When I moved to New York in 1993, I was ready to go. The research I had done in graduate school led me to believe that success as a New York designer was merely a process of assisting more established designers on big projects, while designing smaller projects on my own until bigger opportunities presented themselves. It turned out to be not as simple as I hoped, and I spent the next five years juggling my assistant work with my design work. In the end, I took a staff job as a designer at a display company in Manhattan. Three years later, I would strike out on my own, and, once again as I built up my new firm, the challenge of balancing the two different aspects of my career reared its ugly head. As my design studio enters its fifth year, I look back on this issue and wonder if some of my hard-learned lessons might help others. After many conversations with other designers and assistants, I have come to the conclusion that you can serve both masters for only so long; at some point, one or the other will demand your full attention.
Working as an assistant broadens a young designer's mind. It is the fastest track toward working on big projects. In my case, my early assistant work saw me employed first as a draftsman and later as an art director on cable television shows, events, and ice shows, as well as theme parks, cruise ships, and the odd bus and truck. The budgets were bigger than any of my personal design projects, and the setting more professional (I never painted scenery at three in the morning for any job I had as an assistant). The money was good, and the work was fairly steady.
This, of course is the hidden siren of the assistant track. It is easy to get comfortable. Paying the bills is a strong incentive to market your services as an assistant. Even at entry level, a full week's work can often gross more than the going rate for an off-off-Broadway show or a showcase, and regional work is only slightly better when you consider the time put in on each project. Once you start to view your assistant work as the bill payer, it may be time to evaluate where your design career stands, for you have most likely taken away all of the “lessons” you can from assisting. Do not count on your work as an assistant to create the break for your design career. Producers and directors remember you as the assistant, and designers are loath to let go of good assistants to a project they pass up. If assisting is working for you, perhaps you are destined to become a full time assistant/associate, and some of the most creative and skilled designers I know have pursued this track.
When establishing your design career, it is advantageous to be single-minded in that pursuit. If financial reality precludes this, you may need to lean on your partner, dip into your savings, or explore a second job. Be careful in making that second job assisting, as you may still be perceived as an assistant rather than as a designer. Draw clear boundaries between the two. Whatever your situation, choose your projects wisely. Consider what you get out of each project. Does the fee pay the bills? If not, what intangible does the job offer — a new connection, new market, or specific artistic challenge? If you are taking a job based on this intangible, can you follow up? Be careful when pursuing small projects with “potential.” The goal is to work with interesting and up-and-coming directors, producers, and playwrights. Eventually, you will be rewarded when a show moves or the collaborative team gets a crack at a bigger project.
Remember that the design is only half of the work. You need to maintain the connections you have just made. This means a commitment to going to their other projects, meeting for drinks after rehearsal, and attending the fundraisers for their theatre companies, not to mention giving yourself time to be inspired by other art around you. This can be a challenge, especially when you need to be at your day job, or on to the next project, in the morning. Nurturing your artistic relationships is key to the ultimate success of your design business.
That brings us back to the fact that it is show business. It is easy to get seduced by the art, hoping that, if the art is right, the business will take care of itself. The best thing you can do for your career — as an assistant or a designer — is to mind your business first and let your talent take care of itself. Create a solid business basis that can nurture your talent in an environment of ease and joy by focusing your efforts. You will then create great art. Use your work as an assistant to prepare you for greater challenges ahead. Be willing to set aside your assistant work when you are ready to focus in on your design career. If you choose to continue to try to balance both, remember that the loyal servant is loved and nurtured, while the servant of two masters is beaten by both.
Michael Allen (www.michaelallendesigns.com) maintains a design studio in New York City. His primary projects include animated holiday windows and other visual merchandising for Macy's and Saks. He also works on various theatrical projects.