Irman Hilmi: Money in Design

Irman Hilmi is the quintessential urbane man. Having contributed to everything from music (damage digital, space bar, KLHPQ) to local internet culture (as Melayu Minimalis), he now runs Grafa Design – a threefold establishment that is simultaneously a design studio, bicycle shop and café. Irman was also the Art Director of international advertising agency Dentsu as well as Malaysia’s Freeform. Still that doesn’t mean he has made it, JUICE got him ranting about the evils of corporatising design.

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For the past decade, I’ve been making ends meet by drawing lines, little boxes and alphabets and arranging them. Be it on paper, on your computer screen, on TV and billboards, one way or another I’ve made another person believe in what I can do for their establishment and part with their (or their company’s) money to pay me. Sometimes expensively.

Truthfully, advertising is where all the money is at. It’s also a place where designers go to die and disengage themselves from design and think in ‘advertising’ terms. My year-long flirtation with advertising ended the day I stopped dreaming of bright lights and wanted to start enjoying designing again.

Sure the money is good, but you end up becoming a zombie. You necessitate working over weekends and coming home at 3am to the fact that at the end of the day you will be rewarded with a big, fat bonus.

There are some creative work being done here locally but it’s not indicative of the amount of money that’s being pumped in. The more creative ones are usually pro-bono (where clients have no say), or done only as award candidates. Yes, awards for advertising people by advertising people. Advertising is very exclusive, and sometimes they can forget that there are people outside of advertising too.

Publishing is, in many ways, less severe, but the client factor still plays a role. Although having said that, you can usually counter what the client has to say due to ‘editorial’ policies. There is less money (since the ad agencies took a big slice off it already) but it compensates with all the perks.

The perks will depend on what kind of magazine you work for, cool magazine, cool perks. You will get invited to the coolest events and parties, have the best holidays, enjoy the best product (samples) and meet your favourite stars. You’re only truly busy during the period before your printing deadline, and you spend the rest of the month downloading MP3s and updating your blogs on being a designer in a cool magazine.

There has been a lot of cool design work coming out from local publishing, where the main challenge has always been about maintaining a balance between editorial direction and client’s needs. Well the clients pay less money in publishing as compared to advertising agencies, which is proportionate to the amount of ‘make-our-logo-bigger changes’ that a designer will adhere to. Although with the demise of print a lot of publishers are putting their clients first and their editorial direction second.

So I left both advertising and publishing to go out on my own.

The myriad of smaller design studios out there offering everything from logo design to wedding photography proves how some designers do not necessarily want to give in to the system and instead make it on their own terms.

I’ve seen many fail and give up, but the persistent ones came up to become niche design houses and moved on to become smaller design agencies. The money here is even smaller but the pleasures are the biggest. There is nothing like being able to choose your own clients and who you want to work with. Your success will depend directly on how hard you work, not how high you are in the hierarchy.

And desperation is always good for creativity. The best works I’ve seen locally are self-initiated works, sometimes even self-funded. The issue now is how to value these design works.

Interestingly enough the main issues facing those who go on their own are designers themselves. Freelancing designers often undervalue their work for experience and exposure’s sake, complicating cost justification to clients. We don’t have big teams in account servicing, or absurd production costs, but there is value for any design work done. Finding the balance is the trick that they should teach all design students in college, but instead it’s something we find out when we really go out on our own.

Irman Hilmi runs Grafa Design, a design studio, bicycle shop and a cafe in Subang Jaya.