Home, Time to Move On, Opinion, 2021

I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.

— Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class, 1981.

The studio founder looked up from the floor with a blank stare and asked me "How do I get designers to stay?". It was one of the toughest questions I’ve ever been asked, I was speechless and ended up giving a half witted answer on the spot. My answer became a culmination of factors including time, place, person and frivolously ending on that it's hard for designers to make a commitment when there are so many other studios to compete with in terms of work and offerings. It was partially true, yet I wasn’t being completely honest because that wasn’t the most important reason as to why I was moving on. I’ve spoken out against micromanaging, forced long hours, unwillingness to change from it’s traditional studio culture, the underpaying and even the unwillingness to hire BIPOC designers. Ultimately, a toxic studio environment. After being with this studio for a little over a year, I wanted to keep it short and sweet. I was tired of reinstating the same qualms that I’ve presented to them on countless prior occasions. I enjoyed the people and the work, but this place was not an environment I wanted to be in. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation either.

I’ve been told by a prominent member of the design community that I shouldn’t be so uptight because I’m “white and straight”, undermined when suggesting to hire more BIPOC designers, received zero compensation for the work I was doing and taken advantage of by design leaders that I looked up too. If that isn’t enough, this is all within five years of graduating. I understand and acknowledge that I’m a white, male graphic designer who attended a prestigious design school that has reaped the benefits of being exposed to these spaces and may sound spoiled from complaining about some of these opportunities that some designers would love to be in. I’m aware of it and I’m learning how to acknowledge these topics of discussion with care and consideration. Needless to say, unfortunately designers have gone through even worse situations than this. This shouldn’t be the norm as we build and foster a community for current designers, younger designers and students. We should be expecting more from the community and the profession we hold so near. The topics of sexism, racism, mental health and studio culture should be front and center at every single design studio working today. It’s time to reconsider how the studio or agency (I’ll save institutions for another essay) is run along with the people in it. It’s not just about making the most exciting work anymore.

As designers, we need to be proactive in speaking up around these topics despite awkwardness or the response we may receive, if the response isn’t what we were expecting then maybe it’s a place we shouldn’t be supporting or producing design work for. These moments can’t just be swept under the rug any longer or laughed off. The only way for our community to change is by speaking up and holding these people and spaces accountable. You don’t learn in design school how to navigate these situations or to speak up when something isn’t right, you think it’s part of the learning process when in reality it shouldn’t be part of the process to begin with.

As I sat on the question, “How do I get designers to stay?” I realized I should have spoken out for the third time around the same topics, I shouldn’t have been complacent. My reaction was adding to the problem. I should have been relentless despite it feeling like beating a dead horse. After working at countless studios, agencies and large technology companies this experience finally made me realize the work I wanted to take part in along with the designer I wanted to be. I didn't want to be just another complacent designer sitting behind a desk designing logos, accepting these spaces for what they are. We should be the facilitators of change and new uncomfortable opportunities. We should be expecting more from our community and presenting changes very much like projects and processes we undergo as designers. We shouldn't just sit back and take things as they are. If not now, when?

“When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.“ — Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein, A Pattern Language, 1977.

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Last updated: April 26, 2022

© Anthony Zukofsky 2012–2022.