Since I got my bachelor's, I've been working fairly consistently as a theatrical lighting designer. Seeing as I've had a number of other day jobs and supplemental jobs in this time (some of which I wasn't too happy to have), "theatrical lighting designer" was what I usually described my profession as. With anyone who didn't have experience in the theatre, this inevitably led to the question, "So...what does that mean?"
I have come up with an answer to this over the years:
"Have you ever seen a play?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"You know how you can see the actors?"
"That's what I do."
Bad jokes aside, it's hard to explain what a lighting designer does. Basically, if someone doesn't have enough theatre knowledge to know what an LD does, then they likely don't have the knowledge I need to touch on to explain it. Even worse is trying to explain how I do what I do. That's a hard question even coming from other theatre folks.
I was recently at a friend's birthday party and got to talking with a few other people who work in technical theatre positions. It was a shock for me to see how little we each understood about how each others' work got done. I didn't understand how the technical director got the set constructed, he didn't get how I figured out how to put what lights where, and no one realized how much work the fight choreographer had to do. While we all had a basic background in technical theatre, none of us could have done the others' jobs (at least, not well). Things get even harder when the other person doesn't even have that background to call on.
I know this isn't unique to theatre designers. Anyone who has a specialized knowledge base, from plumbers to programmers has the problem of trying to explain how they do what they do. Explaining the things that took years of training to learn in simple terms is a really tall order. That's why most people wouldn't ask a plumber how they do their work. They recognize that there's a knowledge base and a wealth of experience required to do this job. After all, if there wasn't, you wouldn't have needed to call a plumber.
This recognition seems to be rarer when people are considering professions that are less physical. When the work is primarily intellectual or artistic, it seems more like magic, as though there should be some secret that, once understood, would allow someone like them to participate. I doubt anyone actually thinks this consciously, but I really do think that on some level this is the mental process.
The best example I can think of for this phenomenon actually has to do with actors. Any time I have attended a preview, workshop, or other performance where there was a talkback between the actors and audience the question that is almost always asked first (and it's always asked at some point) is: "How do you memorize all those lines?"
This results in some foot-shuffling and looks between the actors before someone answers, "It's part of the job," or some variant. It's a question that requires an answer of five words or five thousand. And even though studying lines is the most rote, mechanical, systematic part of being an actor, I doubt most actors really think about how they get all those lines in their head.
And that's the difficulty in explaining how these jobs get done. Not only is it too much information to condense easily, but most of the intermediate steps have been practiced to the point where they have become instinct. An actor doesn't think about how he's going to memorize his lines just like a plumber isn't reciting "lefty loosey, rightey tighty," to himself.
This is the same problem I have when people ask how I create a lighting design. There are maybe half a dozen steps between "here's a script" and "completed, working show." Each of those is enough to bore someone to tears and is filled with bits that I don't actually think about anymore. What most people want out of my answer is a quick explanation, but I don't think I have anything in me short of a lecture.
Maybe at some point I'll come up with a quick, snappy answer to "So, what's a lighting designer do?" that actually answers the question. Until then, at least I have bad jokes to fall back on.