I was struck by Larry Zoll’s excellent article “Working For A Living” (Live Design, October 2008) and wanted to thank him for giving this topic some discussion. The topic of “part-time lighting designer” is one that is near and dear to my heart. For years, I struggled as a “part-timer” working other jobs in the industry while freelancing. At the time, I was always frustrated, thinking my “day-jobs” were useless. However, looking back, I realize they helped me grow in many ways, and I would not be the person nor designer I am today without those other experiences. Now I actually encourage young designers coming out of school to find opportunities that allow them to get a slice of the American Dream while still developing themselves as visual artists and designers. There are many that will decide to strike out to NYC to starve for their “art,” and I say more power to them. But for most, as they see school in their rear-view mirror, thoughts of stable relationships, a house, and a decent car that doesn’t break down begin to take over their brains, usually in the middle of the night as they’re hanging lights for another $1,000 show. As age 30 approaches, and they realize they really are mortal, most designers begin to open their minds to some of the many very cool opportunities this industry affords them that don’t involve sitting in a dark room with no windows.
While some may feel “stuck” in their day jobs, it’s important to remember that you hold the keys to your own career. Many of us have moved from the design/production jobs to the industry/support jobs and back again. The diversity of experience only makes you more valuable in both worlds. Bill Groener first hired me at Strand Lighting in 1991. Bill has had a fantastic career, from WED (Disney Imagineering) to Strand Lighting to PRG and now is COO for Tim Hunter Design. I went to graduate school with Michael Nevitt who had a very successful and diverse design career before developing cool consoles for Martin.
I think many of us are worried that we won’t be respected by the design side of the world if we take a job on the industry side. But frankly, it’s been my experience that good designers are respected regardless of where you may punch a clock during the day. I certainly have nothing but respect for the two individuals I just mentioned and would be honored to work with them in any industry or production capacity.
My path to “designer” was certainly far from direct. Somehow, some 25 years after starting my undergraduate education, my business card tells me that I’m an LD. But the path between there and here was neither completely planned nor entirely coincidental. It was rather a series of choices driven by circumstances. I came out of grad school with no job, a new wife, and college loans. I took my Master’s degree straight to Humphrey’s Yogurt in Sherman Oaks and started my career serving soft-serve to softer yuppies. When I had a job that sucked (like that one), I looked for another one right away, and so on, until I landed with Disney some 11 years ago. My path took me through all the major manufacturers. I built racks on the assembly line at Colortran, I ran the Bids and Proposals department at Strand Lighting, and I was a field project coordinator at ETC. I taught school in Ohio for a year, but the cold and the teaching pay drove me back to Los Angeles. All the while, I freelanced in small theatres, from Cleveland to LA, and dreamed of making a living as a designer someplace.
So right now, I am a full-time designer. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t entertain the right job back in the manufacturing/development/sales side of this crazy business. In fact, some days that sounds appealing. Many of those companies are filled with inspiring, creative, interesting people and opportunities. Manufacturers, dealers, and sales agencies can be dynamic and fascinating places to work. But for now, I’m staying put. I have kids, a house in the suburbs, and a ’65 Mustang in the garage. I guess you’d call it all my little slice of the American Dream.
All that brought to me through a diverse career in the lighting industry by only sometimes designing.