Old(er) Dog, New Tricks

I came of age during the desktop publishing boom of the 1990s. I’ve happily worked as a print-based graphic designer for many years with many long term, returning clients. Through time and attrition that number is inevitably shrinking. And I suddenly find my skill set it somewhat behind the curve. I’ve looked into updating those skills, but it can be a little overwhelming. So my questions are these:

If you were to recommend a first skill for a print-designer who’s looking to expand their marketability, which would you pick?

Secondly, do you think it’s at all viable to simply double-down on print design and carve out a niche? Or are digital skills just flat-out required at this time?

I did teach myself Dreamweaver years ago. (Which I have since forgotten). Not completely clueless when it comes to digital stuff but… well… maybe close.


I date back even further to the paste-up era. :wink:

As for digital, everything is digital now, but I’m assuming your use of the word is more along the lines of user interface and user experience design (UI/UX) for websites and apps and that sort of thing.

Print technology honestly hasn’t changed much in the past few years other than various types of digital printing being much more prevalent than they were a few years ago. The software applications have changed, but those changes have been incremental and easy to keep up with.

As for UI/UX, if you haven’t kept up there, you’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of you. You mentioned Dreamweaver, which, is an application whose purpose and approach was arguably flawed to begin with and is now a niche product that I’m not really sure how many people still use.

Just for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just mention website design. A new website is no longer a matter of using Dreamweaver to make one. It can be done that way, but usually isn’t because most websites now run out of content management systems, like Wordpress or Drupal or Magento or Joomla or whatever.

Website development is now typically a team effort where the UI/UX designer (who knows a quite a bit about HTML/CSS) designs the site, then hands it over to and works with a developer who codes the templates and whatever backend scripting is necessary to make it work. This process differs a whole lot depending on the task at hand and the company doing it, but a copy of Dreamweaver and some practice will no longer qualify you for much.

Can you make a living by doubling down on print? Yeah, I think so, but it’s not exactly a growth market. Print is still obviously very important, but the competition is greater since there are so many more designers who feel competent with and prefer working with print. And along with this competition and oversupply of (sometimes poorly trained) designers has come lower wages.

Print design for larger, more savvy companies still requires the skills and insight that only well-educated and experienced designers can provide. Short of that, though, it’s almost possible to make more money cooking burgers and fries and McDonald’s than specializing in only print design.

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Thanks so much for the very thoughtful reply, Just-B. We’re probably about the same vintage. I remember taking my earliest designs to the printer with greeked text.

So your answer to the first question is UI/UX? I did look into that briefly maybe 10 years ago and, yes, that learning curve was steep and looked pretty daunting. Then I suspect I probably got more print work and simply moved on. But to stay viable, that’s where you think I should focus my attention?

As for the burger flipping remark that really hit home. If it’s the difference between $12 an hour flipping burgers and $16 meeting print deadlines, the four dollars probably isn’t worth the stress.

I’m debating about trying to generate income in a completely different field and reserve my studio time for my own creative projects and the odd print job that appeals. I’ve got to do something…

Clients have always thought they knew as much about design as designers themselves. Most everyone thinks their design ideas and their sense of taste are equal to those whose talents and training make them more qualified. As you know, though, in the past, it was the technical aspects of the job that kept the amateurs at bay. Regular people didn’t have the tools, the computers, the software or the knowhow to do much of anything as far as bringing their (often terrible) ideas to life.

Today, though, everyone owns a computer and has learned to use it. Everyone has picked typefaces in MS Word and moved things from here to there. With only slightly more effort, those same people can make their own PowerPoint slides and use prebuilt templates to make things in MS Publisher. And all of them have, at one time or another, taken things down to the corner print shop to have something copied.

As far as these people know, we experienced and trained designer don’t do much more than that. We just use different, more expensive software. The fact that these people really still don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to technical expertise and, especially, design talent and ability, is lost on them.

Concurrent with all that, it somehow became cool to be a designer. Way too many people without the basic abilities enrolled in small for-profit design programs that began pumping out less-than-qualified graduates into a field where there just weren’t enough jobs to go around. They were hired by naive clients for increasingly lower wages as the laws of supply and demand kicked in and, well, it got us where we are today.

I think it requires a different viewpoint to make it in this field than it did a couple of decades ago. I think it’s still doable if it’s approached right. For example, if a designer also has great marketing and people skills and wants to set up his or her own company, it’s still doable. If a designer knows the right people and is very talented, it’s still possible to get work from larger, more savvy companies that appreciate and need original, high-quality work. If a designer wants to start out at $16 per hour at an agency or in-house situation and work one’s way up the ladder, a good living can still be made. It’s a lot harder than it once was, though.

As for web, app and other UI/UX skills, yeah, it helps to know those things. Hardly any clients I work with only want print. There’s always some sort of online component to it all. You might want to study up on the basics of how websites and servers work while studying HTML/CSS and familiarizing yourself with how JavaScript and PHP are used. After that, I might suggest building a few practice website using WordPress, then working your way into modifying the templates and, well, just figuring it all out.

Honestly, though, some of the online build-your-own-website sites are heading this whole thing in the direction print has gone — making it easy to create one’s own basic website with little technical knowledge. And also similar to print, the whole UI/UX thing is shifting from smalltime website design to the higher-end clients who need specialized sites with custom scripting and programming. Even so, the whole online thing is still a growth field for design (at least for now), whereas print really isn’t except in a few specialized digital print niches.

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Printing was the fastest growing industry in Florida last year.

What I meant is that print graphic design isn’t a growth area. Printed materials are as popular and needed as ever, but the field is hugely oversaturated with designers. Beginning wages here in Utah for print designers, I’ve noticed, are around $15–$17 per hour and have been declining for, probably, 20 years. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I certainly agree with that. Good design jobs are hard to find.

It would be really hard to get a Print Only job here in the Metro Boston area unless you were totally at the top of a totally niche part of the environmental/experiential arena. Most want a jack-of-all-trades at $35K per year in a state where you cannot live on less than $55K per year (and certainly not raise a family on that.)
A two bedroom house way out beyond the “suburbs” of Boston will still set you back $300K-plus. Not doable. Certainly not with any kind of commute.

I lived in Boston for 5 years. 1 year in the theater district. 1 year in Brighton, 3 years in Brookline. My house at 46 Francis Street (right across from the H Emergency entrance) was set on fire by an escaped mental patient the night before my graduation ceremony from Art Institute of Boston (now part of Lesley U).

I’ve been doing print and web for 22 years. I recently got rid of all web development and support to focus on branding, publication design and accessibility.

There seems to be a shortage of really good publication designers. That doesn’t have to mean print. It could mean print and/or it could mean a digital file (PDF, EPUB, etc.)

There also seem to be a ton of designers who are trying to do everything, and there are so few (it seems) who are doing anything with strategy.

There are even fewer designers who know about accessibility.

You’re seeing a very different landscape than from where I’m at. I got my MFA in publication design, and worked in publishing (newspapers, magazines and books) for about 18 years before being slowly and reluctantly pulled into website UI/UX and development, which I’ve never really enjoyed.

Every now and again, a one-time publication of some kind shows up, but it’s a rarity. Potential projects along those lines that I’ve looked into just haven’t paid enough to make it worth doing. Maybe you have a secret formula. However you’re doing it, I’m envious. :wink:

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Oh, a colleague and I get a lot of publication work, some text-heavy annual publications.

I have a very efficient process for ones I’ve worked on before, so it’s profitable. However, for one client, I know my rates are more than other designers. But others aren’t paying the attention to detail that I am, I’ve been told.

I recently had a client contact me after taking their publications in house last year and not getting the quality they wanted. They have not only 3, but 4, now that they want help with. I’ll not only be helping with those but with consulting about how to help them accomplish their goals with each one (strategy).

I may do a paid audit on one of the pubs next year to help make it more reader-friendly. I mean, the 200-some-page PDF I looked at definitely did not have enough gutter for the perfect binding for that large page count. I brought that up, and said I bet they were having to forcefully hold open the book to read all the text, which they verified was the case.

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Thanks for your response. Can you elaborate on what you mean by strategy? “…and there are so few (it seems) who are doing anything with strategy.” Probably seems obvious but I think it could mean a lot of different things…

I can only speak for myself, but here’s my view on what Colleen referred to.

Most graphic design is done in the service of something — achieving objectives of some kind for a client. Those objectives, for example, might be to sell a product, enhance the reputation of a company, garner positive public attention, aid in clarity, enhance accessibility, etc.

Almost all good design is conceived and implemented in ways that help accomplish the objectives driving the projects. This requires developing the strategies necessary to do so. Design not solidly based upon underlying strategic thinking is often not much more than an exercise in making something look pretty.

In my opinion, too few design schools stress critical, strategic thinking, and way too many designers fail to make it a top-level concern in their work.


To add to what @Just-B said, it’s the “why” behind choosing certain colors or typefaces, why you designed in a certain style, etc. All of that may help a client get more sales, stand out from competitors, etc. It’s the research in figuring this out before ever designing anything.

I agree wholeheartedly. Customers don’t shop designers for a style. They just assume anything they think of can be done by any designer. This problem compounds itself when working in illustration. I don’t know how many times I had to explain to people I am not a cartoonist and I don’t do caricature.

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Yes, so many designers feel they need to be everything to everyone (i’ve thought this way in the past), because clients expect it. But why not turn the tables? Just because they expect it doesn’t mean it’s good for them.

So let’s educate clients why that’s not a good idea. Then we can really own what we’re awesome at and refer out what we’re not. Then we can become specialists in that area(s) and charge more.

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