The Real Truth About Designers

Designer and armchair humorist Rick Tharp takes dispels the myths and stereotypes most commonly associated with designers.

by Mr. Tharp

Have you ever heard this designer joke? “What did St. Peter say to the graphic designer when the designer showed up at the pearly gates?” Or how about this one? “What’s the difference between a designer and a hooker?” Or this one? “What do you call a designer buried at sea?” The reason you haven’t heard ’em is because they don’t exist. Other professions have jokes. Why don’t we?

Designers have struggled for decades to gain the recognition we deserve from clients, society and even our own mothers. We work hard and take our work seriously, but if you want to see a deadpan expression instantly appear on someone’s face, just tell them you’re a graphic designer. Laywers, psychiatrists and even postal-workers are the subject of humor because everyone knows what they do for a living. The establishment of designer jokes would at least validate our existence and maybe even create a basic public understanding of our life’s calling.

One of the AIGA’s most important charters is to help our industry gain professional stature and public awareness. In addition, regional groups across the country have established graphic-design awareness programs at the elementary-school level and graphic-design scholarship programs at the college level to help foster recognition of our profession. But no one has taken the job of eradicating common perceptions and misperceptions within the profession itself. So HOW asked me to do it.

Myth #1: Designers Can’t Read
A few years ago, a client provided text to us for a corporate identity we were designing. She gave us the names, titles, address, phone, fax, e-mails and website URL for the company’s business card. Just before the web address in parentheses, it read, “(put on back of card).” A week later, I was reviewing—and reading—the proofs prepared by a staff designer, and right there on the back of the business card—meticulously kerned, in parentheses, above the website address—were the words, “(put on back of card).” I caught it just before it went to press. See? Designers can read. Stereotype dispelled.

Myth #2: Designers Aren’t Capable of Following a Budget

Of course we are. It’s not that we aren’t capable of sticking to a budget, it’s that the budgets never seem to expand to meet the amount of work we end up doing. Our studio follows every budget we’re given, and we never get paid ore than our clients authorize for any job. Myth dispelled.

Myth #3: Designers Only Drive Black Foreign Cars (or Wish They Did)

I did my own survey and called 876 designers listed in the AIGA Membership Directory. I found two who don’t drive black cars. Utah-based designer Don Weller drives a PMS Warm Gray 5U Chevy truck. But he’s better known as an illustrator, so maybe he doesn’t count. I discovered that Phoenix designer Forrest Richardson drives a white Dodge Durango. I don’t even think New York City designer Paula Scher of Pentagram owns a car. So there. Stereotype dispelled.

Myth #4: Designers Hang Out in Cliques
To a newcomer to our field, it may appear as though we veteran designers all hang out in small groups with the grand pooh-bahs of the profession at design conferences and other design-related events. This is a myth created by designers who live and work in small no-name towns and don’t have anybody to talk to about what they do for a living.

Myth #5: Designers Always Wear Black
This myth was created by the same small-town designers who created Myth #4. They’re just jealous because they can’t find stores in those small no-name towns that carry cool designer-labeled black stuff to wear. But I know for a fact that designers don’t always wear black, and I can prove it. At TDCTJHTBIPC (The Design Conference That Just Happens To Be In Park City), I was hanging with my very good friends grand pooh-bah designer Michael Cronan and Walking Man clothing-company founder and president Karin Hibma, and Mike was actually wearing a khaki-colored shirt. Honest. And then last spring, I went to a kid’s softball game in Manhattan with a very good friend of mine, world-renowned designer James Victore, and he was wearing a white T-shirt. Proof again that designers don’t always wear black. Myth dispelled.


As I sat in my studio finishing this article, the light bulb above my desk popped and extinguished itself. Suddenly, I remembered the punchline to perhaps the only designer joke I’d ever heard: “How many designers does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Does it have to be a light bulb?”

Maybe we’re making some headway after all.