This is DJ Haddad’s second column on graphic design and entrepreneurship. The first column detailed why he started his own agency Haddad & Partners. Currently he is on year two of his second company 321 Ignition, a software start-up in the automotive industry.
Designers Like To Design
In general, I don’t really consider myself an entrepreneur. If someone asks me what I do for a living, I always say I’m a graphic designer. Well, sometimes I say graphic designer/male model, but no one ever believes me, so then I need to convince them that I really am a graphic designer. This is no surprise to anyone, but being a graphic designer is way cooler than being an entrepreneur. First, anyone can be an entrepreneur, the same cannot be said for a designer. There’s a minimum level of skill and/or talent required to make a career out of designing — the same can’t be said for starting a small business.
Look, starting your own business isn’t easy for anyone, but I’ve outlined three reasons why it’s extra-challenging for designers like myself:
1. First and foremost, designers like to design.
And starting your own business means spending a lot of time not designing. I’ve gone through some tough (albeit, necessary) phases throughout my business where I wasn’t happy because of the lack of creativity it entailed. All my time was spent managing people, dealing with insurance, chasing down invoices, focusing on process, all sorts of right-brained tasks that I found little pleasure in at all.
2. Even when I did get the chance to design, it tended to be pretty mundane.
Designers like variety, they want to stretch their creative muscles on different styles—and starting a company sometimes means long stretches of repetitious design. When I started my ad agency in 2007, the first few years were spent on just one client: the same colors, the same fonts, the same illustration style, day in and day out. (Their primary hex numbers are still burned into my brain: #ff6600 and #000066. First person to guess the now-defunct company gets a bag of coffee on me.) Currently, I’m on year two of my second company (a software start-up in the automotive industry), and I’m barely designing at all; unfortunately, my energy here is best served in an operations capacity. Ouch. Sure, the thrill of building a business mostly makes up for the lack of creativity, but these days I’d kill for a good design project; I have four kids now and when one of them asks me to draw a shark or something, I jump on it like the CMO of Microsoft just personally handed me a wax-sealed creative brief. “Now when you say ‘shark’, do you have a specific breed in mind? What’s the tone you are looking for here? Did you have a timeframe in mind?”
3. And finally, it’s risky.
Sure, launching a business is a gamble for anyone, but look at it this way: imagine that you’ve finally convinced your parents that four years of art school were worth it, and now you tell them you’re quitting your job to start a small business, 50% of which fail within the first five years. It took me years just to articulate to them what a graphic designer even did, so needless to say, it was curve ball that necessitated quite a bit of explanation and reassurance.
Is owning and operating a small business challenging? Of course. Do I miss the good old days of just being a designer for hire? Parts of it, sure. Would I ever change my career path? Not for a second. Will I draw a shark for you with crayons? If you eat your dinner and ask nicely, then sure.
Graphic Designer/Male Model/Entrepreneur (In that order)