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Design Dilemma: Entering the Creative Field Later in Life

Ellen T. Writes: I’ve been laid off from my job that I’ve had since I graduated high school, and decided to follow my heart, and pursue design as my new career. I’ve always loved design, and feel I have a real knack for being creative, deep down in my soul. My question is; where do I get started? I’m 49, so I realize I’ll be the oldest student in art school (which school should I attend?), and will I need to buy a big computer, or can I just draw things, and have people at the client’s business put it all together? I really want to be a designer! Can you help me?

Well, Ellen, it’s not going to be easy, and your age, and lack of experience will make it very difficult. But, there are those, throughout history, who have started successful careers later in life. I’m not going to sugarcoat the road ahead of you, so, for anyone who is considering starting a new career, whatever it may be, join us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design…

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I wrote to Ellen to get a little more background, so I could offer her better advice. She now works as a counterperson in a convenience store, is a single mother who has moved back in with her parents, and lives in a small town that has no college, or university, much less an art school. There are also no design firms in her town, so interning is out of the question. She’s already enrolled in an online design school, and wants to design logos, and do illustrations. Her work is… rough, to say the least, but so is the work of many creatives before they enter art school.

I don’t know which is the best place to start… the good news or the bad news. Let me start with the challenges, and bad news, so I can end this article on an up note.

Too Late to the Party

Design has become a young person’s field. Many of my peers, some as young as 45 have faced forced retirement from their corporate jobs as design directors. Young, and cheap seem to be the way designers are hired these days, and designers are required to be able to handle both print and digital designing without exception. That means years of study, and while you are enrolled in a two-year program, that’s a huge amount of learning to do in just 48 months.

“Design isn’t just “being creative in one’s soul,” as you put it. There are technical considerations designers need to learn.”

Design isn’t just “being creative in one’s soul,” as you put it. There are technical considerations designers need to learn. Aside from computer software, you need to learn color theory, typography, layout, print production, and web design, with associated apps and coding. Online art school can never give you enough to compete with younger designers who have been raised in the digital world. My older son, who was computer-savvy as a toddler, was learning CSS and web design in middle school. How can you even catch up with someone, now 17, who has lived with the digital world you are just entering?

You asked if you would need to purchase a computer. Of course! You will also need to purchase design software, a printer, as well as peripheral equipment, supplies, internet access, and continue to learn, learn, learn throughout your career.

You are also about to take on a huge student loan debt (about $40,000 for a two-year online school?). In your situation, how will you pay that back? You’re looking at a 20-year loan, and will be 69 when it’s finally paid back.

Where will you find clients? Your town is so small, local clients won’t provide a living as I suspect no one will pay more than $50 for a logo, and you will be competing with the online logo factories, such as, and There are many, many hurdles for you to overcome. The question of the moment, is; are you willing, and able to keep up the struggle to overcome those hurdles?

The Good News

I always like to use JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books) as an example of what someone can do when faced with impossible odds. She was a single mother, destitute, and sent her first manuscript to 19 publishers (one at a time) before it was accepted. She is now a billionaire. So, nothing is impossible.

“Being creative means being able to see creative possibilities.”

Many designers, and small design firms I know have started specializing in the industry, finding a niche, and serving those niche clients, like health providers, mortgage lenders, real estate, payday loans, etc. In your position, the problems with living in a small town may be one of your strengths. If you know people who own small businesses, they will need logos, flyers, signage, menus, etc. If you can meet the price level of your local, and do enough business, you can make a living. You won’t become rich, but if you want to do the kind of work that drives your desires and soul, then the money isn’t important.

The online logo factories I mentioned are a gamble for those who participate, but you may find that entering, and winning occasionally, will give you some extra income, and keep you happy. You should also consider making your own opportunities. Can you write and illustrate a book, design, and/or draw greeting cards, and notepaper? Being creative means being able to see creative possibilities.

Face the Realities

Yes, you need to follow your dream so you never have to wonder if you could have made it. Still, as you go on, you need to face reality, as your dream won’t pay bills in a cold, hard, unforgiving world.

“As any professional creative will tell you, it takes years of practice, patience, and an understanding that design is a craft that is learned, and not just inherent in one’s soul.”

I once worked in the marketing art department for a large publisher. There were eight of us in an open area, connected to the offices of the marketing personnel, just down the hall from the legal department. We had a good time together and the corporate lawyers always complained we were too loud and laughed too much.

One day, a secretary from the legal department walked into our area and said she thought we all were having great fun, and asked how she could get transferred to the art department. We asked if she went to art school, and she scrunched up her face as if she had smelled something horrible. She just thought she could sit down at a computer, and do the work from day one.

As any professional creative will tell you, it takes years of practice, patience, and an understanding that design is a craft that is learned, and not just inherent in one’s soul. If you are willing to struggle, then you may find your way. No one will hand it to you, and there are no guarantees.

Send Us Your Dilemma!

Do you have a design dilemma? Speider Schneider will personally answer your questions — just send your dilemma to [email protected]!

Speider has created designs for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, and Viacom, among other notable companies, and is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, and co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee. He writes for global blogs on design ethics, and business practices, and has contributed to several books on the subject of business for designers.

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