40-something career changer

I am sure it will be painfully obvious as I continue but I am new here and would just like to get some feedback on what the best direction would be to take to make a career change. I am forty something and was laid off from a job that I wasn’t passionate about but was good at and made decent money (and had been doing for most of my working career) several years ago. Long story short, my life has COMPLETELY changed since then and after positions at two different health insurance employers after the original layoff (which, in itself was a huge and unexpected career change), I have determined that health insurance is NOT for me. Years ago, I very much wanted to get into graphic design but the landscape then (as well as my situation) looked MUCH different and I was not able to make it work. I am able to make it possible now, but I am at a point that I am questioning “how” now and is it worth it? Where do I start…do I need a degree or is a certification sufficient….are there entry positions that might not require either that I can work my way up through….can I even make this work at my age or will I not be “fresh” enough. I have done some kind of art my whole life (calligraphy is and has mostly always been my passion) but have always lacked the opportunity to make it a career. Obviously I have preferences in the type of art that I do but I am very flexible so to make a career of it, what would be a good (and somewhat quick-ish) direction to head in? I know this is very in depth so I apologize in advance but would be very grateful for any and all feedback! Thanks so much!

I’ll be blunt, which I hope will save you much anguish if not a little disappointment.

Age discrimination is rampant in this industry. By 40, if one isn’t at least an experienced art director or firmly established in a secure long-term position, the outlook is bleak and getting worse.

In the U.S., the field is oversaturated with diploma mill graduates in graphic design — most of whom will not find steady work. Starting salaries at the best places are barely what one would make as a manager at a fast-food restaurant.

At every company I’ve worked for during the past 20 years, a 4-year degree and some great internships are necessary even to have one’s resume considered.

And I’m not even mentioning needing a list of qualifications that includes web design, print design, production, some coding, writing skills, video, photography, social media expertise, and just about every other marginally related skill imaginable, except the calligraphy skills you mentioned, which aren’t needed. And as far as art goes, graphic design isn’t about art — it’s about visual communication.

In addition, cheap, overseas online crowdsourcing work is squeezing out the low end of the business. And then there’s all the do-it-yourself software coming online, such as Canva, that’s further gutting the business

At this point, I’d discourage any 18-year-old from going into this field, let alone someone twice that age. I got lucky 40 years ago when the field was still growing and the competition was sparse. I’ve made a good living at it, but I’d choose something else today, despite having loved it.


To compound what Just-B said, further to your comment that you thought it would be a quick-ish direction to head. Unfortunately that is half the problem with the industry at present.

It is seen by many young people as a quick, easy and cool career to get into and this, as Just-B says, has flooded the market with unqualified, alacritous kids who have no idea what they are doing. This drives both quality and expectation down, leaving a lot of bottom-feeding going on.

I think the quality end of the market is still fairly healthy, as good clients still know they need good designers. The problem is, it takes a good degree and years of experience to get to that point. This has never been any different. It is just muddied now by people who think there’s an easy route to get there. There’s never been – nor, I believe ever will there be – any substitute for a good education from a reputable university.

Sorry, if that comes across as a bit of a damp squib, but better to go into this with your eyes open. I am not saying don’t do it, if you have the talent and ability, but do it the right way. Competition is very stiff.

I completely agree with everything @Just-B and @sprout have said and would also discourage you from going into the field.

As far as not being passionate about the health insurance business, I’d say there is a lot of wisdom in what Mike Rowe has to say about passion.


Interesting… “Never follow your passion but always bring it with you.” I can get behind that!

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I lost my passion ages ago. The need to put food on the table gradually took over.


Dammit, I should compile a list of your slang and read it to friends over drinks. And if that sounds as though I’m poking fun at you, it’s quite the contrary; I would fully expect them to delight in it as I do.

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What level of compensation do you require to maintain your lifestyle?.. keeping in mind you’re going to be competing for jobs against 22-year olds with 4 year degrees and very low needs/expectations.

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Feel free to poke fun. Sarcasm and taking the p**s is like oxygen to us Brits.

I once went to stay with my oldest friend, who now lives and works in NY. He is a VFX designer. We were sat in his studio, when one of his employees came in to ask something. It has to be said that the two of us do have a particular way of talking to each other, which can probably best be described as overly-verbose verbal diarrhoea. Even so, this guy just stood in the door for about a minute or so until we finished what we were talking about, with a slightly dumbfounded look on his face. He had evidently forgotten what he came in for in the first place and just looked straight at us: ‘You Limeys are f****n’ weird’ and walked out, shutting the door behind himself. We guffawed lots!


At a previous design firm job, we were interviewing applicants. One was a fresh arrival from England. His portfolio and experienced looked good, so we asked him if he could call to set up an appointment for a second interview.

His response was something like, “I had a good chat with Lucy, your receptionist. I’ll try to knock her up first thing tomorrow morning.” That was followed by about ten seconds of stunned silence before everyone broke out laughing.

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@Just-B and @sprout, thank you very much for your honest, albeit painful, responses. I greatly appreciate the time you took to pen a very sincere suggestion and I value your opinion based on your tenure. However, as I stated, my situation is much different now and I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue something (anything) that I would like to do. Therefore, I am not looking to make a fortune, nor do I any longer have to be the sole bread winner. I am looking to make my days mean more to me than just making a living, which I see as a beautiful thing. I could relatively do that anywhere if that was all I was setting out to do, as @Steve_O reiterated with the Mike Rowe video (which was very inspiring as well as very relatable yet not especially helpful). I have not had an easy life by any means and am not looking for an easy living either….just looking to fill my days with something that doesn’t make me argue with myself each night as I lay in bed about whether I’m truly miserable or just tired, frustrated, annoyed….fill in the blank. I understand that while although adversity is unavoidable, misery is optional which is precisely why I choose no longer to be miserable doing something I hate since I don’t have to force myself to like it any more……I am truly and sincerely blessed and extremely grateful for that. @Mojo, thank you for offering sound and realistic advice without assuming anything. As I just previously stated, the responsibility of sole bread winner no longer rests on my shoulders, my husband and I are relatively newlyweds for a second time as well as “almost” empty nesters who have both had a tough go of it but are getting better by the day, and I live in the US (although I have lived many other, much less “entitled” locations) so I know what true poverty looks like. Going on that……what suggestions could you give for directions to head in to start into graphic design? Sincere thanks in advance for any feedback!

I understand what you are saying, but it is a bit like saying that you want to be a mechanic and fix cars, because it will fulfil you more than what you are doing now. That’s all very well, but if you are going to do that, you still have to learn how to fix them properly if you expect to take money off people to do the job. If you advertise that you can, and yet have little idea what you are doing, beyond the basics, at best, you will have some very angry customers. At worst, it could be dangerous.

Design is exactly the same. If you want to do it, you have to learn the right way to go about it. If you get it wrong, you can do a lot of unwitting damage to other people’s businesses.

I go back to my original advice. The best way to learn is a formal education then a few years of studio experience.

Not wishing to make assumptions, but the way you talk, sounds like you are looking for design to fulfil a need for creative expression. If that is the case, perhaps look at another more self-referencing creative field. Design is not about creative expression. It it about accurately communicating someone else’s ‘story’. Of course it can be hugely creatively fulfilling, but it is not like, say, painting, or sculpture, or print-making, where the primary goal is to express your own thoughts and feelings.

Do it by all means, but please, please do it the right way, or you will just be adding to the legions of polluting professionally-amateur designers out there.

Design is fundamentally not about you and is most definitely about your client and more importantly, the end user. It is as much about psychology and perception as it is about ink on paper (or pixels on screens).

There is milage in graphic arts – typographic self-expression, print-making etc, which, if it is about making pin money and creative fulfilment may be a better avenue to look at. That said, for it to be successful, you still have to spend the time putting in the hard yards to learn the craft.

I have a friend who is now a stone carver and a very good one. Some commissions. Some personal work he sells. He spent 25 years as a practicing designer, so understands type, spacing, letterforms, etc. Fantastic work. Conversely, locally, there’s a stay at home mum, who wanted to be more creative. Bought a book on calligraphy and a set of pens and now sells her work. It’s really awful.

I think what I am saying is there are no shortcuts if you want to do it (/anything) well it takes, time, effort and dedication.

Really, you should not be in a position to be offering your services as a freelance designer for at least the next five to eight years (depending on what the level of ‘the basics’ you already know is). You can’t possibly have the requisite knowledge and experience to know what you need to know at this stage. A basic understanding of anatomy is a long way off being a surgeon. Fortunately there are laws to stop that happening. Unfortunately, design is entirely unregulated. As far as I am concerned, it should be.

Again, apologies is this all sound incredibly harsh, but to understand this now will save you a lot of heartache in the future if you just set up shop without knowing what you are doing.

The other alternative, of course, is to get an entry level job in the industry and learn that way, especially as earning big bucks is not a necessity. In my opinion, that is still no substitute for adding a formal education into the mix as well, but it is certainly a lot better than buying a socket set and calling yourself a mechanic.

I do agree with most said by others. Still I did what you did at 39. I’d wanted to work with graphic desigs since I was 15, but then came life, kids, rent … All the time between I read everything I got my hand on, later years watch every video out there. Tried, tested, treid again. Started in Macromedia Freehand, then bought Adobes software. Started as a freelance 15 years ago. At that time I had a network of contacts and good friends running thier own business in need what I could offer. Charged them about 60% of someone else did at the time being upfront with my lack of experience. In a small town, taking thoose jobs from others was not popular - but that’s the way it is. One day someone, will take your clients from you.

My best advice is the same as the others; get a solid education. The alternative path take to long time. For me about, as someone said 7-8 years (after a 25 years long decicated interest). If formal education ain’t a alternative; read a lot, practice as much as you can, hang around at gdf (a lot of comments on others work in crit pit I find superb) and similiar fora, do dare to send in your own work for critics, do ask around thoose you knew running thier own business if they can gice your a chance - offer them a bargain just to the chance to doing “real jobs” (it’s still a hell of a difference between “real life” missions compared to hobby or even studen projects, when you actually must deliver something that will do what it meant to do, and on time (and make sure the ones you doing it for are someones knowing something about design - beeing av decent purchaser of design is a skill it self. And only one knowing what they want, and why, will be able to give you the feedback that you need). Make a solid portfolio, get it online. Consider broading your skills so you cover booth print, web and social media communications and try get a sort of in-house part-time assignment for maybe two, three clients. I don’t know US but even in Sweden, and in some other european countries I know, and as other said getting a full time job in agency even with a formal exams is getting through a needle eye. But - and an important one too - sometimes you have to follow your dream! I say give it a chance. Only you know what you have to loose - or win. It ain’t impossible, do however be prepared that it will take a tremendous effort, you will got an insane amount of “no’s”. Wish you the best of luck!

I say this all the time.
Freelancing, especially in the US is a business, and must be approached as such.
All of the things inherent to being a business apply. Including separating personal assets from the business. Legal contracts, accounting, deadbeat clients, good clients, failure to perform, cost a client money and you may be on the short end of a legal proceeding, all that stuff has to be considered before hanging out a shingle.

It’s too bad designers aren’t licensed. Far too late for that now. The industry missed its chance for that well nigh 20 years ago. It’s too bad malpractice insurance isn’t required either. Another person’s business relies on the designer bringing in more to the bottom line (no return on investment is not much better than a negative return.)

And finally, far too many design students find out far too late that Graphic Design is not about their artistic desires. It’s all about the client’s message and the proper and most likely means of getting that message out there to benefit the client. That includes being able to tell a client that no, this brochure you want me to do is not going to give you the best ROI, but if we do this, or this, or this instead, for the same amount of money you will get a much better return. That kind of thing only comes through experience. A lot of it.

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Even though a agree i principle, were there ever an oppurtunity when everything got digitalized? Would a licence stop a small entrepreneur doing his or hers logotype in ms paint or powerpoint? Had it blocked those-who-not-know-better from “designing” a leaflet in ms word and print it out themselves on cheap home printers? Should printing indsustry say no (or even being forbidden) to print material from one not licensed - while they have even harder times than graphic designers to be honest?

So even if I agree per se, I don’t see it as a realistic alternative - not then or now.

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A license shows some sort of benchmark reached. A minimum of education. A minimum of on-the-job training attained, to be used as a standard when hiring a designer for a critical project. It isn’t meant to stop any of those things you mentioned.

Three problems happened back then.

  1. those already successful but without licenses didn’t want to pay/do the paperwork to attain them.
  2. design organizations kept trying to attach a subjective ‘portfolio review’ to determine if work was ‘quality’ enough to be represented by a license issued by them.
  3. design organizations also floated proficiency tests. Quite honestly I seriously doubt after 20 years in the industry I could pass a test similar to Adobe’s certification tests. I don’t know which friggin menu the things are under. It’s all keystrokes for me, and customized at that.

So instead of having something akin to an electrician’s or plumbers journeyman program, you gotz nuthin.

(shrug) don’t care. they send it, I’ll print it. And they can keep calling me stupid when I tell them things they don’t believe are true. Things like, yes your billboard can really be 1:10 @ 300ppi (30ppi final) and it really does need 6" (0.6" in scale) of bleed. I’ll still get a file at 300ppi final as a bloated .psb with 1/8" of bleed. It happens. All. The. Time.

Just to throw my 2¢ worth into the discussion, and not to stray too far from the original post, I have dealt with designers for 35 years. In that time, I could say that my dealing with files has given me an education better than most designers I cross paths with today. When ‘Desktop Publishing’ hit the industry in the 80’s, every church secretary with Publisher and Word was suddenly a graphic designer. Not taking away from what The25thhour is hoping to pursue, but ma’am, it’s tough out there. Having sat in a room of computers the better part of half of my life, there has been a glut of people who give you a piece of crap and expect something amazing. And apparently that’s acceptable. Yes, you need to chase your dream because as Cody Johnson puts it well in a country song out right now, “If you got a dream, chase it, 'cause a dream won’t chase you back”. Sounds like I’m rambling but… I guess I’m rambling. Good luck going forward.

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… but W.C. Fields also said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again. Then give up. No point being a damn fool about it.”

Keep researching and be open to other career paths. It seems like you are saying that compensation is not a consideration, and personal enrichment and artistic expression are the priorities. Make sure you understand what’s involved in career in graphic design, because it’s a very different field from disciplines like fine art or illustration. You might be very disappointed in the lack of artistic expression you get to have as a graphic designer. We help people sell stuff, and that’s not necessarily the road to enlightenment.

In the US, right now, minimum requirement for entry into any decent paying job is a 4 year degree from an accredited university, plus a stellar portfolio that shows you can do the work that employer needs you to do. Pursuit of that degree can be time consuming and expensive.

You mentioned calligraphy. Have you considered doing something with that? Nobody is checking the diplomas of calligraphers. Or maybe teaching calligraphy recreationally to kids or at senior centers. The opportunity for personal enrichment and expression might be higher.

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Haha :laughing: I’ve never heard enlightenment discussed around Graphic Design before.

I’m not looking for enlightenment but I am pursuing a position within the conservation industry. Money is also not a concern for me and I’m already sick of creating designs to support people or policies I don’t personally agree with.

But I’ve already been through the 4 year degree, years of struggling to work in the design field and building my portfolio, and finally getting that break as a graphic and web designer for 2 years in one place. And here I am unemployed, almost 10 years after getting the degree wondering if it was worth it. :woman_shrugging:

My vote is use the skills you already have! Perhaps it’s too much to pursue a career as a graphic designer but every business needs administrative, HR, management, etc. Your years of experience could be translated to another role where you can be around designers. Just trying to give another option :slightly_smiling_face: