Don’t Study Graphic Design (If You Want to be an Artist)

I had a job interview for an executive assistant role recently and about halfway through the phone conversation, the interviewer asked: “What is the biggest mistake of your life?” or something to that effect. My first thought was ‘Woah, that’s a pretty heavy question for an initial screening interview’. And yeah, it really isn’t a standard question that most interviewers ask for an office role. Very weird.

I rambled out some answer about “Wishing I had taken professional development or office admin courses sooner”, because honestly what the hell was I supposed to say: “Biggest mistake? Well, how much time have you got?” or “My adult life has been mostly spent struggling with undiagnosed ADHD”?

I mentioned graphic design and art school were mentioned as “positive learning experiences” and tried to relate their usefulness to the job posting. She said her daughter wants to be an “artist”, or more specifically a painter, and she mentioned that she was pushing her to study graphic design instead. Because designers make money and artists starve right?

That was my line of thinking about 10 years ago when I quit an unrewarding, but stable government job to pursue design. I knew nothing about Adobe programs, typography or formatting, and my first year was a serious wake up call, as I spent hours relentlessly trying to convince myself that this was ‘What I wanted to do’. But it wasn’t until my second year when I changed schools that I realized that I kinda hated graphic design and wished I had my old job back. The new teachers weren’t impressed by anything really, and sneered at most of the projects that not only myself, but many others turned in. One exception being the guy who was seated next to me, who had previously studied animation at Sheridan College and was treated like a kind of design messiah. People regularly came by and raved about how “great” he was, and when they saw me looking at them, muttered: “Uh oh you too.” ) I had nothing in common with the people there and the work I turned in was apparently garbage. I got called into “meetings” with the teachers who told me that if my work didn’t improve, I would need to leave. So yeah it sucked. Sucked big time. After finals, I cried in a stairwell and realized that it was time to make a change, so I decided to study Studio Art at the University of Guelph.

And so begun my adventure in art school, something I had always wanted to do, but studied psychology instead after graduating high school. U of G, for those who don’t know, focuses primarily on “conceptual” art, ie. the weird stuff that flies over most peoples heads. I made a giant cardboard Swiss Army knife (Ugh, I hated that damn project!) in Sculpture 1, filmed a video of myself dragging a horseshoe down the street in a multimedia class, painted mold on a wall and partook in numerous hallway discussions dissecting someone’s choice of colours, brush marks, etc. I’m a representational artist who loves classical and realist art, which was largely considered “outdated” at U of G. The concept was what was important, not so much what it looked like. I still don’t agree with this, but tried to wedge open the doors of my mind a bit and honestly had fun getting “weird.”

After receiving all the required credits and getting an “Honors Equivalency” in Studio Art, which doesn’t come with a grad ceremony or diploma since I already had a bachelors in the aforementioned psychology, I left U of G. Unfortunately, despite enjoying myself a lot more and making new friends, studio art doesn’t really lend itself to a practical career. Sure you could try and get your work into galleries, but unless your work gets collected by rich people, it is pretty much impossible to make a living off it. In fact, I’m not even convinced that those who are big stars in the art world make enough to live comfortably, as a lot of money gets taken up by auction houses, galleries and art traders. I think grants are the main option, but those can be hard to come by. Of course this wasn’t a surprise for me, but it is still a shame. After all that time and money spent, I realized that maybe I should’ve just gone to Sheridan like the “design messiah” I sat next to in my second year of graphic design. Illustration, specifically, probably would’ve been the best path for me when I was a starry eyed, hyper and clueless19-year-old. Illustrators aren’t exactly making bank either nowadays, but they’re probably doing marginally better than many of the conceptual artists fighting to get their work into galleries.

But back to the title of this post and the point of what I am trying to write: If you are an artist, don’t blindly go into graphic design thinking it will be a great way to earn money and express yourself at the same time, because it’s not. Design is about the “client” and tends to lend itself more to people who are talented in software and marketing more than artistic pursuits. You will spend hours obsessing over the minute differences in fonts and how to sell other peoples products. (Assuming of course you graduate from college first. There were plenty of other people in my classes who were pushed out of the program too!) I’m sure some artists excel in design and I envy them, but it’s really naive to think that design and traditional art are interchangeable. So if you want to go to art school to learn traditional painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, etc, go to art school, but just be prepared for some pretty out there stuff and the fact that you won’t make much money. Personally, I do wish that I had done things differently in my 20s and 30s in terms of education, but I was lucky at least to try design and art school and I think they have made me a better artist and hopefully employee again someday!

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