Being a Creative in a Corporate Environment
My whole life people who were older than me always said that if I had dyed hair, piercings, or tattoos I’d never make any money or get any decent job. They also said that I’d starve as an artist but...I write this having 20+ tattoos, some on my fingers and a partially shaved head, living in Chicago making the national average rate in my field. So, someone is wrong somewhere.
My whole career I’ve worked for local companies. Richmond VA, Los Angeles CA, Detroit MI, and only one of those jobs ever cared if I had tattoos. It’s when I got to Chicago and started designing for a global corporation that this issued popped up again for me but this time it was personal in the sense I had to renegotiate with myself what roll I wanted my self expression to play in how I presented myself in my new job. For context it’s important to note I have about 20 tattoos and a majority of them are on my left arm and lower left leg. None of them are inappropriate or outrageous but they do often peak out in a lot of the attire I wear. My office also is business casual dress, and no clear rule on tattoos written into place.
I have found when you work in a “Creative Department” no one really cares how you dress or how many tattoos you have.You’re also probably not alone in having tattoos at this point. Creative departments are interesting because they are typically very relaxed and so long as you prove your reliability to get the work done on time, you can develop your own set of general rules for yourself like when you come into work, how your work space functions and how you choose to present yourself, etc. However there is a sort of “read the room” situation that comes into play with all that freedom. People do tend to follow a general basic level of dress among themselves and depending on how seriously you want to be taken at work, what opportunities you want to reach for, and how noticed as a worker you want to be, that general unspoken rule of dress can really matter.
I think self presentation matters a lot as a designer. You should look like the job you have (or want). Designers are paying attention to color, texture, composition, and space all day. I think your dress can incorporate all of those things in a subtle and smart way. Where I think the self presentation starts to matter a more in a formal workplace is in your career goals, and who you need to be interacting with to bridge those opportunities. An example is, as a graphic designer in a creative department you don’t always have to face clients who may be traditional business investors, or formal celebrities that need to have a certain impression of the business you work for. Or you most likely aren’t working on pitches to the president of a global company to try to justify a new project to lead your team on. The rules change a little more depending on the cenario. When that starts to happen you get into the question of where your goals lie for your career growth and what factors are at play that will or won’t help you get in the door. For example I have to speak with marketing officials, and at times the President of my business unit. These feel like much more formal occasions to me and should be viewed as such in presentation. I want to be taken seriously so that my ideas are heard, and I am considered for advancement opportunities that may bring ask me to bridge gaps outside of the Creative Department at times. so I feel I should present myself ‘seriously’, and sometimes, tattoos or other alternative ways of self expression at work could be viewed as personal vs professional. In my experience the ‘older’ worker still totally has a snap judgment and stereotype for creatives who have tattoos. It hasn’t affected me thus far (as far as I’m aware) but I think it helps to be aware of what these stereotypes are and if they’re around you. What that stereotype seems to be, I’ve learned, is that we’re indifferent, late, disorganized, we don’t know how to communicate, and that we’re reckless. I proactively try to disprove these quickly in my self presentation styles and how I conduct myself in meetings. Whether that’s wearing a cardigan on a day I know I’ll meet a ton of new people, or that I sit up straighter or, participate in meetings more vocally. When I know I’ll have an opportunity to dictate what my first impression is to people more important than me, I typically try to have a serious down to business first impression.
No one has ever negatively commented on my tattoos in the workplace. I typically won’t bust them out in the first few months in a new office. Over time I get brave and wear sleeveless shirts and even in my more conservative jobs I’ve worn sheer long sleeves so you still knew I had tattoos. When I get this ‘bold’ I already know I’ve proven myself to take my day to day seriously, which is apparently the line you need to draw in the sand to tattoo or alternative dress skeptics. I’m never late, I always communicate and ask questions. I get up and talk to people….you know all that personal stuff.
Regardless of tattoos, or pink hair, or facial piercings, and whatnot, if you’re charming and people like you, you will get soooooo much farther in this world and in your field, whatever it is. I also suggest going around and find common ground with EVERYONE you work with. You don’t have to be best friends. You don’t have to like them. Just have common ground with each other. It helps the both of you have more approachability with each other witch makes working on a team easier for you. I’ve found that whether it’s someone who’s not used to the alternative look, or someone who has assumptions about it, if you’re a good worker and they like you, you can come into work in weird fake metal band shirts, dawning your tattoos, with long black stiletto manicures like I do. Maybe think twice if you know you’re having a meeting with people who don’t know you well, or a VIP is around the office. Don’t be absent minded there. But in this evolution of who works in the workplace, and how the workplace functions, most people have tattoos. Most people work in a workflow that’s more productive to their lifestyle, and what ‘presentation’ means is different than what it meant. The old reputation of who has tattoos and piercings is dying. ‘Loose, good for nothing, gangsters,’ aren’t the only ones who have tattoos anymore. We all do. For better or worse. The people who set that stereotype are retiring out of the work force and it’s a free for all in expression again. Just do your work and communicate in style. It no longer can be used an excuse for what kind of worker you are, or are not.