Does Design Have An Ageism Problem?

By Dan Crowder, Founder and Managing Director at Craft

‘Innovative’, ‘disruptive’, ‘hungry’, ‘energetic’, ‘dynamic’ – words we see time and again when it comes to design agencies, both in how they self-describe and in what they want from new team members.

And on the surface of it, there’s nothing wrong with that: after all, who wouldn’t want to work with a bouncy bunch of disruptors?

Dig a little deeper, though, and the elephant in the room becomes rather obvious: all of these words are, arguably, euphemisms for ‘young’. Recent focus on developing and attracting ‘new’ talent is admirable – it’s imperative that we create pathways for young, inexperienced designers from diverse backgrounds to enter the industry. But to over-index on new blood at the expense of retaining and developing experienced people limits our abilities.

Ageism In Design Is A Perennial Problem

Ageism in the design industry is a perennial problem. AIGA’s Design Census 2019 revealed that ageism was a critical issue facing the industry. “I can get to the heart of the design faster than anyone I know, yet I go to job interviews and there’s an immediate assumption that my work and aesthetic are ‘dated’”, as one 64-year-old respondent put it. It’s hard to find more up to date stats on ageism in the design industry – while it’s a longstanding issue, it’s perhaps not a ‘trendy’ one that often gets reported on.

We’ve seen some well-intentioned, and much-publicized moves in the design industry in recent years around diversity and inclusion: countless job ads today include a line about encouraging applications from POC, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and neurodivergence, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

It’s a brilliant stride in the right direction. But ageism continues to be brushed under the carpet: whilst stating employee pronouns within email signatures is a good start, true diversity comes from a real range of different people – and that means people of varying ages, career paths, and experiences.

The Appeal of ‘Gen Z’ Hires

Why, then, does it still often feel like agencies only see the young as the most interesting, capable or talented? One reason is a widely held belief that young people are more au fait and skilled with emerging technologies and digital platforms – and there may well be some truth in that. Take Twitch, or Discord, for instance: younger people for the most part are the ones that use, and thoroughly understand the platforms – that’s the nature of the majority of their communities.

I’d argue that designers of any age can help an agency with its drive to innovate and push category norms – that’s about being genuinely creative, bold, and talented, not being born after 1996. But the idea of snagging ‘rising talent’ inherently implies an age limit: what agency wouldn’t want the ‘next big thing’ to have started out with them? It’s a great look, for sure.

The other attractions of Gen Z talent are more prosaic: they’re paid less; and are less likely to be wedded to the rules and processes of previous agencies. Many might also argue that younger designers’ naivety can make their work and design thinking more willing to challenge convention.

Age vs. Experience

The flip side of that is that you can be as convention-challenging as you like, but it’s unlikely to always be what’s needed in terms of both team-based settings and client briefs. Design is ultimately about doing what’s best for the client, not indulging in creative flights of imagination. It could be said that more experienced, older designers understand that more; and are more able to combine boundary breaking creativity and client needs. We often see the experience of a ‘steady pair of hands’ as a requisite on freelance briefs, especially for urgent cover project roles.

Looking to specifically hire grads and second jobbers means running the risk of excluding those who have honed their craft. Many agency skills can only ever be developed through years of experience and practice (not to mention making mistakes), such as how to deliver great presentations, client management, reading between the lines of briefs to deliver what clients want and need, or negotiating. Yet we hear time and again that candidates are ‘over-qualified’. More openness to hiring career changers or people returning to work after having kids, with all the value they bring, encourages that spectrum of skills.

The right balance will naturally vary by studio, depending on factors like client needs, or the shop’s specialism. Strategy teams tend to be more senior-heavy in the U.S. But we do see an alarming number of recruitment briefs that describe attributes and/or lifestyles that are explicitly aligned with the freedom of youth, detailing an agency’s predilection for late nights and partying. Someone’s willingness to stay out until 2am isn’t an indicator of ‘cultural fit’.

Breaking The Cycle

So how can design leaders break the vicious cycle of ageism? First off, when you’re hiring, be sure to use language that’s direct, clear, and avoids euphemisms: ‘fresh’ and ‘hungry’ are often just used as synonyms for youth, so be sure to explain what you mean – keen to muck in? Team player? Ability to think outside the box?

People of all ages can get along famously, so look for personality over shared ability to forgo sleep or similar interests: hone your ability to spot more abstract traits that will mean someone fits in with the team.

Ultimately, fast-tracking entry-level candidates to the detriment of hiring or retaining older candidates can make for unbalanced agencies that lack a diversity of thought and experiences. While older generations can learn a lot from their younger counterparts, the reverse remains true, too.

And when it comes to client briefs that specify a broad range of consumers, or those skewing over, say, 35, it seems obvious that a design team made up of only the youthful will lack a certain level of understanding what the brief necessitates.

True creativity comes from taking multiple strands of meaning from disparate sources and making something truly original: so the more difference you get in an agency, the better. Mixing up ages isn’t just about fairness, it’s about being genuinely creative.