Look behind the wizard’s curtain to find career satisfaction

Mark Busse – No Comments

The following article by Mark Busse was published in June 2013 on

Do you remember the first time you watched The Wizard of Oz? I do. I must have been around five years old and I’ll never forget the joy I felt watching Dorothy and Toto meet their friends and sing as they journeyed through that surreal landscape toward The Emerald City and the magical wizard who would solve all their problems. I miss being a child and surrendering to that kind of innocent fantasy, don’t you?

Many of you likely ventured down the golden path of design because you too enjoyed the fantasies of your childhood imagination. These days, unmotivated by traditional measures of career success such as money or status, young people often seek a career that is fun and fulfilling, merging a passion for art and beauty with a need for values and meaning. But these aspirations often aren’t enough, and like Dorothy’s initial dissatisfaction with her life in Kansas, I hear young designers complaining about their careers.

I recently surveyed a number of designers about what they enjoyed most about their design careers. Their answers echoed many of those I’ve given over the years: the love of ever-changing challenges and constant learning, the fun of using imagination to create beautiful things, an appreciation of experimentation and testing, the pursuit of a strong solution to a problem, and the flexibility to work wherever, for whomever. Of course, it is also satisfying to make stuff—to convert ideas into visible, tangible things that help clients and customers, and that make an impact on the human environment.

Did you know the wizard’s name in the original book was Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Issac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs? How awesome is that?

The notion of helping people resonates loudest for me. Perhaps because this is the most serious and intimate aspect of what we do as designers. Whether our clients are one person, a small business, or a large corporation, they are just people—people with problems they are unequipped to solve. Our relationship, at its best, is deeply personal and involves collaboration and trust.

This intimacy, combined with the magical mixture of a child-like innocence to imagine creative solutions and the expert confidence of a strategist and craftsman—THAT is the most rewarding aspect of being a designer for me.

For the majority of the world’s population, work involves physical labour, or repetitive menial tasks in exchange for a pittance. It’s called “work” for a reason. Yet I worry that too many young designers don’t understand this, wanting only to work where it’s fun, on projects they believe in, for clients they like, on stuff they think is beautiful—and all the while expecting to be paid $100K and given a fancy title. I’ve met many who quit a firm at the first sign that they were not having fun, choosing instead to freelance, or worse, start a new firm with their friends (read my past article, “Rushing into starting your own design business can turn a dream into a nightmare”).

I wish we all could realize how incredibly lucky any of us are to work, let alone succeed, as creative professionals. Think about it: instead of using brawn to survive, we are paid to use our brains, getting to playfully ask “what if?” and “why not?” That’s a luxury we should never take for granted. In many delightful ways, we are perpetually children—but we need to stop acting like them.

The longer I teach design, the more I worry that this notion is being lost on future generations. The motivation for many seems rooted in the self-serving desire for wealth, fun, and fame, followed by a goal to produce “meaningful work.” The result is an industry bursting with young talent all too frequently focused on themselves, their bios, their portfolios full of pretty pictures, and rarely interested in working hard, paying dues, showing process, embracing failure, or showcasing actual results. “Did it work?” I ask young designers at every interview or portfolio review, and am rarely met with an answer of substance. Design is not as glamourous as many seem to think. And it’s time for us all to stop being so mesmerized by the smoke and mirrors, and look at what’s going on behind the curtain.

I agree with those who say that a career in design is an antidote for boredom and that there is great satisfaction in making new and beautiful things. But I offer a word of caution: be careful to adjust your expectations lest you become disappointed if this career isn’t what you imagined. A career in design is a long journey, and everyone’s journey is different, but whatever yours is don’t lose sight of it.

Although being a designer can be serious business, it keeps me feeling keenly aware of the magical world around me. We are storytellers, but with the goal to communicate core ideas that make people, companies, and products valuable. It’s very personal, often therapeutic, and tremendously satisfying to help people. Am I getting rich? Certainly not. But every day feels like an adventure. Every day I feel a little like how the wizard must’ve felt as he helped Dorothy and her friends discover the answers to their problems without a stitch of magic.

A key lesson found in The Wizard of Oz is that everyone possesses the power to overcome obstacles. Like the hard work behind good design, a little man was frantically pulling ropes and pushing levers behind the wizard’s curtain. The lesson for us is that although it is tempting to focus on the smoke and mirrors of design, the beautification magic of design, there is a real benefit from pulling back the curtain ourselves, inviting others to view, participate in, and appreciate what it takes to combine insight, wisdom, creativity, and craft to make ideas visible. Design is hard work.

But I think it’s important to remember how lucky we are to be on this journey of constant discovery and to be able to help people in such an intimate way. Like Dorothy and her friends, we travel down the yellow brick road we call our careers seeking job satisfaction, but in the end we find it within ourselves. It is when we pursue not our own passion, profit, fun, or fame, but focus on the importance and intimate nature of the problem-solving role we play as designers, that real and lasting career fulfillment occurs. And that is more magical than flying monkeys or talking tin men.