Do designers have a professional expiry date?


Guest post by community member, Gab Tydd

Ageism in the design industry

Have you ever been told ‘you look good for your age’ or been compared with a younger colleague’s mum? Maybe you’ve been teased about hearing or memory loss? It can be frustrating, especially when you’re just trying to be part of the team.

On the flipside, I’ve heard frustrations expressed by younger designers about older colleagues who are seen as set in their ways, and not interested to learn new ways of working. Sometimes these criticisms are even warranted.

Designers are sponges who visually communicate what we see, hear and experience in our environment – even unintentional stereotypes about age. Insidious social beliefs like ‘older people are useless and a burden’ can fuel them.

What’s the big deal? It’s not that serious.

Stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination based on age differences can affect a person’s mental and physical health. It’s widespread and hard to pin down. Everyday ageism plays out as media stereotypes and being overlooked for jobs. The World Health Organisation reports that Ageism may now be even more pervasive than racism or sexism.

On paper (or screen) middle-aged designers often look good as potential employees, but physical appearance at interview stage becomes a stumbling block. Justifications for not hiring older candidates is often that they are ‘too experienced’ or ‘too senior’. Motivation and confidence levels can be affected. Mental health problems like anxiety and depression can be longer-term problems.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. As designers we often have more power to affect change than we think, including how we consciously and unconsciously shape ideas about ageing. We can do this through the work we produce and also how we respond to the challenges that age throws at us, on personal and industry levels.

My story

I worked with an Art Director in her mid 30’s when I was in my early 20’s who told me ‘design is a young person’s industry.’ I’ve heard middle-aged designers say they believe that youth is valued over experience. One designer told me that she works hard to hide her biological age at work, like Liza in the Stan series Younger (Star, 2015).

I’m a senior designer who is also experiencing mid-life challenges. I’ve worked as a graphic designer, a design manager, tutored at university, and run my own design business. However, worry about my own expiry date as a designer motivated me to study counselling.

It wasn’t an overnight decision. Throughout my career I’ve battled the beasts of Perfectionism, Self-confidence, Creative Block and Burn Out. I’ve also witnessed industry colleagues struggle with them and at one point I became aware that four colleagues were experiencing anxiety disorders, while another was struggling with depression. I began to wonder whether other creative industry people need support to manage these issues.

The Industry Story

To understand what’s been driving my belief about designers and expiry dates, I surveyed a small sample aged between 40–60 years. Fifty per cent said

they’ve either experienced Ageism in the past year or have witnessed a colleague who has.

Australian government data provided some more clues: I found that the average age of ‘Graphic and Web Designers, and Illustrators’ is 34 years. In comparison, the average age of overall Australian workers is 40 years (The Australian Government, 2018). The perception that the design industry attracts a lot of younger people is real.


How do we challenge Ageism?

As designers and illustrators, we’re able to directly challenge social beliefs through our visual messaging and the image choices we make, including representations about age.

I’ve designed collateral featuring older Australians. When deadlines were tight the temptation was to use readily-available photos of frail, grey-haired people dressed in drab clothing, looking grateful for the attention of younger people. Taking a little more time, I managed to source more active images of older people – engaged with communities and maintaining physical health through exercise.

As well as experiencing ageism from outside sources though, we often turn it in on ourselves by discounting our knowledge and experience. We can convince ourselves that we’re ‘too old’ to learn new things, and feed into age stereotypes.

Act your age, not your stereotype

Designers need to be creative thinkers. We also need to constantly upgrade knowledge and skills and be aware of current practice and trends. Keeping on top of it all takes a lot of creative energy, so we need to actively look after ourselves to avoid burnout. It’s possible to challenge negative ideas about ageing – like the idea of an expiry date – by being proactive about our physical and mental health. This list provides some ideas about how:

  1. Create time and space to work on personal projects that inspire: e.g. drawing, writing, making

  2. Engage in activities to rebalance your nervous system after working on tight deadlines or large projects: e.g. exercise, practice mindfulness, eat healthy food and catch up on sleep

  3. Talk to a counsellor or psychologist who can support you with personal issues that could be keeping you ‘stuck’ in unhelpful patterns

  4. Learn or practice assertiveness skills to communicate what you need and can realistically take on: e.g. with deadlines or workloads

  5. Keep developing yourself professionally: e.g. enrol in online skills training, attend a design conference, watch an inspiring TED talk or visit an art gallery

Creativity spans all ages and doesn’t have an expiry date. It’s about staying curious, and open to new ideas and experience.

Gab Tydd is a graphic designer and qualified counsellor. She is passionate about helping people to become more aware of their personal strengths and values.

ArticleAndy Wright