These days with the rise of technology the word design, and as a result the role of the designer has become harder to define. To shed some light on what this shift means for designers I sat down with my friend and coworker Jason for this interview.
Garrio Harrison: Lets start at the beginning. How did you get started?
Jason Lehmkuhle: When my dream of playing shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals met an end during my JV baseball tryouts, I turned to art and running (the long distance variety). It’s an odd combination, but it’s what I went on to college (Drake University) to do, and, really, what I did for the better part of 20 years. While studying art at Drake it didn’t take me long to decide to pursue graphic design. I genuinely loved my design classes. When I wasn’t at a track meet, I spent most of my time hanging out in the design studio. Out of college, I interned and then worked full time at Kragie Newell (now the Integer Group) in Des Moines.
After almost 2 years there, I was invited to come to Minneapolis to be part of an Olympic development distance running group. There’s relatively few opportunities in secondary Olympic sports like marathon running to be part of an organized team, so I jumped at the chance. For 10 years, give or take, I trained and raced and lived and loved, all the while doing freelance work. I had the chance to work on all kinds of projects. I specialized in large jobs for very small clients and very small jobs for big clients. Eventually I developed a good relationship with handful of small businesses who regularly challenged me with new projects that I learned a ton from.
A few years ago, I decided that my best competitive running had already happened. After listening to most of my friends, family and teammates make the same “it’s been a good run” joke with the same bemused grin, I started back looking for a full time gig. I was lucky enough to get a chance to work at MEG starting in March of 2012.
Garrio: What is your current role and day to day responsibilities?
Jason: I’m an Art Director at Marketing Edge Group. We have a full-service creative department, so I get to wear a bunch of different hats in any given week. We’re all utility infielders of sorts. I’m recalling my schedule from a couple of days ago, because I thought it was a good example of my day to day at MEG. I started the morning retouching some photos for a tradeshow panel, then moved to programming an email, then laid out a sell sheet and finished the day animating a web-video. In spite of the grab bag nature of the position, my design interest and strength probably lies more in digital media, and I have more responsibilities in handling these projects. I do some front-end development, primarily email, and, as I mentioned, I’m doing more and more animation in the form short videos.
Garrio: Do you enjoy the diversity in your day-to-day work?
Jason: I don’t mind switching gears at all, and I think my comfort with it is a direct result of all of the freelance work I did with small business clients. Many of them had a very broad and sometimes misguided idea of what a ‘graphic designer’ traditionally does. Rather than attempt to clarify why I wasn’t qualified to do what they needed, my standard operating procedure was to just agree to do the project and then figure out what I didn’t know once I got started. Occasionally this got me in trouble, but it was where I learned to play a variety of roles, sometimes on the same day.
In fact, I don’t think I realized what a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ I had become until I started job hunting again, 10 years after my last stint in an agency. It appeared to me that the industry had clearly gotten more specialized. It was eye-opening seeing the potpourri of job titles for perspective positions: UI designer, Interaction Designer, Digital Designer, Interactive Art Director, Web Designer, Designer, Graphic Artist, etc… My own confusion was compounded when the descriptions for these jobs didn’t always seem to line up with the title in my mind.
The position at MEG is a good fit, because I’m asked to do a variety of things, and it’s helped me figure out more clearly what I’m good at, who I am as a designer, and what I want to learn.
Garrio: Do you think there’s too much specialization in design careers today?
I don’t in fact. The specificity of knowledge that is required for complicated interactive projects today demands that there be specialists. It’s just harder today to call yourself a ‘designer’ and know what that means.
A couple of months back I was trading stories with a friend after work about some of the odd jobs we’d undertaken as designers. We both agreed that even knowledgeable industry folks can struggle to write a good job description summing up what they need their next designer to do.
Somewhere between beers, I decided that this problem had a solution in the form of an infographic. My concept was to create a matrix divided into four axis that represented what are generally opposing design focuses: artist vs. developer and print vs. digital. A given designer’s position on the grid would follow their relative strength in these categories. I’ve included a little animated graphic. I have also completely geeked out and put together a little interactive example that you can see here. My thought was that this might help pinpoint what kind of designer an individual is. I also thought it was helpful as a bit of career reflection for myself, a means to trace where I am and where I want to go.
Garrio: What advice would you give someone interested in a design focused career in today’s environment?
Jason: After giving the standard disclaimer about how you should never act upon advice given by me… I’d say learn a little about everything or learn a lot about one very specific thing or, hell, learn a lot about everything. Be passionate, but don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s not cancer research or nanotechnology.