Culture Matters, Prestige Does Not

Many designers, myself included, have thought, “Oh, that studio does such great work! I would love to work there.” But what does that even mean? It means they have a track-record of doing excellent work, which is great and respectable. But who’s done the great work? The people that work there.

So say you actually get a job there, on Day 1, does that make you a better designer than you were the day before? No. But you benefit from the prestige of the studio. You’re now more respected than yesterday. The thing is, you didn’t earn that, you borrowed it.

Prestige is always, by necessity, based on past performance and previous successes. Successes that aren’t yours. They belong to the folks that made ’em.

“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” – Paul Graham

In college I learned about an old french word, cachet. Historically a cachet was a physical seal conferred by a person of royalty, a literal seal of approval. When you pursue prestige, you seek the cachet of someone else’s labors to provide you with unearned privilege.

To be fair, prestige matters to some people. Like clients. They love to see that you worked for Coke or Google, even some agencies (advertising, mostly) care about prestige. Because “if they’re good enough for Coke, then they’re good enough for us” thinking still lingers in our industry.

However, I want you to know what prestige really is – an illusion – so don’t get caught up in thinking that it really matters. The thing is you can or cannot be one of those exceptional people anywhere. That’s on you. Granted there’s a lot to be learned from people who are excellent at their craft, and that’s the primary benefit of working at a prestigious studio. But I’m proposing a bigger, broader view for thinking about where you want to work.

As I’ve worked with studios and agencies of many sizes and shapes, I’ve found a lot of these prestigious studios survive on their prestige. Initially, they gather a few talented, exceptional, young folks and make some amazing stuff. But since their culture sucks and it’s a terrible place to work, the talent moves on, just as fresher, younger talents moves in because of… prestige.

“Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.” – Paul Graham

When you’re faced with a decision between a prestigious job or a non-prestigious job, pick the one with the best culture. At the end of the day, that’s what matters because culture is what allows you to do your job. The right workplace culture frees you up to be the best you can be. Prestige is just borrowing from other people’s successes. Go make your own prestige. You’ll get there faster when the culture is right.