An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a graphic designer.
Robin Mitchell Cranfield is an award-winning graphic designer, business owner, instructor, and dedicated parent. She's always been fascinated by children's books, which are now her primary professional focus. With so many things on the go at once, I'm taken aback by how calm and collected she is when we meet for our interview. But I shouldn't have been surprised, because managing stress is an everyday reality for Robin—as it is for most full-time designers.
"Design is really stressful and time-consuming," she tells me. "If you're going to do that much work, you should probably be doing it for something that you really care about."
How long have you been working as a graphic designer?
Since 2001. So what’s that, fourteen years? Something like that.
How did you first get into graphic design?
I wanted to go into Psychiatry, and I had an internship with an eating disorders clinic at Saint Paul’s. When I graduated high school, I took the year off and went to Italy and had no structure for the first time. I’d always had a very rigorous academic focus at school. I just kind of did nothing. I was really useless…. The only thing I really liked doing was craft stuff—like, if it was Christmas, I would make Christmas decorations. I thought, “I think I really like doing this.”
When I came back to Canada, I spent a year at UBC, kind of confused about what to do. I took Film Studies… and then I dropped out, because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had a friend who was an artist who was thinking about going to art school and she said, “Oh, you should do it!” I’d never even drawn anything… but I applied and got in.
I did a year of Foundations at Emily Carr, which is just very flaky: like, “Make a mask,” and stuff like that. The whole time I really wanted to get into the Graphic Design Program, which at the time was really hard to get into… But I was really determined, and really into type. I’d do projects with type (that were not that good). I went to submit my portfolio to them, and they let me in right away. It was because, in retrospect…they could see how interested I was in type. That’s actually pretty unusual: to take it on and do it.
Because my husband was involved in the arts, I got a few jobs doing small prints for art galleries, prints, things like that. I had a friend who was a bit older than me who took the summer off and said, “Do you want to do this catalogue for me?” So I did that, and that just kind of got me in the door.
So you really didn’t have a fixed intention going into the industry. A career in graphic design wasn’t a life-long dream for you?
Well, I guess I skipped this really important thing, which is that I was really obsessed with children’s books. I loved them, I collected them, I wanted to make them. So that was always a through line for me, and that is…now primarily what I do: children’s book design.
Would you say your story is pretty typical of the industry? Do a lot of people sort of fall into the career?
I think a lot of people go into design with kind of a vague idea of what they want to do. Like, “I like design,” and then…they get an opportunity.
Would you recommend entering the industry that way? By figuring it out on the fly?
The only problem with that is, it’s important to turn down opportunities that you don’t like. For example, I remember in school, there would be some people who would tailor all their projects to please their instructors. And to me, I thought that was kind of a mistake, because their portfolio, when they graduated, didn’t reflect what they really wanted to do.
I think it’s good to know what you really enjoy doing, because design is really stressful and time-consuming. I think it’s a really exhausting job, and there’s a really high rate of burnout and a lot of bitter people.
People working in design are bitter? Why is that?
If you’re at a gathering of designers, there’s a lot of complaining, feeling underappreciated, feeling like your clients didn’t take on your best ideas. Because it’s a creative job where you don’t have the final say. No matter how high you get as a designer,... you’re constantly needing to educate people.
It’s a creative job where you don’t have the final say. No matter how high you get as a designer,... you’re constantly needing to educate people.
I feel like, if you’re going to do that much work, you should probably be doing it for something that you really care about. Or, do it for something that you don’t care about at all and just accept that you’re like a workhorse—do it the best that you can, and then go home and relax. One of those two options. The people who I think have trouble in design are the people who are in the middle, the people who are killing themselves for projects they don’t really care about.
And who tends to really succeed in this industry?
I think people who thrive in graphic design are people who are fast at making decisions, so that they don’t spend a lot of time getting sucked into that kind of dawdling, and who have a certain amount of confidence, so that they’re able to accept criticism and make changes. A certain level of flexibility I think is really valuable. And being able to work with a group of people, being able to communicate clearly what you’re doing. If you’re doing beautiful work but you can’t explain what it’s doing or why it’s valuable, then your ideas tend to not be taken seriously. People who have a blend of abilities—you need to be visual, you need to be able to communicate clearly with words.
Would you recommend getting some sort of formal education in design? What kind of training do people typically need to enter the industry?
Yeah, I think it is necessary. There are a number of famous designers, like Paul Rand, who are known for being self-taught. But if you take a look at their practice, they’re insanely rigorous. They’re not only very hard-working within their discipline, but they’re also always seeking out some type of mentorship. I see a big difference in my students who go through a program like Emily Carr. I’m not especially dedicated to promoting Emily Carr, but I can see why people do that program. Where they are at the beginning, and where they are at the end, they understand the basics. People who don’t, even if their aesthetics are good, they make a lot of basic mistakes. I think it’d be difficult for them to get a good job.
What is it actually like to work as a designer? Do you do a lot of freelance work?
I don’t actually do that much freelance work anymore. I just completed a two year project where I was making this app. So that was a full-time job—it was a weird full-time job, but it was a full-time job. It was art directing, coordinating different teams, doing photoshoots, and then doing professional design.
Is that typical, to do a big, full-time project like that?
That was really weird. And to be so creatively in control. I’ve never had that happen before.
Could you walk me through a typical workday?
Okay. If you’re acting as a graphic designer and you’re within your own company, a typical day usually starts with, well, if you’re me, procrastinating for 40 minutes. What I would do is make a big checklist of all the things I need to get done, and then the usual: emailing and stuff like that.
Usually there’s one or two projects that you have to get designed—you’re sketching, getting prepared for a presentation. And then there may be some where you’re receiving changes, so you’re on your second or third draft, a copy editor’s given you notes or something. And then you might have a project at press, and that is the most complicated part, because you’ve got to troubleshoot for a wide variety of different things, you’ve got to have your ear out. So if the printer says something casually like, “Have you noticed that you just have a single hit of red ink?” you don’t wanna say, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine,” you want to say, “Why? What’s wrong with having a single hit of red ink?” You have to follow through on a lot of elements.
Usually for a project like that I’ll have kind of an internal checklist: “Did I remember to provide them all the information that they needed? Have I chosen the right foil?” It’s kind of like you’re babysitting something. If it’s being printed overseas it’s more stressful than if it’s being printed locally. Locally, you’ll be called before a press check, so you can kind of check in person at each stage as it goes through. If you’re printing internationally, maybe you’ll be getting an email at 11 at night. That’s probably my least favourite part of the process.
Every day is going to be a little bit different. Sometimes more focusing on production, sometimes more focusing on design. You spend a lot of time on paperwork—billing, various governmental stuff—and doing job planning: “How much money do I have for this job? How many pages can I get for this amount of money? What kind of paper can I use?,” all that kind of balancing. That takes a surprising amount of time, and it goes through the client. You walk the client through the design options, what the financial ramifications of those choices are, and then help them make decisions about that. That takes up more time. The design is like 5% of the time; it’s not very much—you have to do it fast.
The design is like 5% of the time; it’s not very much—you have to do it fast.
Would you describe graphic design as a social career?
I would say it’s pretty solitary, because you have to be pretty immersed in your work. Most people I know who run design businesses are one person, essentially. And that doesn’t mean they’re not successful; taking on that first employee (I’ve done it once) takes a lot of effort. You have to communicate to them, and basically a lot of people can’t be bothered to do that. So I find usually people either start a studio that’s a handful of people, and that’s their thing, or they just prefer to be a solitary person. Maybe it attracts a solitary type of person.
As for the social interactions that you do have throughout the day—with printers, clients, other designers, like you mentioned—what’s your experience of that work culture like?
Everyone’s really nice. My impression is there used to be more social aspects than now because there was more money. Paper companies would ask for you to come to breakfast and talks and stuff, and now that just doesn’t happen as much. But everybody that I talk to would always be incredibly nice, incredibly respectful. The printing press people would always be really friendly and helpful—I’ve never had a bad experience ever, actually, with anybody.
Everyone’s really nice. I’ve never had a bad experience ever, actually, with anybody.
Clients are usually more stressful, because they often are feeling stressed. Especially if it’s their first job or it’s personal in any way, they’re not sure what to ask for and they want to get the right thing. If you’ve ever asked anyone to do something creative for you, like design clothing or jewelry or something, it is stressful, because you’re like, “I know I want something good, but I don’t know how to tell you.” So that part is maybe a little bit less casual.
That said, you could go through a whole day and not really talk to that many people.
So are most designers relatively solitary by nature?
I’m not a social person. I’m pretty introverted; I’m happier one-on-one, or in small groups. But my friend Judith, who I did the app project with, she’s very social, and probably brings that into her practice more. First of all, I know she loves doing presentations, which I don’t really like doing that much. And sometimes, say, she would go hiking with a client or something. So I think you just bring your personality to your work.
What would you say is the most challenging thing about your career?
Honestly I’ve heard everybody say the same thing: it’s production. Because you get everything planned out, everything’s great, and then there’s always something that goes wrong. There’s always something that goes wrong. And it’s not within your control and you don’t know what it is that’s going to go wrong. Because the client’s paying a lot of money for printing—thousands and thousands of dollars—and there’s often some specific deadline, like a launch. So you’re trying to hit this mark of getting it delivered on time, but you also can’t skip over quality issues if there’s a quality issue that comes up. And, like I said, there are so many different things that could go wrong. It gives you kind of a nervousness; it makes you feel stressed. There are many designers who have either quit or temporarily walked away from just not wanting to deal with that specific aspect anymore. Because it’s very demoralizing. It’s like, “Ah, I tried really hard, but there was a hick-up on one page, or one of the images was soft, or they ran out of the paper that we’d specified.” There’s a million different things. And managing your client’s expectations if something goes wrong, just letting them know that this is the thing that went wrong.
There are so many different things that could go wrong. It gives you kind of a nervousness; it makes you feel stressed. There are many designers who have either quit or temporarily walked away from just not wanting to deal with that specific aspect anymore.
But I would say that, if anybody’s going into it, it’s definitely a good thing to know that that’s an issue. That for pretty much every project you’ve ever seen, there’s one thing in that project that the designer is like, “Arrrgh!” about—even sometimes for a very beautifully designed project. It’s just the worst feeling. I used to cry every single time I got things back from press. I would get them back, and then I would cry (though not in front of the client).
For pretty much every project you’ve ever seen, there’s one thing in that project that the designer is like, “Arrrgh!” about. It’s just the worst feeling. I used to cry every single time I got things back from press.
How do you deal with those moments?
What I had to learn was to actually just not speak to anybody for about 24 hours. If you’re naturally perfectionistic, you kind of want to admit your mistakes. The problem with that is that your client might actually not be upset at all. They might not even notice, or it might be fine, and then you’ve told them that there’s something wrong.
The example of that would be, for me, I did a book with a light blue cover and a laminate coat. Laminate has a bit of a yellow cast to it and actually acts like a magnifying glass. So it darkened the look of the cover…and yellowed it, so that it was basically an aqua-coloured cover. And I just remember freaking out, because it was a really important project to me. I was almost hysterically upset….I went off about it, and then it became this big thing. But in the meantime, after 24 hours had gone by, I started to like the colour better. So when we went to do the reprint, the client was ready to go to war with the printer. But I was like, “No, no. Let’s stick with it. I think it looks better.” (It actually won lots of awards; it’s a very successful book.) If I’d just kept quiet about it, I would have given myself time to see it calmly and clearly.
Having said that, not all incidents are fine like that. Sometimes there is just an actual mistake and you have to just live with it. A lot of designers never admit that they’ve made mistakes, which I think is really irritating… I mean, come on, you guys! Of course you have! There’s no way that you could get every single thing lined up and never have something go wrong.
So if a designer says they’ve never made a mistake, they’d have to be lying?
They’d have to be! Every time you go into production, there’s a mistake. You can’t control every single thing. When I’m thinking right now about the number of things that have gone wrong, it’s crazy! Things you’ve never heard of. [Laughs.] Like a truck tipping over, and all your paper gets ruined. You never know.
What do you like best about being a graphic designer?
For me, I get bored really easy. So my favourite thing for me is not always working on the same project. I get really immersed in one project, know a lot about it, try to reflect that visually, and then I’m done with it. That’s what I like. Other people, maybe they work for the same company for a long time. I can see the appeal of it, but I just think that after five years of the same thing, you’d get bored of it.
And what makes you good at what you do?
I care about it, I think.
Okay, no, wait. At the beginning, what made me good was that I cared about it. I can see that with students now, that the people who care about it keep doing it until they get it right. No one can make you do that.
But now, what I would say makes me good is that I don’t care as much. Because I feel like I’ve put in my ten thousand hours of typesetting and stuff. It doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, but if I put something together now, it’s at least going to be okay. And because maybe I’m older and because I’ve seen how many different ways I can make a project work, I’m much more flexible when people come to me with changes, notes. I don’t let it affect things the way that I would in my twenties. So I’m much better at working with people.
But mostly it’s caring. I’ve almost never met anybody who cares about design but can’t become good at it….You can’t teach whatever that is. When people don’t care, I never know why they go into design. I just don’t get it.
I’ve almost never met anybody who cares about design but can’t become good at it….You can’t teach whatever that is.
For the glamor?
I guess. It’s really not glamorous!
What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s considering a career in graphic design?
I would give the same advice that I would give to anyone who’s considering going into a creative profession, which is to really ask yourself if you need to do it professionally. I’m not sorry I went into design, but in retrospect, all the things that I like about design I actually could have done for fun and had a completely different experience…. Sometimes I think people feel like it’s not good enough to do something causally. But you enjoy it in a different way. So when I sit down to do design now, I enjoy it, but I don’t feel like I have exactly the same kind of loose fun that I had with it when I didn’t know what I was doing, because I have rules in my head and it’s my job. I’m much faster and better at it, and I find satisfaction in it. But there’s nothing wrong with being an amateur.
So I would ask that question first: Is there a reason I want to become a designer? Because every creative profession takes something out of you. I mean, all professions do, but I feel like maybe with other professions, they’re easier, at the end of the day, to shut off your brain—or at least I’ve found that. You don’t have that feeling of, “I’m going to fail at this.” And it’s also usually better for your paycheque. You can make a good living, but it’s not right for you if you really want money. I honestly don’t think graphic design is the way to go.
When I sit down to do design now, I enjoy it, but I don’t feel like I have exactly the same kind of loose fun that I had with it when I didn’t know what I was doing….Every creative profession takes something out of you.
Secondly, I would see if there’s any way you can go to a convention or, especially if you’re a student, get into people’s firms. Ask them, “Can I spend a day at your firm, just helping out? I’ll get coffee or something.” Because I think you really want to get the energy of different branches of design. I find people in book design have a very different energy than, say, people in marketing. People in marketing I find are much more gregarious and have more energy; people in book design tend to be much more gentle. And I like book people—I feel like I get along with them. Whereas when I’m with marketing people, I like them, but I don’t… know that I would do as well. Maybe now I would, but as a young person, starting out, I think you want to be with your tribe, people who are like you. I think people underestimate the culture of what they’re going to be a part of, and I really do think that different professions have a very different feeling.
As a young person, starting out, I think you want to be with your tribe, people who are like you. I think people underestimate the culture of what they’re going to be a part of.
That’s really interesting. Can you tell me a little more about the kind of culture that comes along with book design?
The culture of book design is very...it’s got a traditional backbone to it. So, there’s not as much excitement about how things are changing, and a lot more fear about how things are changing. There’s a desire to kind of protect book culture, and I get the impression that that’s always been the case. I also think there’s a little bit less of a showboating quality to it. I don’t think you get as many many rockstar book designers, whereas in marketing and branding and stuff, I feel like there’s more of that “look what I did” quality to it.
What kind of person would you recommend your career to?
Someone who’s self-directed; if you always rely on somebody else to tell you what’s right or wrong, you’ll be terrible at it. I think I would recommend it to somebody who really loves the idea of doing it. I think people know what they want to do. Really, I don’t know what other criteria there are.
Where do you usually work? What’s your physical workspace like?
My favourite was when I had a studio outside my home. I used to have a studio just down in the Dominion Building—that was my favourite ever. It was before they built up Woodwards, so I had a view of the ocean and I loved it so much. Now I work from home and that’s less good, because your work is right there. I like going away and doing it.
And what kind of work-life balance would you say you have?
[Laughs.] Okay, well, it’s very hard to get a work-life balance. Like I said, if you can work quite fast, become a good decision maker, then you can kind of get it. But, I don’t know that I ever really got it perfectly, and I definitely did go through a phase—as did everyone else that I know who has my job—of just completely burning out from stress. My work did for awhile impact my health and a little bit my mental health—I would get quite anxious.
I remember teaching at a school (not Emily Carr) that was very much like, “You gotta get out there, you gotta stay up all night.” And I could never support that. You need to sleep and eat, because your body does have finite abilities. I stayed up for three nights in a row one time. I mean, you can’t do that! I immediately got sick. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you have to make it a priority to protect your body and your mental health to a certain degree: to let things go and know when you need to say no. Because your clients, they’re stressed and it’s hard for them to not ask things of you. Even when I’ve had graphic designers working for me, I’ve asked them unreasonable things at 11 at night, so I know what it’s like to be on the other end of that. And sure enough, the designer will do it. I mean, we’re too nice. But we should say no. Say no sometimes.
You have to make it a priority to protect your body and your mental health to a certain degree: to let things go and know when you need to say no.
And say no to clients who are trouble. If you have a client who has a personality issue or is unreasonable in their expectations, you have to be able to say, diplomatically, “This sounds like a great project, but I don’t think I’m the right fit for it,” and be willing to walk away from the money. Because it’s just never worth it; they’ll just overwork you. There’s a real fear when you’re a freelancer that you don’t know when your next project will be. There always will be another project, but if you work for someone who’s really troublesome, it costs you.
What kind of career trajectory is typical for a graphic designer? Are there a lot of opportunities to move up in your career?
I think something happens in your mid-30s for graphic design, where there’s a high rate of suddenly changing course. Either going into a related profession like teaching or working in a different environment, or switching to a different medium. Sometimes that has to do with just dealing with the same problem over and over again, so you switch. And for some people, it’s a work-life balance.…I think either age or kids or maybe a partner or something, even just a relationship, you need time for that.
So people tend to leave because of some sort of personal life change?
It’s not so much that they leave. More of just a fork in the road. I think that happens for most professions, but for graphic design especially.
And in terms of moving up? Where can you go from graphic designer?
You often do switch from being a junior to senior. Directing people is a totally different skillset that feels much more natural to you when you’re older. I wouldn’t have been good at doing it before, but now I feel confident doing it and I enjoy it, and that’s a natural progression. You mentor other people.
What do you wish that you knew before you went into this line of work?
I wish that I knew that every project ends. [Laughs]. I wish that I’d known that each project was not as important as I thought. You want to take it seriously, but I just would feel like the world was ending when things would go wrong. I would feel so upset and stressed about it. Not everybody takes it on that much, but I think a lot of people do.
And your portfolio—I wish I’d known how much to relax about that. Most people are not going to care that much. You don’t need to put things in your portfolio that you aren’t happy with. If you’ve got some idea and your client doesn’t like it, that other idea will find its way into some other project. So I wish I’d been a little more relaxed about that. And I wish that I’d had taken more vacations. I didn’t take any vacations; I just worked through all the time. I wish I had kind of relaxed a little bit.