think about it. We like this.

Organization- Messy makes me nervous. Disorder is cause for disdain.

With these things in mind and with the classifieds in hand, I have circled three perfect jobs for the ex-designer.

photo by paxbgd
photo by paxbgd

Flight Attendant

The one that inspired it all. The job description for a flight attendant is seemingly simple. Keep ‘em safe and keep ‘em happy. Sure that might be the “important” part, just as graphic designers do more than “make things look good” the duties of the flight attendant go far beyond passing out peanuts and ginger ale. When examining the flight attendants I found myself watching the way they masterfully work up and down the aisle. The way they majestically move from seat to seat, with complete authority and uniformity. The order, the control, the grid! Flight attendants are Swiss design in action. All three of the following design alternative jobs offer face to face interaction. They get to see the good, when their life design makes things better, and they also get bad clients, just like us.


Books, silence, systems, and organization—need I say more? Being a librarian is the odd combination of critic, mastermind and boss. A librarian gets to not only make personal recommendations but they get to decide what to showcase and promote. That’s like having a client ask for your advice, then take it. Every time! The main duties of a librarian include; keeping the library organized (organization? Check). Instruct others how to use the library resources (communication? Check). Promote reading (promoting an activity? Check and check).

Like an interesting “ex” anything, you should be haunted by your past, or at least reminded of it. This adds intrigue to not only your profession and you as a human being. Similar to the way an ex-cop who now works security constantly battles flash backs of stakeouts gone wrong. The designer turned librarian would be similarly haunted by a room full of books. Every bad rag, every widow every river in those default justified set books mocking you, “You could have made me better, you could have made me beautiful.”

photo by Maverick Digital
photo by Maverick Digital


The people’s choice. A job that not only has designer perks, but it has a whole new set of perks. Think about it. Number one job task of a bar tender communication. Someone walks into the bar with a frown plastered across their face, it is your duty to find out what’s wrong. What does your customer want, what can you offer them? What if they ask you what’s good? Then you find a little bit about them, and you recommend something. The same process a designer undertakes when starting a project.

The next part is what makes “bartender” a more viable option than “waiter” or “waitress.” The mixing of the drink, the combining of elements. Different drinks make different colors. Think of tonic as your classic serif typeface, lets say Baskerville, and then the bartender picks Helvetica (gin) to go with it. The classic combination. The bartender designs the drink.

The last step, bartenders produce deliverables. Designers love dropping off deliverables. Sure, some of the picky drinkers may send the drink back, but that only means the bartender has a chance to show what they can really do.

What I’ll Miss the Most

As we near the end of our search, there are some thrills and experiences as a designer that cannot be duplicated. The tradition and evolution of our trade and the creative outlet it provides. The strange juxtaposition of artist and businessman that can only be associated with graphic design. The command we have to translate our thoughts onto paper, the web, and any other media we can get our fingers on. The swagger and confidence that can only come from blowing a clients expectations out of the water.

You know what? That list might just be enough for me to fire up my laptop back up and prepare for my meeting. The “ex” prefix may have to wait a few more years.

Marshall Rake is a graphic designer and writer based in New York City. You can see his design work at: marshallrake.com and his literary and current culture publication, Epilogue, is here: epiloguemagazine.com.


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