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The creative ceiling

There is a funny phenomenon that occurs in your creative career that no one really tells you or forewarns you about. It isn’t entirely explicit, although, perhaps I didn’t see what was always hanging above me until my focus gazed upwards from my navel.

This phenomenon is a ceiling that manifests as soon as you look up. This creative ‘ceiling’ is as much of a self-imposed, psychological construct as it is a metaphorical reality imposed on the career progression for many an ambitious designer. But what do I mean by all of this?

Most designers enter the craft because they crave creating, and monetising that creativity is a must. For many more it is creative problem solving that keeps designers engaged for years in their field. These attributes are what departs a designer from an artist or craftsperson. Perhaps the most prominent attribute is the ambition for personal progression, a sense of continually improving existing situations into preferred ones, in ones own designerly life. This may point to why many designers keep reaching for the next ‘level’ of complexity and creative strategic problem spaces. Yet, no one tells you that at some point in this journey you will face a fork in the road, forced to make the decision as to whether you want to maintain your creative expertise or watch your skills fade in the rearview mirror as you drive towards people leadership and business management.

The self-imposed ceiling:

The self-imposed ceiling is about internal conflict. It is about having ambition for progression, leadership and business management, yet wanting to maintain influence and input into project work and maintain ones craft. This internalised ceiling is, at its core, about grappling with an identity crisis; fighting ones ambitions for achieving impact and success with the knowledge that what led one to success thus far is actually centred in their craft. It is about questioning how much impact you can really have through design, and knowing that moving up means moving away from everything that led you to this point.

The externally-imposed ceiling:

The externally-imposed ceiling is less existential. It is about the designer hitting ones head against outside perception, judgement and capability. A designer afflicted by this ceiling has decided that they want to move up in their career. Initially, many make strides in the early days of their career journey without much friction or support, only to hit cold tempered glass without warning. It is hard to average at what point this ceiling occurs as different businesses dictate when it is a necessity. Regardless, the glass all looks the same, and on it reads a message to the ambitious designer: you lack necessary business management education, training or experience to progress further. Assumptions underlining this message is a negative perception that a ‘creative’ lacks business nous.

To be a designer- specifically in a large organisation- means to have accumulated a high threshold of patience, even more so in resilience. Perhaps the desire to progress stems from the very fact design had to be patient and resilient in the first place. But at some point the fatigue from resilience gives way to the paranoia of discovering insignificance in ones work and heirarchy. This then breeds the desire for validation… hell… just to hear someone say: ‘we couldn’t do it without you‘. We realise the harder we push forward the stronger the force of resistance weighs upon us. Adding to this gravity is the feeling of invalidation from watching your MBA peers take a subject in design and use it as a strategic edge to move up in their career (worse yet, the same individuals who take our ideas then impose this ceiling upon us). Yet, we want to be seen but be left alone. We want significance but shirk the responsibility. We want meaning but must have money. We crave autonomy but shy away from truly liberated, risky exploration. Few are ready to forfeit their craft to obtain that MBA in order to rise to the top, yet many eyes widen at the sight of something bigger, more impactful, and more meaningful. For many, a designer is an artist weighed down by capitalist clothing, a funambulist debating if the fall is worth the height.

Is this all to say that a creative career is doomed to operate only in black or white? Do we have to dampen what Henri Bergson describes as intuition, or élan vital? Or could we be looking at this issue the wrong way? If we reframe our perspective and refocus on fundamental drivers, what will it reveal about the ceiling and our focus on it?

I recently stumbled across an extremely practical list of questions from YouTube entrepreneur Thomas Frank, that all designers- especially early career ones- should ask themselves as they start the ignition on their design career…which may hope to short-circuit an impending career crisis:

  1. Are you building or maintaining?
  2. Are you using your current skills or are you learning new ones?
  3. How much creative autonomy do you have/need?
  4. How much interaction with others do you need?
  5. What level of authority do you want over other people?
  6. Do you like being in the spotlight?
  7. How much work-life balance do you need/want?

For some, the conflict will become clear- it is either purely intrinsic or external. For many others, the conflict is a battle between identity and ambition. Is it possible to maintain and marry creative craft with growth in leadership and in business? We have lost many good designers to this ceiling, for either intrinsic or extrinsic reasons, and without a better union we may lose many more. This post is as much for the designer as it is for those on the other side of the glass looking in. Reframe your perspective on the field, understand the inherent bias that fuzzies your focus and see how similar yet complimentary the practice can be for business leadership. There is more to being a designer than just design.

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