Elizabeth Goodspeed on the double-edged sword of New York’s creative scene
In her first column for It’s Nice That, our new editor-at-large discusses the sometimes exhausting but always exhilarating nature of working in the city’s design industry.
If you’re at a party in New York, you can almost guarantee the first questions you’ll be asked. Your name, where in the city you live (and, de facto, what subway you take), and the inevitable, defining question: “What do you do?” While New Yorkers at large are known for their borderline oppressive commitment to hustling – see: “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” – I often feel like the lack of work-life balance is particularly evident for those of us in the city’s creative fields. This phenomenon is partly an occupational hazard born out of declining wages and rising rent costs (a subject for another article, no doubt), but I think deep down, most of us work too much because it’s how we make sense of ourselves. Creating things is integral to how we find our way in the world, and how we connect with others. Being a designer isn’t just what we do; it’s who we are.
In New York, the lines between a professional meeting and a casual gathering are easily blurred. Everyone you meet could be a potential collaborator; a quick coffee becomes a brainstorming session, a dinner party doubles as a networking event, and the best Halloween rager is thrown by a Bushwick-based brand agency. It can feel a bit like high school, where there’s no difference between a lunch with friends and a chance to gossip about the design scene. Even the most tent-pole global agencies are buoyed by an underground network of social connections and referrals; one where roommates are bosses, exes are coworkers, and friends are clients. Just look at the number of studios in the city run by a married couple for proof – at least 40, by my count. And despite the rise of remote work and many ‘New York’ designers absconding to a tri-state diaspora (this writer included), these same New York microcosms still find themselves repeated online in private Slack channels, Zoom calls, and on the oft-maligned Design Twitter regardless. The New York hustle goes global.
The identity-defining entanglement with our careers in this city might be because the membrane between our professional output and our personal environment is remarkably porous here. After all, the design studios that dot the cityscape play an outsized role in shaping the look of the countless global products and brands we interact with on a daily basis – placing New York’s designers in a unique, almost surreal reality largely of our own making. We navigate a city where every subway ad, every store shelf, and even the insides of our own fridges and medicine cabinets serve as a reminder of our field, and by extension, someone we know, admire, or maybe even loathe. Just take Who Designed that Garbage, an Instagram account that tracks the work made by New York's best studios as it goes the way of all packaging: from the shelves of trendy apartments to dumpsters and recycling bins across the city.
I grew up in Southern Westchester, the woefully uncool shadow of the city, but like many suburbanites, I always wanted to live in New York proper. New York was the first place I was exposed to the joyous visual cacophony of signage, advertisements, and window displays - everything I later learned to be called “graphic design.” As soon as I graduated from RISD, I went to New York, commuting to my job at Pentagram, and later, to my job at RoAndCo, from my railroad-style Brooklyn apartment shared with two (wonderfully creative) roommates. While I can’t say I had any semblance of a healthy relationship to work in those earlier years, nor would I necessarily recommend such an imbalanced mindset to the next generation, somehow living in a space and a city surrounded by inspiration made it feel worth it at the time.
After working almost exclusively as a commercial designer and art director, I found my way to writing in 2021 through a bit of a back-door; in a miraculous act of procrastination validation, my first article was actually a commission based on a tweet about a typography trend. I remain a devoted generalist, and as a result, I find that I hesitate to call myself a writer at times. I feel more like a designer who writes, or a strategist who designs. I’ve been running an independent creative practice for almost five years, but the actual day-to-day work I find myself doing ranges from historical research to packaging design. When you’re a solo practitioner, your identity can feel amorphous, like water changing states, or maybe more like the holy trinity: a simultaneous embodiment of employee, boss and client. Over time, I’ve realized that it matters less what I call myself (whether my level, my title, or my specialism) than what I do. And what I love to do is make connections; to create links between the things happening in design and the rest of the world, to identify formal and conceptual ideas across time and space, or to find patterns within a seemingly disconnected set. I love ideas. I’m just agnostic as to how they take shape, whether visually, in a conversation, or as the written word.
This column on It’s Nice That will give me the chance to share all sorts of these ideas more regularly – I’ll be seeking out visual trends, diving into hot topics in the commercial world, and speaking to designers and other creatives across the US about their thoughts on the current state of the industry. You can also catch me in-person at future New York Nicer Tuesdays events, where I’ll help the It’s Nice That team host a range of exceptional folks (East Coast megalopolis-based and otherwise), as they share more about their own paths into the creative world. Who knows, maybe I’ll bump into you before too long.
Elizabeth is going to be writing a regular column for It’s Nice That from her base on the East Coast of the US. Check back in in a couple of weeks to read her latest thoughts on design trends and hot topics from the creative world.
About the Author
Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.