Choose your own (stereotypical) adventure

By Jarrod Drysdale


Do you dream of opening an agency or becoming a creative director?

Many designers claim this at some point during our careers, and the dream is certainly exciting. We imagine working for prestigious clients, having a professionally designed office space downtown, and living the good life designing creative, amazing things.

If you could open your own agency or become a creative director you would get all kinds of creative freedom. You could fight for the important aspects of creative work and finally have control over the final product.

But that’s actually not true in many cases.

I used to think so too. But then I got a glimpse into the lives of agency owners and creative directors, and realized that the dream was not like I imagined.

I realized that opening an agency or becoming a creative director, for me, would be a complete nightmare.

Have you ever seen a creative director claim an exciting new project instead of assigning it to a designer on their team? There have been times during my career when I felt creative directors picked the best projects for themselves.

Years later I realized what was actually happening: many creative directors spend a lot of time in meetings and not much time designing. They miss being able to sit down and work on a design. And when a rare chance to design comes along, they grab it. Many creative directors are just designers who don’t get to design much anymore. And when you realize that, it’s hard to blame them for grabbing a project now and then.

Agency owners have similar frustrations. They deal with rent, employee benefits, hiring, accounts receivable, payroll, accounting, cash flow, and sales. Owning an agency requires doing business work, not design work.

The day-to-day work of a creative director or an agency owner is not quite as glamorous as you might imagine. (And that is true with many of our dreams. Read this article about “cute little cafe syndrome” for more.)

The underlying motivation of those dreams is complete creative freedom. We want to design awesome stuff without strings attached.

However, the usual way we try to achieve that dream could deliver exactly the opposite of what we want.

And, instead of just following the usual career paths and hoping it turns out the way you expect, I want to challenge you:

Is your career goal really to earn the title of “Creative Director” or to have your name on the front door? Or could it be something else, something you hoped to achieve by becoming a creative director or agency owner?

What is the best way to achieve your career goal?

I know these are difficult questions to answer.

For me, answering these questions led to some drastic changes in my career. I gave up on the dream of opening an agency and having “Creative Director” on my business card. And I set out to build my own solo business to make more money.

Because for me money is not about status or power. Money is freedom. Money gives me the freedom to create the things I want to create.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because I wonder if, just maybe, you don’t want to become a creative director or open your own agency either.

I’m not trying to say I know what dream is right for you. I’m pushing you to think about it.

Hey, if you like the idea of managing people, verbally sparring about design on a daily basis, and mentoring new designers, that’s awesome.

However, if what you want is creative freedom, there are many ways to achieve it, but it starts with freeing yourself from the career ambitions you inherited from other designers and choosing your own goal.

If you want to be free to create, you need to be daring enough to truly choose your own adventure—not just the ones everyone else chooses.


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