The field of graphic design has historically been associated with youth, fresh perspectives, and breaking with conventions.
But there are growing concerns that ageism (discrimination against older workers) may be prevalent in the industry.
Here is a deeper look at a few key issues surrounding ageism in graphic design:
Perceptions of Age in the Industry
- Graphic design is often portrayed and perceived as a "young person's game" that values the new, hip, and innovative. There are common assumptions that older designers become stuck in their ways, less able to adapt to new styles and technologies, or are out-of-touch with current trends.
- Advertising and design agencies are high-pressure environments focused on creative output, fast turnarounds, and frequent all-nighters. Younger designers are often more willing to work long, erratic hours for lower pay, making them appealing hires. Older designers may be perceived as less flexible or energetic.
- There tends to be inherent biases that older designers lack up-to-date technical skills compared to recent graduates. Their portfolios may appear dated or reflect techniques no longer in vogue. Younger designers are assumed to be more likely to know the latest software and design tools.
- Ageism intersects with issues of diversity and representation. The graphic design field has struggled with lack of racial, gender, and ethnic diversity. Older designers from marginalized backgrounds may face additional barriers.
Impacts on Older Graphic Designers
- Older designers often report struggling to find full-time or leadership roles despite extensive experience. They are passed over for promotions, senior positions, or management roles in favor of younger candidates.
- Rapidly changing technology has significantly impacted the relevance of their existing skills. Adapting to new software, workflows, design tools, and production pipelines can be extremely challenging for seasoned creatives.
- Many experienced designers end up having to freelance, consult, or transition to teaching rather than finding employment at agencies and studios. Their options become severely limited over time.
- There have been several high-profile age discrimination lawsuits that hint at the unconscious and systemic biases that make it difficult for older creatives to thrive. For example, in 2016 a group sued ad agency Wieden+Kennedy alleging ageism.
- Older designers may start to experience significant financial instability and lack of security if they cannot find steady agency work. Health insurance, retirement savings, and other benefits are tied to full-time employment.
Signs of Progress
- Some progressive agencies are starting to recognize the value of experience, institutional knowledge, and mentorship that older designers can provide. Mid-career creatives are being actively recruited.
- New roles like UX design that focus more on research, human-centered design, and strategic problem-solving play well to the strengths of seasoned designers. Age is seen as an asset.
- With Gen X now moving into the 50+ age range, people are staying creatively engaged longer. Some older designers are finding great success as independent consultants or within specialized design niches. Their expertise remains highly in-demand.
- Industry groups like AIGA are working to raise awareness around ageism and provide training on unconscious bias. For example, AIGA published an extensive Diversity & Inclusion Toolkit with strategies to combat age bias.
- Agency cultures are gradually shifting away from the idea of only young rockstar designers burning the midnight oil. More reasonable hours and work-life balance benefits all employees.
The Age of Well-Known Designers
- Many iconic graphic designers like Paul Rand and Saul Bass did some of their most famous work later in their careers.
- Paul Rand's logos for IBM, ABC, and UPS were all created when he was in his 50s and 60s in the 1970s-1980s. He worked into his 80s.
- Saul Bass was past 50 when he designed iconic logos and opening title sequences for films like Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, and Exodus in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
- David Carson's experimental grunge typography first appeared in his magazine Ray Gun when he was in his late 30s after a previous career as a surfer. His best known work was in his 40s.
- Many pioneering female graphic designers like Cipe Pineles and Lella Vignelli did not receive real recognition until later in life, as sexism impacted their early careers.
- Long creative careers are common in graphic design. Age and experience are often assets rather than limitations.
There are positive signs, but the graphic design field still has work to do in addressing ingrained perceptions of age.
And ensuring opportunities remain open to experienced designers.
Valuing multi-generational teams is key to evolving the industry.