Becoming a Communication Designer

I recently received an email from someone asking how they too could become a Communication Designer like me…

The short answer: decide one day that you are one and see if anyone buys it ;-)

The longer answer may be interesting for those of you on a similar path of discovery.

[Note: this is an slightly-edited excerpt from the original email I sent]

Hi [Reader’s Name Withheld],

Thanks for writing! The term “communication designer” is the latest in a long line of self-applied labels, as I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how to bridge my interests and marketable skills with prospective clients. I arrived here by a tangled process of exploration, observation, and elimination. It’s been a long progression:

  1. When I was in junior high school, I liked to write stories and draw pictures of spaceships. English was my best subject, and writing came fairly naturally to me.

  2. By high school, I wanting to make computer games, and had taught myself how to program.

  3. I went to engineering school to learn how to build computers, figuring that was the big gap in my knowledge. The computers of 1986 were still very primitive in their graphics capabilities, so I figured I needed to know how to build better ones.

  4. By the time I graduated, computers had advanced significantly and the need to build was no longer there. I thought I needed some kind of career, and knew that engineering wasn’t it. So I applied to engineering grad school, with more of an emphasis on doing user interface work; this was a pretty new field back then.

  5. In grad school, I developed improved intellectual rigor, but not of a type that was compatible with the program I was in (Electrical Engineering). However, I did learn more about Human Computer Interaction and audited a course in it.

  6. After graduating from grad school with a barely-deserved MSEE., I had the epiphany that I had never wanted to be an Electrical Engineer. I wanted to make games. The big clue: throughout my entire college experience, I had made artwork for games on the side, and had even paid my rent with this during grad school.

  7. I applied to another grad program down the street, this time for a Computer Graphics Design program in their School of Fine Arts. They waived the studio artwork requirement for me and let me in the program to see what would happen. I was terrified because I had no idea what an artist was, and felt that I was an outsider. But I slowly loosened up, just a tiny bit.

  8. After graduating with an MFA in Computer Graphics Design, I joined up with a friend of mine who was starting his first video game company. We worked for 2.5 years, working with a couple of well-known game companies, before closing shop and going different paths when the company became unsustainable.

  9. I moved to another well-known game company in Florida, entered middle management, and found that making games in that environment went strongly against my own emerging moral core. I decided to leave the industry, completely clueless as to what I would do next. I was depressed for the next two years, my faith in destiny shattered.

  10. Fortunately, the skills I had made it easy to transition to designing for the Internet and corporate multimedia, which paid better and was not as technically demanding. I freelanced and worked part-time for a couple of web design companies, in hybrid roles like “new media designer” and “creative technical director”.

  11. I discovered I liked talking with clients because I could ask questions that got to the heart of what they wanted to do. My writing skills became more important, as this helped me explain technical mumbo-jumbo to clients in their own language, which helped smooth things out. I also found that writing was how I did my thinking. I also realized that my thinking was one of my core differentiators.

  12. I was faced with a crisis of identity: was I a designer or a developer? I had used the label “digital media designer” and “new media designer”, to distinguish myself from pure visual designers without the programming capability. I also didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as a developer, because I cared about how things looked. Above all, I wanted things to make SENSE.

  13. I started blogging after leaving the last company I worked at, when I developed a severe allergy to marketing after a good friend there passed away from cancer. The blog was a way of having a website (essential for freelancing) that wasn’t the usual “hire me” or “design agency” type of presentation. I knew that my writing was the core of something unique to me. So, I wrote about what caught my interest, and hoped to see the patterns later. No one was reading anyway, right?

  14. Blogging took off. I discovered that this writing was a powerful engine for breaking the ice with new clients and new friends, who stumbled upon me via incoming links. But I still didn’t know how to describe what I did, and this was important in selling myself to prospective clients so I could, like, not starve to death.

  15. After writing for a while, the patterns I saw in my blogging reminded me of an investigator or private detective, and I coined the term investigative designer to try to stand out and stake my own claim. This intrigues certain strategic types, but it confuses people who are looking for “someone who can make something”.

  16. There is also another concept that I have about the importance of story, narrative, and motivation. This is, surprisingly, related to my interest in computer game design, not writing. I see storytelling as the backbone of the kind of design I want to do. What does the design SAY? It depends on context, the background of the audience, cultural associations, and so forth. I find design that doesn’t say anything to be lame, but am unable to really find anything so I coin the term storytelling by design and write a few blog posts on this.

  17. I realize that compared to the general design population, I can credibly claim that I am a graphic designer, which is a term more people seem to understand. However, I also know that my design style is more toward information or explanation, not ornamentation or style. So I also use the term information graphic designer.

  18. One day, I am looking up what a “Copy Editor” does on Wikipedia, and start looking up the different roles. I stumble upon the term Communication Designer, and upon reading the description, realize that this is the closest existing label to what I do. Because I’m not driven by design I make or code I write; I’m driven by the desire for people to really understand what is being communicated to them, so they can react according to their own nature.

  19. After working on a couple of game development projects for clients, I realize quite belatedly that the thing I liked about computer games in the first places was storytelling. This reinforces my understanding of what I do, and the “communication designer” moniker still seems apropos.

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p>So, the way I became a communication designer, if it’s not clear, was by discovering that was what is most important to me through plenty of hindsight. I like ideas, and I like to see people empowered by information. I also happen to have a good eye and have taught myself something of personal motivation and desire. I understand the nuance of wording, and the power of storytelling. I like knowing how to create with a variety of media in service of telling the story, and I am delighted when I see sparks of understanding ignite excitement in a person I’m interacting with.

Once I understood that it was the search for message that drove my interest in skills, rather than the skills themselves dictating what I did for work, the correct choice of label made a lot of sense to me. It felt right.

As for how to get started on this path, you can skip the 20 years of mucking around and start specializing on communicating the message. Heck, any message! What I can’t help you with is how to get a job as a communication designer. That’s because I’m not looking for a job working for someone else. Instead, I’m looking for an identity to serve as the foundation for a freelance business. I would continue to reach out to people who seem to be doing what you’d like to do…who knows, they may respond.

As for resources:

  • I’d start by reading the Wikipedia definition of the term, and seeing the list of skills that are considered part of this multi-disciplinary field.
  • The creative side of advertising is interesting; talk to art directors and creative directors and see what they think. The advertising magazines sometimes have interviews, but they are often shallow.
  • It doesn’t hurt to look at graphic design either; Marty Neumeier was one of my inspirations through his publishing of the now-defunct Critique Magazine.
  • Director commentary on DVDs are often a goldmine of insight.
  • Motion graphic is an interesting hybrid of design and narrative; start with Imaginary Forces’s reel and then start exploring Vimeo for reels from other freelancers.
  • Concept designers and Experience designers do related work.
  • Investigating what the Industrial Design firms do may be fruitful as well.
  • Ask “Who out there is creating MEANING? Who out there is defining THEIR OWN CULTURE?” Who is doing something that goes mere style and surface appearance?

I’m not sure if this is helpful in the way you expect, but if you are interested in communication design you might see it as a challenge. What is it that you can draw from this, and how can you re-express it? A communication designer (as I prefer to understand it) is a kind of communication sorcerer, able to draw from life and all forms of media to express an idea exactingly across multiple levels of consciousness. But that’s just my opinion.

  • Dave