9-5 design

We all love flashy illustrations but for many of us, the day job means humdrum briefs and admin tasks. Darren Smith clocks in and finds there's more creativity in 9-5 design than meets the eye...

Flick through the pages of this magazine and you'll see plenty of lush illustration, high profile clients and 'gosh-wow' fancy graphics. We all like this sort of artwork. It's exciting and inspiring. It's true 'cutting edge' stuff courtesy of the graphic design world.

What you won't see is the hours of effort that went into producing these pages. The work involved in collating those arty images and putting them together. The production team that checked the colour separations, set all the classified ads and processed the PDFs for the printers. But without this essential work, you wouldn't have a copy of CA in your hands right now.

At any one time there's a huge number of designers toiling to produce the stuff that we come to take for granted - fiddly, involving tasks that require a certain kind of expertise. Mac operator, telephone directory layout artist, NHS leaflet designer, magazine production assistant - they're all examples.

Saba Shariat is one such assistant - artworking for a portfolio of magazines every week. It's a complicated and difficult task.

"I spend most of my time setting adverts, bringing the sections of a magazine together and outsourcing to printers," she says.

Is it interesting? "Absolutely not!" she laughs. "It's pretty boring most of the time. But it is important to make sure the pages have a good flow for the reader, and that they look as cohesive as possible. It's a technical challenge, and it needs to be done just right."

Too true. Putting a magazine together is pretty complex, and production is often the lynchpin of the magazine, drawing all the different elements together to create the finished product. But 9-5 designers like Saba rarely get the respect or recognition they deserve.

"The sales team don't really appreciate what we do," admits Saba. "They just want to hit their targets. But the editorial team don't completely understand what we do either. As long as their 'vision' is printed correctly, they don't really sweat over the details." As a result, working in production is an often overlooked and under-appreciated part of creating a magazine. Saba often feels ignored by the design community too. "You don't often read or hear about the sexy side of production in design magazines," she laughs, "probably because there isn't one! But this is my first major role in the industry, and it's hard to prove you have other skills. I worked as an illustrator in Taiwan but it doesn't seem to count for much.

"You get this 'oh, she's a hard worker, but not too creative' vibe from people, and I worry that it's stalling my career."

First-time blues
It's a common theme for many first-time designers - you're expected to take the jobs nobody else wants to do. Ian Naylor, now a freelance illustrator, winces at the memory of his first creative job. "I went to work in London for a company who contracted technical documentation to BP and ESSO. I spent most of my time drawing diagrams of subsea hydraulic systems for tender documents. We used to ink these in and then stick typed annotation on to the artworks. Good grief, it was dull!"

But tough roles can't always be given to first-timers. There's a high demand for skilled and experienced artworkers, web developers and programmers. And while the creative satisfaction levels aren't very high, the pay is.

Sophie Jackson, a designer with Incisive Media, admits her role isn't the creative dream she wanted, but the pay - and the people she works with - make up for it.

"I wanted to get away from the financial pressure that was on the agency I was working for," she says, "and I wanted a new challenge.

"In my first job I was basically handling accounts and producing artwork alone, catering for a regular client base of 20 or so companies. After a while working alone, it took its toll and I wanted to feel a bit more part of the design world, so I moved to London.'

Keep the creative fires burning
This 'nuts and bolts' area of design is something of a baptism of fire. To succeed in the design industry you need to put in a lot of tough, draining and dull hours of grassroots design work. But if you push yourself to work harder and continue to find inspiration wherever you can, you'll move on to bigger and better things. Easier said than done.

"It's hard to maintain that level of enthusiasm that pushes you to create new work," agrees Saba. "It's so easy to get distracted by office politics, pre-payday blues, all those little things that sap the creativity out of you.

"After putting out the fires on deadline day, I don't usually tend to feel the urge to rush home and knock out some portfolio work."

Sophie also struggles. "I do freelance illustration projects after work," she says, "but not as much as I'd like. It's always my intention to do more but the working day seems to stomp on my creative inspiration in the evenings! Either that or the horrible commute!"

Al Heighton, a freelance illustrator, supplements his income with a part-time 9-5 job. "Since late 2005 I've done some part-time tutoring at the University of Salford with third years, running the Applied Visual Practice module. It's not a creative role, but I still feel part of the design world when I'm doing it, and it helps with the bills.'

So how do you keep those creative juices flowing? Whether it's climbing the corporate ladder, expressing your creativity in an outside interest (such as a band or a fanzine), or simply striving to perfect your skills, it's vital for every designer to feel they have a sense of purpose. It's this drive that sets us apart from other industries - the need to be creative.

For Ian Naylor, this need helped him to get into freelance. "I wanted to do more exciting projects," he says. "I took on airbrush illustration from a contact in Preston and most weekends I would hightail up North, spend the weekend doing his commissions, then travel back to the day job in London. The travel was horrible but I loved the work. I knew that once my 'porridge' was done in London, I was still determined to become a full-time illustrator."

Al always tries to make more time for personal work - fitting in sketching time when saner people are resting. "My day usually starts at 4.30am," he says. "I can't beat that feeling that the world is asleep, and I'm enjoying my first coffee while resolving an illustration for a client. Early morning is my most creative time."

We all dream of the cushy design jobs, be it illustrating for Nike or designing a cool new motif for MTV. It's important to have aspirations, especially if your day job isn't a hotbed of creativity. But remember the reason you're so valuable in the first place - by doing the jobs that need doing as well as possible.

"It's a tough business," warns Ian. "You need dedication, inspiration and a lot of luck! But no matter what you do, set high standards. If you do a mediocre job because you're bored or frustrated, your boss isn't likely to appreciate your talents. But if you do the best possible job, then maybe someone else will."

Thomas Edison said that genius is five per cent inspiration and 95 per cent perspiration. Yet, we don't always give that unseen majority the recognition they deserve for taking on the thankless tasks and injecting the finished products with skill, commitment and creative flair. A toast, then: to the 9-5ers.