What kind of designer are you?

Can a designer teach her/himself needed skills? If so, how? This was an interesting question posed on the forum today;  it speaks to the subject of what kind of designer you are (I started writing this a couple of years ago but never published it). It is too simplistic to say people can teach themselves (they obviously can) successfully and the question is too open ended because there are many types of designers. Depending on the kind of designer you are is what will determine what you need to learn and how to go about doing it. Caveat: There are other lists of designer types (I like the one Danielle wrote). Since I write mostly about designers starting clothing lines, my list describes those on an entrepreneurial path.

Without further ado, here are most of the designer types I can identify -feel free to add to it:

  • The artist
  • The artisan/engineer/technician
  • The mogul
  • The accountant
  • The project manager

There is no worse or better kind of designer to be because most people are or should be, a combination of each. Anyone who falls into a set category exclusively, probably isn’t healthy because balance is required. That said, the project manager and the accountant are most successful. Doomed to failure -please stop sending me hate mail, I’m tired of it and it’s not working anyway- is the artist and the mogul. Below is an abbreviated description of the archetypes. Once we’ve discussed these, we can go on to discuss paths to preparation for each (the next post).

The artist: The “artiste” described here is the sum of the worst. Too often, especially these days, “artist” refers to someone who -for all intents and purposes- becomes overwhelmed with the practicalities of launching a line and will adopt a deprecatory posture toward planning, scheduling and or numbers, claiming or thinking it will scare all of the art away. If you can describe yourself pragmatically (do read that!) then it’ll be easier to find people who can help you bring fruition to your vision.

The artisan (or engineer-technician): Design and construction is a craft; the designer is a craftsman who executes all the prototyping and or products he or she sells. A designer who understands technicals can be a dream come true for service providers -if the designer gets that far. The pitfall is having to know it all before launch and as one never can, they never launch. If one does launch, they have problems scaling. The key to turning that around is realizing you can’t know it all and setting standards (the engineer in you will love writing work instructions).

The mogul: A lost cause [nod to Rocio who identified them]. Moguls won’t be reading this (they don’t think they need to), I only explain it so you don’t worry that another will think you’re one yourself. The mogul loves to talk about their team when the “company” consists of one person and they’re obviously pre-launch (perennially pre-launch) with a bevy of talent (see the about page on their web site). They hide that nobody is getting paid because it is all so exciting and truly the best thing evah (done ad nauseum but this time with SEO sugar on top).  Tip offs: exhaustive celeb name dropping, claiming to know buyers for X, lots of legal, no direction (and I do mean no direction; not soft, not hard -nothing but a logo) and they typically want providers and suppliers to front them everything from introductions to capital and of course product because all the mogul has is a “brand”. Ranchers have those too but they paid less for it and get more out of it -maybe as much as fifty cents a pound at auction.

The accountant: They’re all about the numbers. At their worst, it’s their numbers. Meaning, it pays the bills, meets payroll and keeps the lights on but there is no passion. At their best, they understand why toddler sand box play suits retailing at $36 can’t have lined ruffles on the pinafores and they won’t give one a lot of grief about it. Yay!

The project manager: Probably my favorite archetype provided they’re balanced. Good ones usually are. The typical head designer in a large organization is a project manager. It’s a fine act to juggle all the competing demands of “artistes”, technicians, accountants and service providers (who themselves run a gamut of archetypes) to keep the operation on the rails and the books in the black. At their worst, a project manager is one of those 4 hour work week types who think they can outsource it all, letting the little people get it done.

So, which archetype is closest to your heart? In a future post, I’ll outline the kind of educational focus and preparation that given profiles should pursue to become better balanced. The truth of it is, a successful designer entrepreneur needs to have some measure of all of these profiles.

So I’ll go first. I’m easily an artisan (technician-engineer). This is bad (in my case) for making a go of launching a line because technicians have other priorities -such as perfection- which means never getting off the ground. The driving motivation is all about execution. Once one skill is mastered, there’s yet another and so it goes. Being an artisan is not a bad thing at all but technicians rarely scale.  All that said, you need people like this in your operation. They can teach you all kinds of stuff and you never have to worry about them competing with you.

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  1. Natasha E says:

    Well this definitely describes me and why I ended up dropping out of design school for something more nerdy (nursing).

    “A designer who understands technicals can be a dream come true for service providers -if the designer gets that far. The pitfall is having to know it all before launch and as one never can, they never launch.”

    I think also knowing your stuff is not even as good as sliced bread can be a restricting factor especially when your surrounded by the other design personalities who proclaim their own greatness. I doubt I’ll ever grow out of the kiwi habit of self depreciating humor plus my sentences all sound like questions which make me sound unsure.

    Plus artisans often can be exploited by the moguls who want them to realize their dreams.

  2. Jay Arbetman says:

    GREAT article. I think that this is where designers start….in one of these categories. If you hang in there long enough, you do get some skills (and sometime a lot of skills) in all of these areas. I actually have had a string of moguls in my office and the description is pretty right on.

    Sometime the mogul is someone that has been highly successful in another area and this is truly the most dangerous customer for me though I usually get to sell them 10,000 really expensive satin labels. It is the label that is never pre-launch. The label gets done and it has to be done NOW! Payday loan store be damned.

  3. Monica says:

    Love this post Kathleen, these “types” are spot on! And I think I’ve met every single one, albeit in a variety of industries. The mogul is definitely the most irritating.

  4. Jenneh says:

    Well, I guess this has made my day and I think I have seen and know all the types and previously being an accountant/bank auditor before all of what I do now, it was not hard to spot myself.

  5. Taja says:

    Love it!

    I’m a cross between everything except the mogul. I’m the silly person who attended university on a music scholarship and ended up with a degree in business with minors in music and journalism! *rolleyes*

    Artisan/technician is closest to my personality, as I am a bit of a perfectionist and like to know how to do everything and am willing to invest time learning how to do those things. That leads into the production manager facet, which requires an overview of the entire company/operation. I need to know how things work, even if others are responsible for the actual processes, and control the outcome.

    The accountant part is a given–excluding the business degree–as I always was the family accountant, even as a child. I was part of the family, and one of my “chores” was to maintain the budget. Not a bad gig!

    I define an artist as someone who has a vision and the ability to produce that vision in a tangible manner (even though some forms legally are considered intangible property). In my case, it also can include a slight tendency toward procrastination. I’m well aware of that tendency and have developed a number of ways to minimize, if not eliminate, it. Thank goodness!

    Mogul. Seriously not good at self promotion. I would be a dismal failure on a reality show–not that you could get me on one in the first place! *LOL* I am good at conceptualizing, but after that the artisan/technician and production manager step in before I ever mention anything to anyone else!

  6. Rachel Welton says:

    Oh my– I didn’t see this post until just now! Thank you so much for writing this, Kathleen, it’s

    I don’t have the skills to justify it, but I suspect I’m closest to the artisan. ;) Obsessing over the perfectly set gore and writing myself painstaking instructions on how to construct my favorite skirt sound suspiciously like artisan tendencies.

  7. Betsy Cook says:

    I’ve hired an artisan and an accountant. My husband is the mogul, he can’t wait to sit back and not work when I am a big success! That leaves the art and project management to me!

  8. Oh, I’m definitely the artisan, but with a healthy dose of accountant and project manager. I am, after all, a career engineer who has spent a lot of time managing projects and project budgets, so the charges are impossible to dodge. But at least I am willing to admit it, and really am working at finding the ‘perfect’ collaborators to help me with the other necessary skills. Kathleen, I’m sure you caught that reference to the perfect collaborators. Another twist on perfection is the dreaded ‘analysis paralysis’ syndrome. Yikes!

    I’ve worked with some Mogul’s. The thought makes me shudder.

  9. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    I’m definitely an artisan. I enjoy making items for individuals when I have time (Real Job and other obligations), but I have no interest in starting a company precisely because I know my own limitations, and it would mean that I didn’t get to do what I actually cared about anymore.

  10. I am not surprised that most people, including me, are choosing “artisan”–look at the focus of your blog: building stuff! I like the title “technician” better. I already launched, and although I sometimes find myself agonizing over product development, I will NEVER hesitate to sell those wonky first, second, third and fourth tries, because one’s trash is another’s treasure. So it’s not perfect? It fits a human! WIN! It must be the accountant in me. I can’t wait to go play with quick books reports now that Dec. 2012 bank statements came in the mail. My cost spreadsheets are insane with multiple sheets referencing different cells. I think this is also part of being a “tech,” I love to analyze my business, my production techniques, isolate variables and tweak, tweak, tweak. Here’s to everybody’s success!

  11. I think I’m a little bit of everything across the board…evident in most aspects of my life…I’m ”ok” at a lot of things, but haven’t mastered anything. As of now, in my day job, I am more of a project manager, but more of the micro-managing type…which tends to be exhausting. If I could choose which ones I would want to be more, I’d pick artisan and accountant. Technique and money.
    Very interesting read!

  12. Demetra says:

    Kathleen, thanks for the article. I my previous careers, I have been all of these examples. Now, I’m the artisan/project manager, which can get a bit over-whelming, but it is getting better. I’m learning what to do, how much to take on and when to say no.

    Great read.

  13. Sarah_H. says:

    You have done a great job of panning all of the types, or at least pointing out their weaknesses. Now, what are the strengths of each type? I am not sure I am putting my finger on this, but something about this post rings false to me. If we are what we are, is there no hope for the artist who wants to have a business? Is the accountant no more than the sum of his/her deficiencies as an artisan? I will give you the mogul; I have never seen one of those achieve anything. But all of these seem to be more theater, more what the people present themselves to be, than what they really are.

    I would define myself as an artist, although I am sure I define that term differently than you are doing here. I am interested in making clothes, and the technical side of it is all in the service of doing so, not an end in itself. I do know the technical side of it, and I am a perfectionist, but it is as a painter knows the medium they work with.

    And I am not even a little interested in launching a line of clothing, or any other product. All I want to do is sit back and lob geezer comments at all of you working stiffs.

  14. Quincunx says:

    I think that last bit encapsulates it nicely, actually, Sarah H. Artists (or artistes) can’t or won’t compromise or learn a different method to get stuff ready on a deadline. They have to produce first and sell later to have a finished product. Full-length novels are written and sent to the slush pile instead of abstracts being pitched, and only fleshing out the ones which are bought. I might say that you are more of an artisan than an artist(e) because you CAN meet deadlines and briefs.

    The upside of being an artist(e) is that you’re impervious to the mogul’s exhortations. That force of personality and neediness is muted to a mere hum in the background while you contemplate The Vision(tm). In turn, the mogul cannot believe that anything can be more compelling than their needs, and once they start to wonder what that inexplicable vision is and how to harness it, they’re hooked. At this point, we ineffective types march off arm-in-arm and leave you grounded types to get on with keeping the world spinning forward, well-dressed.

  15. Kathleen says:

    Sarah: As I explained, it is better that one have a variety of traits.

    I also follow your point of strengths but I think it is better to explore the competencies of each archetype so people can pick up what they lack. The intent of the next post is exactly that; the skill sets of each and how to acquire that which one lacks. Again, I also mentioned that was the intent and purpose of the intended next post. I also agree about the lobbing. Had a rough day? Can’t speak for you but I’m ready for a nap.

    Myrrhia: Agreed as to preponderance of self selecting technicians. I would have been surprised if there had been any other result.

  16. Anthony says:

    I am an engineer trying to start an apparel line, and you definitely hit the nail on the head on the description! At least five times a day, I have to catch myself making “slight improvements” on the most miniscule details. Fortunately, being aware of it help to control it. Anyways, thanks for the book, it’s become my new bible of sorts.

  17. JoAnne says:

    I am most certainly The artisan (or engineer-technician), with a hint of The Accountant creepin’ in on a regular basis. I can see upon reading this, that if I had employees, I would probably move into the Project Manager’s.

    I think it is really interesting to think about designers in terms of archetypes, as if one is honest with thy self.. it definitely reveals opportunity for change and growth!

  18. Stephanie says:

    I am definitely the artisan/technician, and partly the accountant, BUT in my student days (and for a while after) I wanted so much to be the artist. It took me a few years to realise that working behind the scenes is more my thing. I’m happy being a technician and I’m suited to it but there is an artist in me waiting to be released! I found it hard to try and produce a line as I was such a perfectionist. It’s very much on hold right now. Being an artist can be a great thing but as long as you never lose sight of the fact that you are manufacturing and that at the end of the day, the goal is to make money!

  19. Sarah_H. says:

    In reference to my earlier comments; I should make it clear to all that any comment I make is from the standpoint of someone outside the business. I may have 40 years experience as a designer/patternmaker, but those 40 years started in 1964, and ended in 2005. What do I know about the garment business currently….only what I read here.

  20. Marcanne says:

    I am a little of all except the “Mogul” and the “Artist”. If anyone will pay me for my creations, I am more than happy to sell them, which means I am a good accountant too. I am an Engineer so I can go a little overboard in the reading of books so I know it all but that stems from my desire to not go broke. Once again, the accountant in me. And I am a great Project Manager, as that was my title for years as an Engineer. But again, my projects and programs were based upon making or saving money and I managed the money (lots of it) so back to being the accountant. If I would not make money doing a line (as in profit), I would most likely not do it at all.

  21. Lin says:

    I’m the aspiring Artisan, although I have better organizing skills. This article reminded me of what I need to work on. With my first child on the way, I know I can’t do it all. Thanks again!

  22. Susan says:

    Kathleen – your categories are very good, and FYI closely echo the types Michael Gerber writes about in “The E-Myth: why most small businesses fail and what to do about it”. http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Revisited-Small-Businesses-About/dp/0887307280

    A category that is missing is entrepreneur, though. This is not mogul, nor is it any of the others. Rather the entrepreneur is the one who can craft strategy, has a vision, sees where to go. But as Gerber writes, a business can’t grow and thrive on entrepreneurialism alone. It needs the accountant. It needs the project manager. It needs the technician. Either a “lone” founder needs to learn to develop those other skills within themselves, or they need to find the people who have them and who are willing to be part of the roller coaster that is starting a business.

  23. Suzanne says:

    I’m the project manager who works every waking moment. I kind of rotate around all the hats I wear. I learned a long time ago to not let fear paralyze me (though people who are paralyzed by fear call themselves “perfectionists” because that feels better. You have to get over yourself and SHIP. I wish I worked a 4-day workweek! Maybe I work a four-day every 2 days!

  24. Betsy Cook says:

    I love it. “Get over your fear and SHIP”. Can I get that stitched on a sampler? I’m about to ship out and all I can think of is the buyer will get it and find fault with it. I have to remember they ordered it because they liked it in the first place. I don’t call it perfectionism, but I do know I have a problem!

  25. laura mcgrew says:

    Technician here! Although I have aquired the accountant, the artist is where I started, before I worked in the industry and got my “skills”. I am desparatly trying get the project manager bit. Suzanne hit it on the head- fear, specifically fear of the unknown, which ties back to Kathleens description as well.
    I think it’s funny no one will admit to being a mogle. I don’t think any of us DE’s would survive if there wasn’t a little mogle inside going “OMG it’s going to be great!”

  26. mara says:

    Kathleen, I also love the list danielle wrote. I did notice that I did not fit into any of the categories you describe but I DID fit into the “personalities” and “artisans” categories. Could you possibly elaborate on what people who fit into those two categories need to learn/know/improve on to go out on their own please? I would really like your opinion on them.

  27. mara says:

    Also I forgot to mention im striving to be a 4. I like to be in control of operations and constantly need to know how things are going when a task is being worked on so I catch myself constantly checking in making sure things are running smoothly and if not I feel the need to know about it immediately because in my head their isnt a minute to loose to fix the problem…weird i know but im hoping it gives you insight as to which of YOUR categories I fit into. :D

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