What it’s really like graduating from college with a degree in “Art.”

 

As a recent graduate from Virginia Tech with a degree in Art, concentration Visual Communication Design, I feel compelled to let the world know what it’s actually like graduating from college with an art degree in the year 2015.

 

Starving Artist.

 

If you’re a creative like me, or are close with one, I’m sure you’ve heard it all. You may have even caught yourself saying it. Does the phrase, “starving artist” sound familiar? Have you been asked what you actually do or what you’re going to do when you graduate? Oh wait, they already know that. You just make things pretty. Have you cringed at overhearing a marketing student declare they plan to learn Illustrator and web design in ONE day? Have you been asked to design a logo for…. $20?

 

One day, standing on the stage as an outstanding senior at your own graduation, the next, jobless and living back at home, wondering, "what did I do wrong?"

 

As College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ 2015 Outstanding Senior, I was asked to sit on the stage at my own graduation.

 

Through my own personal experiences, I still find that art and design is still a hugely undervalued profession. Because I have been asked to design a logo for $20. And if it’s not undervalued, then the time it takes to complete the desired project is severely underestimated. The thing about good design is that when it’s really, truly successful, it’s almost silent.

 

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

 

The Macchiato Effect.

 

And when it’s silent, people don’t realize that their emotions, their immediate reaction to the content that is being served to them, is a result of the design of the content, not just the content itself. So they will pay an extra $2 for that magnificent looking spiced caramel macchiato, but gawk at the freelance designer that wants to charge them $1000 for a new logo for their small business. But consider this: if they pay more up front for that new logo, but end up getting double the business as a result of the good design, that $1000 now seems well worth the investment.

 

Update: Just for clarity I want to say that $1000 was just a blind example for the sake of my argument. Logo cost depends entirely on the size of the client, experience of the designer, complexity of the project, and much more. 

 

I never really considered working for a big design agency post-graduation. A lot of my colleagues did, and the good news is, they are by and large doing great. But for someone like me, looking for a small quirky design studio, a nonprofit, or full time freelance work, the opportunities to make a living wage no longer look quite as optimistic. And it’s not because I’m a worse designer, less motivated, or would have a more leisurely work-life. I would actually be far more motivated to work for an organization I am passionate about, and would work harder as a result. So what is it, then?

 

I think it depends on where you look. Unfortunately for a small design studio, the possibility of them just not having enough money to pay you more is actually realistic. Not one, but two of the small studios I interviewed at during and post-graduation ended up having to tell me that while they loved my work and would love to have me, they “just didn’t have the money right now” to hire me. In the eyes of someone new to this world, it seemed tragic that these wonderful, passionate designers couldn’t expand their businesses, even in their success, because it is just too expensive for them to do so.

 

But let’s get back to that caramel macchiato. Nonprofits and individuals looking to hire freelancers fall into this trap more often than not, at least in my small realm of experience. And I think others see this too. It is the traditional format of a nonprofit to spend very little on this dirty word, “overhead.” Overhead is any spending that is not going directly to the cause, such as administrative or fundraising costs. This concept doesn’t seem so bad, right? Less money spent on administration and fundraising means more money going towards the cause, right? But then think about that overhead as that $1000 spent on a logo. If spending a little bit more on overhead to fundraise, to promote, and to have good powerful design allows that nonprofit to double the money they raise that year, then they are still raising as much if not more money for the cause, even with a higher percentage of their spending going to overhead. I encourage you to watch this Ted Talk by activist, entrepreneur, and founder of Charity Defense Council, Dan Pallotta, on overhead and the way we think about charity spending.

 

The macchiato effect is perhaps most strong in individuals. That $20 I was asked to do a logo for? I was asked by an individual. A student. While I know firsthand the struggles of being a poor college student, I also think this goes deeper than that. Let’s go all the way back to the thought that oh, designers just make things pretty. It may be well and true that we make your shop logo look prettier, but it is so much more than that. It’s about sending a powerful message. And developing a powerful, meaningful message takes time, skill, and a lot of hard work. Think about how many people are going to see that logo, that business card. It is profoundly important to how you or your business is seen by others, and you don’t even know it. Not all design is good design. So just because you can get a logo for $50 elsewhere, doesn’t mean that you’re going to get the same positive effect from the design. By 2015, we’ve become accustomed to looking for the cheapest, the fastest, and the easiest. Heck, there are massively popular websites out there in which clients can host a “contest” for designers to make their logo. It’s quick, they get tons of logos to choose from, and it’s relatively cheap. But is it really fair to ask for all this great work from designers at the mere chance for them to win? Would you work for free? I’m going to propose that you might not really be getting the highest quality of product here. You might get lucky. You might not. But you are seriously undermining the talent and hard work of a lot of designers.

 

Virginia Tech's School of Visual Art's Visual Communication Design class of 2015. And yes, we made pantone caps.

 

You Sure You Want to Know What it’s Like?

 

So what is it like graduating from college with an art degree? It’s hard. For me it means a lot of doing everything I love: working for nonprofits, selling my arts and crafts and design, and working with a lot of good friends. Unfortunately it also means a lot of selling myself short of what I deserve. Am I not charging enough because I know they can’t afford it or because I know they they think they can’t afford it or that it’s not worth that price? I’d lean towards the latter. And I don’t blame them, and I know I will continue to do this because it’s what I love to do. But if the world as a whole can learn a greater respect for what we do as artists, perhaps change will be on the horizon.

 

Keep dreaming.
-B