Every time I try to tell somebody what I actually do for a job, things get a little complicated. As the sole proprietor of a design agency/creative firm, I tell people that I'm a designer who just happens to run his own business. But I find myself getting hung up on questions like...
“But what do you design?"
Oh, if only this was simple to answer: Everything from websites to advertisements, logos to business cards, and everything in between; I design things that help companies sell their products (hence design - as in the act of designing - and agency - as in a Mad Men-esque advertising firm).
“Do you write the ads?"
Umm, yeah I do. So does that make me a writer?
“Do you take pictures of the products?"
Yes, I do. Does that make me a photographer, too?
So why do you call yourself a 'designer' when you clearly do all these other things?"
Here's my answer: we're approaching this from the wrong angle. There's a popular joke in our field: people who draw for free are artists, and those of us who are paid to draw are designers. But that limits what designers do. We're more than illustrators, and we're not just creative people - we're executive decision-makers. And every day, we have to make a million choices that influence the world around us.
These choices are what most people call "iterative" design, but they can apply to almost any thought process. I made a multitude of choices as I wrote this article; for the sake of argument, I'm designing the overall impact of this piece, and the guys at Postach.io will design how you perceive it. The folks behind the security at Google, for example, may just be "IT guys" to most people, but are they not making hugely important decisions for millions of people? Ultimately, the decisions they make can impact the design of somebody's life and how they perform their daily tasks!
A wise man named Mike Monteiro provides an amazing example of this in his popular talk, How Designers Destroyed the World. He emphasizes that each one of us is directly responsible for how we impact others through our work. As an example, one poorly-executed security decision at Facebook resulted in the unwanted exposure of a girl's identity. This had a profound effect on her life's direction which, in part, "designed" the outcome of this girl's youth.
My mother has no idea or understanding of what I do for a living. Design is outside of her "realm of expertise". But she has made countless decisions throughout her life, many of which designed me as an individual - at least in part. As a decision-maker with an influence on others, is she not a designer?
Many cultures and consider the monotheistic God to be the "Grand Designer". But even if you don’t share this belief, you can admit that the very orchestration of a life itself is, ultimately, a series of design decisions.
This all seems very philosophical, I know. What does this all mean to you?
We are all designers.
There’s a certain level of snobbery associated with being a designer: "it’s a lifestyle, not a job". That gets us into a lot of trouble on multiple levels - including the basic idea that we are working more than a typical 9 to 5 job; that we work eight days a week; that we don’t stop because what we do is a lifestyle, not a workplace arrangement.
And maybe that’s true! But this mindset is not only preventing us from doing good work, it’s preventing us from being approachable. We need to abandon that designer pre-tense. Design isn’t something that everybody can do, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something that everybody should understand. Regardless of whether or not comparing our work to basic life decisions is entirely accurate - I’ll be the first to say that the metaphor can fall apart under close scrutiny - we still need to make it understandable and relateable.
My clients have given me everything I need to know to sell their products to other businesses. In exchange, I try to help them understand my work every step of the way. As designers, we should aspire to the same level of clarity in all aspects of our work and life.
Sometimes, a service like QuoteRobot - with a simple, well-defined layout for different aspects of the deliverable - can help with that. But in reality, we still need to learn how to present ourselves. We have to find common ground. And as people, we all make decisions.
Who’s to say we’re not all designers?

This post was written by Nathan Snelgrove. Nathan is a designer, writer, and photographer at Wildfire Studios, his creative firm in Guelph, Ontario.