A graphic designer can lead teams, departments, or her own company. Nothing about being a graphic designer should preclude her from a leadership role, any more than a great busboy should be excluded from managing his own restaurant. A film director will find knowledge of sound staging, acting, or lighting helpful in creating his or her film.
But … is lighting the same as directing? Is graphic design marketing?
I recently fleshed out some differences in approach between Marketing and Communications, and how a communications model may better serve nonprofit organizations. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll make no such distinction. Current calls for both Marketing and Communications Managers and Directors tend to favor applicants who are, in fact, graphic design experts.
If I were hiring a restaurant manager, an applicant’s experience as a chef, bartender, or waiter would certainly go in the plus column. It means that this prospective manager can speak the language of his or her team. But it seems foolish to require, above all else, that he or she be a master chef. These are different skill-sets, and I’ll be more interested in prior experience in restaurant management, team leadership, payroll, purchasing, ethics, management philosophy and so on.
In many calls for Marketing/Communications Directors and Managers, I find much less emphasis on background in market research, planning, implementation, event coordination, sales, negotiation, surveys, qualitative coding into empirical terms, analysis, team management, integration of multiple media into a single campaign, and so on. Some of these ingredients are there, but the most common, the most persistent, is expertise in Graphic Design. And by that, they mean InDesign.
And therein lays the rub, but also maybe the cause. For someone who has managed teams or excelled in sales, recruitment, and negotiation, InDesign is somewhat arcane knowledge. Even for someone who has developed skills in its analog, Dreamweaver within the same suite of products – the language itself is archaic. Web designers know “line height.” Graphic designers say “leading” – an archaic term with a history closer to the first Guttenberg printing press than to modern technology. Few people have the time to learn this software inside and out and so, hey, let’s make sure our Communications Director is an expert in this software – it’s a two in one!
And a mistake, if that’s the primary focus.
The emphasis is too much on the technology. Does being an expert in MS Word make you a better writer? What if you can type 120 words per minute rather than 60 – does that make you a better novelist? Was Shakespeare brilliant because he knew best how to dip a quill in ink? Everyone in the business makes fun of MS Publisher, but I’d rather hire a gifted designer with great ideas who had, until this point, worked in Publisher and didn’t know the first thing about InDesign than an InDesign expert with few ideas. Skills with certain tools can be learned, the creativity cannot.
Again, I wouldn’t dismiss an InDesign expert from a leadership role any more than I would dismiss someone skilled in ad copy from that same role. Each experience goes in the bonus column. But if either expertise in ad copy or graphic design is the primary credential required to serve as Communications or Marketing Director, it tells me something about the organization. It tells me that the leaderships sees marketing as purchasing and placing nice-looking ads, probably in the same newspapers and online venues as they have for years. That is, they are consumers, not marketers, and unlikely ready for change.