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Is Graphic Design Stressful? A Career vs. A Hobby

There’s something romantic about the idea of doing art all day and actually making money from it. But, instead of hustling to sell each of our paintings, what if there was a stable job that gave you a regular paycheck for doing the art you love? Say hello to graphic design. It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Well, working as a graphic designer might not be everything you’ve imagined it to be. So, is graphic design stressful? Or, is it the creative bliss you’ve always wanted?

Graphic design is stressful for those who struggle with merging their passions with their work. Your art is directed by the visions of other people, constricted by deadlines, and subjected to constant criticism. These factors don’t phase some people, but can make it stressful for others.

Like any job, being a graphic designer has its upsides and its downsides. That said, the goal of our professional lives is to settle into a career where the good outweighs the bad; a career where we feel like we can make a difference and enjoy the majority of the time we spend at work. Stressful, or creative bliss? Let’s talk about some factors that could put you on one side of the fence or the other.

Is Graphic Design a Dying Career?

Before we dive into the pros and cons of being a graphic designer, we need to talk about whether we should care about all of this in the first place. 

How can we know that graphic design will even be around in 10 years? 

Will every company have a robot or algorithm design their graphics and brochures?

Is this whole conversation about becoming a graphic designer a distraction from the real issue of protecting ourselves from AI that will take over the world?

No. Technology will continue to change our lives but, in my humble opinion, we will ALWAYS need human creativity, especially in the arts. A robot will never get that ingenious idea while walking the dog or taking a shower. Due to our quirky and imperfect brains, humans will always need to be a fundamental part of the creative equation.

This isn’t to say that the graphic design field is booming like crazy right now. No, the growth of graphic design is actually below average. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average growth rate for jobs is 5%, but graphic design is only expected to grow 3% between 2018 and 2028 (source). But, realize that it’s still growing. It’s growing 3%. It’s not declining or dying. 

In 2018, there were 290,100 graphic design jobs in the US. In 2019, the median pay for these jobs was $52,110 a year (source).

Yes, graphic design is competitive, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. If you believe that graphic design is the right career choice for you, pursue it! But, is it stressful? Let’s talk about some factors that often lead to stress int his career.

Graphic Design Burnout vs. Career Growth

Job burnout is a huge issue. It’s a huge issue, even for people who love their jobs. But, there’s something unique going on if you burnout from your graphic design career:

You risk losing your passion for art overall, especially if you take on a stressful role.

It’s a big deal to turn your creative passion into a career. It’s the reason why a lot of artists decide not to pursue it. 

Work is work, which is why we call it…work. A lot of us pursue art as a hobby which, by definition is:

“an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation” (source).

When thinking about pursuing a hobby as a career, we tend to overemphasize the “pleasure and relaxation” and neglect the “work.” Once we get our dream jobs pursuing our artistic hobby as a career, the “work” side of things slaps us across the face. Major bummer.

Humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future, especially when it comes to predicting what will make us happy.

In fact, there is science to back this up. According to Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, we’re really bad at predicting how we will feel in the future about specific situations (source). It’s really common for us to think that certain things will make us happy, when they actually don’t. Think about all of the unhappy lottery winners out there.

Why does our gross miscalculation about our future happiness matter? Well, we can’t just assume that we love art and that we’ll automatically love doing it for a career as a result. 

No, we need to do our research and figure out if we can tolerate the “work” side of a graphic design career.

Another important thing to consider is that many of us do our hobbies for short periods of time – a few hours a day if we’re lucky. Will you really be happy doing graphic design on tight deadlines, with strict guidelines, and under the thumb of your boss for 8+ hours a day? 

When you pursue a hobby, you are your own boss, both in how you create your art and in what timeline. Once you’re an artistic employee, you no longer have this freedom. We’ll talk about these factors in later sections.

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If you’re prepared for the “work” side of a graphic design career and treat it like any other job, you’ll be much more likely to avoid stress and burnout, turning it into a prosperous career. Put aside the fantasies of creating art every day and think about everything you hate about working a job. Are you going to be ok merging the annoyances of the workplace with your passion for art? If yes, graphic design might be right for you.

Your Creative Inspiration vs. Your Boss’s Creative Mandates

When you sit down at your art table and create art for the joy of it, you get to let your imagination and creativity take the reins. Maybe you struggle with artist’s block a bit, but at least you’re in the driver’s seat of your own work. 

How would you feel if your art was mandated and directed by your boss? Or a full team of designers that have different visions and ideas of how to best represent your customers’ brands? 

When you become a graphic designer, you have to let go of the “preciousness” of your art. The designs you create while you’re on the clock are in full service to the job you were hired for. 

This doesn’t mean that you need to squash all of your creative inspiration. No, designers with the ability to think outside the box and bring fresh ideas to the table are highly valued and welcomed. That said, if your customer owns a toothpaste company and wants to target the nursing home population, you probably won’t get away with making a brochure full of fire breathing dragons and unicorns. 

As a graphic designer, you will always need to put the needs of your boss and/or customers above your own creative impulses. Whether you’re a contractor and work for a number of different businesses, or find employment with one company, your art skills will need to fit into the goal you’ve been hired to meet.

Sometimes, this means you’ll be doing work you find to be really boring. Maybe you wouldn’t sit around making a toothpaste brochure in your own time, but it’s what’s on your to-do list for the day. Working within a larger company’s artist vision might mean that you’re making things that seem pretty dull and drab. 

That’s not stressful; it’s just boring.

Other times, you’ll be asked to do things you’ve never done before and learn new design skills on the spot. Your boss may not know the intricacies of graphic design and ask you to do something that’s out of the realm of possibility. It’s important to be prepared to advocate for yourself, learn quickly, and understand the scope of your job. 

Graphic Design Turnaround Times vs. Your Own Artistic Turnaround Times

If you’re like me, you struggle turning “on” your creative and artistic abilities any and all of the time. It can be really tricky to create art for 8+ hours a day. This cannot only lead to burnout, which we’ve already talked about, but can also be a huge slap in the face.

As a hobby artist, I’m allowed to put away my laptop when my creative inspiration isn’t flowing. It’s all good, I’ll come back to it when I’m in a more artistic mood. 

That won’t cut it with a job. Once you become a graphic designer by profession, you will need to adhere to deadlines and turnaround times in order to keep your profession moving in the right direction. 

I have always decided to keep my graphic design work as a hobby (for many of the reasons above, plus the ones we’ll talk about later). That said, I HAVE had jobs as a writer, which follows the same principles. 

When I first got a full-time job as a writer, I REALLY struggled with writer’s block. Having been a hobby writer previously, I was used to putting away my written work whenever I was feeling tired or uninspired. Well, that wasn’t a choice with my job. If I couldn’t write for many hours every single day, I would fall behind and put myself in a bad spot professionally.

I had to fight through it.

Before you take a job, understand the turnaround times required of you and be clear about whether you can handle them.

One of the more stressful things about being a graphic designer is constantly pumping out designs day after day with insanely high expectations and quick turnaround times. 

Here’s a tip for handling it.

The key to fighting through a writing or artistic block is setting up a clear routine that your brain can rely upon. What I love about routines is that they prime the brain for the activities you’ll be pursuing. Once they become routine, this priming will become natural and subconscious, making it easier to fall into a creative and artistic state without a lot of struggle.

Ok, let’s back up a bit. How does this work? What is priming, anyways?

Have you ever noticed that you feel pumped up after listening to your running playlist? Or that grabbing a cup of coffee gets you ready to sit down to work? Maybe you give yourself a pep talk before doing something challenging. Or, you stand in a power stance to give yourself the confidence you need to deliver a nerve wracking presentation.

What’s happening is that you’re priming your brain. Basically, you’re preparing your brain to complete the task at hand. A lot of priming happens subconsciously and can not only be influenced by the actions we take, but also the expectations we have about the situation (source).

Here’s a great clip that explains priming!

Priming my brain was a HUGE part of getting myself into the right headspace to buckle down and write for multiple hours a day, even when I was feeling uninspired and blocked. 

If your dream is to have a career as a graphic designer, you need to learn how to set your brain up for success. Build a routine that subconsciously tells your brain that it’s time to get creative and down to work. 

For me, that meant going for a run, eating breakfast, and heading to my favorite coffee shop. I would always sit in the same exact spot, order the same exact thing, and set up my workspace in the same exact way. 

While sitting there, I faked it until I made it. I told myself that I was feeling creative, prolific, and ready to create great work. Overtime, these feelings became the expectations that my brain naturally turned towards. I primed my brain to understand that my morning coffee shop routine was linked to a good day of writing.

To be clear, these routines aren’t easy to establish and can add to the stress of the job. They take time and intentionality. 

But, priming my brain through creating an intentional routine that got me to sit down and write every day made a HUGE difference in my abilities to jump from following my own creative instincts and timelines to those of my boss and company.

If you can figure out how to navigate the complicated workings of turning your creative and artistic visions towards someone else’s goal, graphic design might be a good career for you. If you can figure out the right routine that allows you to design for multiple hours a day, even if you aren’t inspired, you could find yourself in a sweet spot as far as career choices go.

Constant Criticism vs. Your Own Opinions of Your Work

When you take on a job in the arts, your performance is no longer solely about yourself. No, your work needs to appeal to your customers and align with the vision that your company and clients are expecting. 

Everything you do is being looked at under a microscope, which can be extremely stressful.

To pursue a career in graphic design, you need to develop a thick skin.

You need to learn how to accept criticism, take it in constructively, and use it to edit your work in a way that suits your boss or client. Depending on your expected turnaround times, you could be pumping out a lot of work that will eventually fall under the microscope.

Given the quick turnaround times that generally come with graphic design jobs, you won’t have time to lick your wounds and take a day off every time you hear negative feedback on your designs. No, you’ll need to process the feedback quickly, implement the appropriate changes, and move on to the next project.

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One of the things that I love about my graphic design hobby is that the only opinion that matters is my own. I can sit down and create my work, stress-free, knowing that the only person I need to please is myself. If something doesn’t work out, that’s ok. I can simply decide to trash it. That’s not the case with a job. 

If you’re someone who is really sensitive about your job performance and struggles with criticism, graphic design could end up being a stressful career choice for you. 

Are You Going to be Full-Time or Contract?

There’s a big difference between being a full-time graphic designer and one that works on a contract basis. Here are some of the pros and cons of each:

Full-Time Graphic Design Pros

  • Stability
  • Benefits
  • An ability to dig deep into one company and brand
  • A team to work with
  • No self-employment taxes

Contract Graphic Design Pros

  • Greater flexibility in choosing the work you want to do
  • Potential to work with a wide variety of clients
  • An ability to change focus when needed
  • Greater control of your own career trajectory
  • Freedom to network and collaborate with other professionals

Full-Time Graphic Design Cons

  • Little choice over your work
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Getting bored with the work
  • Potentially, decreased networking options
  • Working within a system as opposed for yourself

Contract Graphic Design Cons

  • High self-employment taxes
  • Constantly hustling for jobs until you’re established
  • Less control over turnaround times when working for many different clients
  • No paid time off and a tendency to work 24/7

While grabbing a full-time graphic design gig is definitely possible, about 90% of graphic designs are self-employed (source). A lot of people like the freedom that comes with being a contractor, so this isn’t necessarily indicative of the full-time job market, but 90% is high enough that you should expect that contracting will be a part of your future in some sort of way if you decide to become a graphic designer. 

Personally, I find contracting really stressful. Always searching for clients, a lack of stability with a paycheck, constant networking. On the other hand, some people really enjoy the hustle. There’s a lot of freedom and excitement involved. 

So, it’s important to ask yourself whether being an independent contractor is something you’ll find invigorating or something you’ll find to be overwhelmingly stressful.

Should Graphic Design be Your Career or Your Hobby and Side Hustle?

As you can see, it’s no small thing to turn your hobby into a career. Suddenly the freedom, relaxation, and pleasure are replaced with business negotiations and pushing through creative blocks. Once you’re on someone else’s clock, it’s very different from being on your own.

For some, this might turn graphic design from a relaxing hobby into an extremely stressful career.

For me, choosing a career in graphic design would have definitely been stressful. Yep, let’s keep it in “hobby” territory. Yes, I make money from my designs via Etsy, Redbubble, and other platforms, but it is purely side hustle money. I design when I want to design and I don’t when I don’t.

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My Etsy art store!

The choice between a hobby and a career is different for everyone. All of us have differing goals for our careers and differing goals for our hobbies. Some of us will be totally ok with merging our careers and hobbies, while others of us will want to keep clear boundaries. That’s ok.

There are a lot of aspects of a graphic design career that are inherently stressful. But, a lot of jobs are stressful. What it really comes down to is whether you want one of your hobbies to be stressful. By merging your graphic design hobby with your graphic design career, you might find that you’ve turned a previously pleasurable part of your life into something stressful. Whether that’s good or bad is completely up to you, your relationship with graphic design, and your own stress levels.

So, is Graphic Design Stressful?

The answer to whether graphic design is stressful or not really comes down to your personality and your own tolerance for work related stress. It’s a job and, with all jobs, there’s always some degree of stress.

The reason this article focuses so heavily on the differences between a graphic design hobby and a graphic design career is because our human brains often fail to realize the difference between the two. Yes, we know the differences between hobbies and jobs, but as soon as we envision an artistic career as a graphic designer, all of that goes out the window.

If you’re interested in pursuing graphic design as a career, it WILL involve the art that you love, but it will also include the work stress that makes you cringe. Hopefully the sections above have shown you some of the differences you can expect when transitioning your graphic design hobby into a career.

If you’re interested in learning more about handling stress, I love Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress. It has made a huge difference in my own abilities to manage my own stress, especially relating to my profession. So much of our relationship with stress has to do with self-awareness and being in tune with our values.

Especially when pursuing artistic careers, it can be hard to separate who we are as creative people with what we’re asked to do at work. This makes the issue of stress all the more complicated. McGonigal is a great guide as you navigate through strategies for managing your stress and creating a meaningful life.

Whichever path you choose, keep designing and make great art!

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