Dealing with design burnout

Are you a designer dealing with creative burnout? I wrote this for my buddy Josh, but it probably applies to you too.

design burnout

Hey, designer buddy, I understand. You’re burned out. That awesome design job you used to have has turned into a daily grind, and you just can’t find that creative spark at work anymore. It’s design burnout. And now you’re considering a career change because you think it’s the industry that’s at fault. I get it. I’ve been there, and so has every other designer who’s been working for any significant amount of time.

So what do you do about it? Do you change careers?

Fuck no. As designers, we’re creative problem solvers, and burnout is a creative problem. Approach it like one and start solving it; first figure out why you’re experiencing design burnout.

Some possible reasons:

  • You have awful bosses with no taste
  • You have a creative director who keeps your hands tied behind your back
  • You have shitty clients pushing shitty products
  • You work in-house at an uninspiring company with no design culture
  • You’re always being rushed and aren’t given time to do quality work
  • You have account execs who give you nonsensical prescriptive changes relayed from the client
  • You have clients who want you to copy other designs they like
  • You’re designing the same things over and over and over
  • You have copywriters who send you 25 word headlines and deliver 2x body copy length
  • Your in-house brand guidelines leave no room for creativity
  • You have brand police who shoot down everything you do
  • You have to make the logo bigger. Again.

There are tons of reasons for it, but I’ve always found design burnout comes from not having the creative opportunities you want at work (and for the record, this does not dramatically change when you work for yourself.) Once you understand that, you can start looking for solutions.

Possible solutions:

Quit your job and start your own business.
This might work, but odds are you’ll starve while continuing to do creatively uninspiring work.

Undermine your creative director and take their job.
This might work, but odds are if you can pull it off, you probably work in a shitty company with a shitty culture, so things probably won’t get much better. Also, it’d make you an asshole.

Find better clients.
HAHAHA this is a joke. It doesn’t actually work unless you’re the one responsible for finding new clients in the first place.

Educate your clients.
Okay, this actually works. At least, most of the time. Unfortunately, you have to be in a high ranking position to pull it off, you need time to do it properly, and the work culture has to allow you to try it. Also, you probably need to be involved in the sales process. Did I say involved? Sorry, I meant lead the sales process.

Threaten your AEs with x-acto knives.
I’ve tried this, it works for about 15 minutes. Then you get sent to HR.

Convince the higher ups that it’s time to refresh the brand guidelines, and that you’re the perfect person to do it.
If you can do pull this off, be sure to leave enough room for creative expression. This will work for a while, but eventually you’ll realize you’ve still painted yourself into a corner.

Be a sneaky bastard.
Design layouts with tiny logos so that when you’re forced make it bigger, it’ll be close to the correct size. Unfortunately, you’ll be an asshole if you do shit like this.

Work really fast and create two versions of everything.
Design one version the way they ask for it, and one they way you want. Unfortunately, they’ll choose the one they want 95% of the time.

Fuck. None of those solutions are realistic. The educating clients one is close, but you may not have that kind of power it takes to pull it off. So now what?

Go back at the problem: “Design burnout comes from not having the creative opportunities you want at work.”

If the problem is where you work, then change where you work. I mean, you work there as a choice, right? You’re not actually chained to the desk. Go find a different job, one that gives you the creative freedom you need. Of course, that’ll probably entail a massive pay cut, but hey, so would a career change.

But then there’s that nagging imposter syndrome we all deal with. The one where we look at our own portfolio and realize, “shit, I kind of suck” and think we can’t get a cool job with creative freedom because we’re not good enough. Because we don’t have good work in our book because we haven’t been given the opportunity to do good work.

So fix your book. Fix it doing side projects. Real, imaginary, doesn’t matter. Spend your nights and weekends doing unpaid work to create the kind of kick-ass portfolio full of the good work you know you’re capable of. Offer to do FREE freelance work for real clients in exchange for 100% creative control. Make your money at your day job and do FREE but creatively fulfilling work on the side to build a good portfolio.

But, what if where you work is pretty okay? It’s kinda cushy. Pays is decent. Has benefits. Pretty low-key, not a lot of stress. Gives you enough flexibility for family needs. Man, you’re probably not gonna find this somewhere else, definitely not at a place that’s creatively fulfilling.

In that case, stay there.

Stay there and do FREE freelance work not to build your portfolio, but to fill that creative hole in your heart. And keep working at the pretty-okay job.

Alternatively, find a medium-to-long-term side project you’re passionate about. Design an app from scratch. Design a website for a cause you deeply care about. Design logos for free to help people who could really use a great logo but can’t afford it. Make a YouTube channel about design. Make a design ‘zine. Design posters for a cause. Or just make some cool ass t-shirts. But keep working the pretty-okay day job.

The bottom line:

If your job sucks, find a better job.

If your job is okay but just not creatively fulfilling, feed your creative needs elsewhere. You don’t have to get it from your job, or even your career.

I wrote this for my buddy Josh, but it applies to any designer experiencing creative burnout. I did de-personalize this a bit since most people probably aren’t considering a “swimsuit yodeling” career.

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