I was twelve years old when I first got my hands on Photoshop, and I’ve learned many things since that day when it relates to design; but no year taught me more about my professional career than the year I turned twenty-five. It’s still hard to believe that tomorrow I’ll be twenty-six, but as I look back on the past year I’m extremely grateful for the work relationships I’ve built and the experiences I was fortunate enough to have. These interactions and experiences taught me some vital lessons which I know will help shape this next year of my life in a positive way. I’m going to carry these lessons and bits of advice with me forever now, as they’ve become part of my arsenal of tools I use when designing anything.
#1 – If someone insists on a lemon, give them a lemon.
As designers we always want the project we’re currently working on to be better than our last one. We get excited about it and we try to instil this excitement into our clients. We go through the motions; explaining to them why this is a great idea, why it’s better to do it this way, and explain how this technique is catching on. Despite all this, clients are fickle creatures and some are more willing to listen than others. They’re going to have feedback and despite your efforts to convince them otherwise, they’re going to want you to do things their way. Sometimes we need to remember this is a paying client and just like any business, we’re here to make the client happy. You may not feel the same way about how things turned out but if the client is happy with their lemon, then so be it – you will have plenty of opportunities to create portfolio worthy work elsewhere.
#2 – Make time to design for yourself.
Okay… I didn’t really learn this at the age of twenty-five; I’ve been told to design for myself ever since I got into this design gig but it never really hit home until now. There was a period of time where I was going into work and the tasks I was being asked to perform became really robotic. I felt that my growth as a designer was being hindered because of it, and that’s when the importance of designing for myself finally hit home. The only thing hindering your growth as a designer is you – no one can tell you what you can’t do or what you should do when you’re designing for yourself. Break rules, try new things, make mistakes and learn – in turn you’ll be better because of it.
#3 – Ok you’re creative but do you write?
Here’s another thing that I kind of waved my hand at whenever someone brought it up. I despised writing, I wasn’t confident with it and that’s partially because of the low grades I received in English throughout high school. I assumed I sucked at it; actually, I’m still not sure if I’m good at it but I do it anyways. At the end of the day it gives my mind a rest from having to create visually and in turn forces it to create through words and sentences – kind of like changing gears and still moving. I find that this has helped my communication skills dramatically, I feel more confident when explaining concepts to clients and I’m able to comprehend job and revision requests a lot quicker.
#4 – Be positive and press on.
Being negative about certain things that might be being asked of you gets you nowhere quick. Trust me. Not only are you hurting yourself, you’re hurting the team around you. No one wants to work with the guy or girl who takes every task thrown their way with a negative approach. When working with a team, no job is too small for you and if it helps the greater good then buck up and do it. You’ll find more joy in things if you can put a positive spin on all that comes your way. You’ll be happier.
#5 – Don’t be an ignorant know-it-all jerk.
The most successful people in this industry are accessible and willing to share the things they know. If you’re good at what you do then by all means, walk with your chin high, be proud, but remember to stay humbled. No one ever reaches their full potential, there is always something new to learn and those things might come from someone who is less experienced than you.
#6 – Network and don’t burn bridges.
We work in a very competitive market and our biggest competition is only a few kilometers away, but this doesn’t mean we need to be cutting each other’s throats. Along with being a competitive market it is also a thriving one, with tons of clients to go around for everyone and new work being asked to be created daily. It’s important that we network and make friends who share our interests in design; we can learn off of each other and stimulate creativity by surrounding ourselves with other creatives. I made the mistake early on in my career of disconnecting myself from other creative professionals, and leading into my next point, I’ve come to realize how important it is to have those people in my life.
#7 – Stay inspired, stay motivated.
Whether it is at the agency you work for, the friends you hang out with or a meet-up you attend, it is important to surround yourself with other creatives. Inspiration can come from anywhere but it’s these types of people who will get you excited to do work. I love to design (I make art and get paid to do it for crying out loud!), and the utter most-worst thing that can happen to me is for this to start feeling like a job. If you’re the agency type, make sure you work for someone who inspires and motivates you so that your work is the best it possibly can be. Don’t put yourself in a dampening environment; your work will start to suffer because of it and the longer you stay there the harder it will be to pull yourself out.
#8 – Stay organized, keep a schedule and follow a routine.
If you ask my colleagues about my desk habits they’ll be quick to point out that I hate when things are out of place and there’s clutter. Being organized helps me get shit done. I know what I have to do and I’m able to complete tasks more effectively. Having a schedule helps me fall into a routine and it’s this routine that makes my days more productive.
#9 – There are “Meeters” and there are “Makers”, which are you?
As designers, naturally we are “Makers”. We spend countless hours sitting at our desk thinking, creating and going through revisions in order to meet deadlines. We work on an everyday basis with “Meeters”, these are the people who go to meetings, translate our designs to the client and bring us back the client’s feedback. The nature of the beast will have the Meeters trying to pry the Makers away from making and have them attend a meeting. In some instances this may not be prevented but when things are piling up and you need to hammer through it – do not waste your time by going to these meetings. You’re needed at your desk, and bottom line is you need to make not meet. If you’re a freelancer you’ll need to learn how to juggle both but I suggesting weighing heavier on the making side of things. Don’t let your clients pry you away from production hours for useless conversation. If you need to meet with them make sure you optimize your time and follow an agenda.
#10 – Have an agenda!
Nothing frustrates me more than going into a meeting and falling down a rabbit hole. There’s approximately a half hour of time wasted in every meeting I go to where an agenda wasn’t prepared. Let’s be a little courteous of people’s time, shall we? Start planning an agenda. You’ll find that you’re getting more out of your meetings and freeing up more time in your day for other things.
#11 – Stick to your strengths and flex it.
There are a handful of designers and artists out there that I look up to and part of me wants nothing more than to know how to recreate some of the elements I see in their work. Unfortunately any time I attempt this, I get nowhere near what they did in their piece. I’m not saying experimenting is wrong, because it’s not – by all means, you should be encouraged to do this kind of stuff, but when it comes to a paid client piece make sure to stick to what it is you do and what landed you that job in the first place. Clients hire you based on the things you’ve already done – they see something in you they like and you shouldn’t entirely pull away from that when working on the thing they hired you to complete.
#12 – Look ahead and navigate accordingly.
Throughout my early adult hood I never really had an end-game for life. I didn’t even know where I wanted to be in five years (which happens to be now). All I knew is that I wanted to become a designer and work at a respected agency while making lots of money. Fast forward and I’ve come to realize that my goals needed to become more specific and happen within quicker intervals. Five years is too long, you should be planning for five months. You should be planning goals that you truly believe you can achieve. Once you pick something that you want to accomplish, whether it’s a salary increase, a promotion, or gaining an asset in life everything that gets thrown your way should be faced with the question, “will this help me get closer to my goal?”. If the answer is “yes”, then act on it – if the answer is “no” then move on to something else that will get you where you want to be.
#13 – Know where your leaders want to be
It’s important to know where you want to be, but it’s just as important to know where your leaders are going. Most likely if you’re working at an agency you’ll end up wherever your superiors take the business. Do your leaders share the same vision as you? Is where they want to be, where you want to be? It’s a powerful thing to want to end up at the same destination, but it can be a train-wreck when your ideal destination is different from the person’s who’s driving.
#14 – Money isn’t important but managing it is.
Money isn’t important, at least not to me. If you asked me a year ago, I would have said “absolutely”. The honest truth is I was never financially comfortable until I stopped giving a f#%* about how much I was making, and started focusing on how much I was saving. Getting into freelance forced me to take a look at my money and learn how to manage it. I stopped looking at how much I was making, and started looking at how much I needed to make in order to pay the necessary bills. I took that number and aimed to make that much as frequently and often as possible. Quite quickly I began making that amount several times more than I was spending it and in turn I was saving an amount I was very happy with.
#15 – Know your self-worth.
Take a few minutes away from your work and sit down with no distractions and just think. Think about the quality of work you produce, how fast you can produce it, how much or how little guidance you needed to arrive to your final pieces. Ask yourself questions like, how hard would it be to replace me? How reliable am I and how much do people count on me? Other than my skillset what do I bring to the table? How do I contribute to this team beyond my physical work? Am I good fit here? These are all questions that will help you establish what you think in your mind is your self-worth.
#16 – You’re most valuable asset is something you can’t charge for.
The single most honest thing you can do with any client is exactly that, be honest. It’s a no-brainer that anyone you interact with appreciates honesty more than a lie. Sure, honesty might land you in some hot water for a while when you f#%* up, but don’t you deserve that at that point? The ironic part about this though is you usually never end up in any kind of hot water if you’re honest from the get-go. Clients start to build a relationship with you based on trust and respect, they know when you say “five days” you mean “five days”; and when you tell them that their suggestion isn’t that good, they know you care and you want to see this project succeed just as much as they do. I find that being honest with my work sets realistic expectations that set me up to succeed.
#17 – Respect my time and I’ll respect yours.
There’s no denying that clients can come to us at the most inopportune times with a job that needs to be done “yesterday”. I try my best to accommodate everyone that comes to me for work but sometimes it’s just not possible. Sometimes I can’t take on another project that involves heavy thinking and planning on short notice because I will not be able to deliver a quality piece. I found in some instances, reoccurring clients had known about these projects well ahead of the current date and for some reason never got around to feed the job into me. Realistic deadlines are something I strive for whenever I work with anyone. I know how much time I need to be given in order to deliver quality and if clients respect that time they’ll be thrilled with the end result.
#18 – It’s still not okay to be late.
I don’t know where this notion started but lately I think people are starting to believe that it’s ok to be late. Ready for the truth everyone? It’s still not okay to be late! By being late you’re telling people that you don’t respect their time. You’re telling them whatever you were doing prior to showing up was more important. This could be your first meeting with the client and as soon as you’re late the client has already formed an opinion about you; can they expect the same tardiness with deadlines? Be on time.
#19 – Unplug.
As designers we spend countless hours on our computers and sometimes forget that we need to unplug every now and then. You might think that sitting at your computer for hours upon hours is productive, but it’s not. We need to take mental breaks or we become less productive the longer we don’t. I find that I am most productive after I’ve spent a couple hours away from my computer. Remember to unplug and stay fresh, give your mind a rest and take some time to enjoy the things that aren’t on your desk.
#20 – Find a hobby that can inspire you in some way.
For me, I found comics as my distraction away from work. The artwork in comics always appealed to me and having something that is physically in my hands, doesn’t need to plug into an outlet, and has to be read in a quiet environment just sounds perfect to me. Although most artwork in comics is not really my style, I like the fact that I’m still surrounding myself with a form of art while I’m away from my computer.
#21 – Check your email no more than twice a day.
Things have gotten hectic this past year and I find myself taking on more responsibility and doing more work now than ever. In order for me to stay on top of it all I had to start using one of the better project management systems out there. The unforeseen result of this is that I check my email less and I’m more productive because of it. When a job or a task is important, I know it will be in the PM system. If the client has access, any notes that need to be fed into me will be in there. Emails served as a giant distraction and hindered my productivity because I needed to filter through all the crap that’s in my inbox before finding the things I actually needed.
#22 – Think about the thing you’re creating as you’re creating it.
Creating wireframes before my designs has become an integral part of my process. This is something I didn’t do enough of in the past. Knowing what I need to layout on my canvas and where it needs to go helps tremendously. At this point I’ve already thought about what it is I’m creating and I know how it will function. Despite this, I never really stop thinking about the thing I’m creating as I’m creating it. If a better user experience is discovered during the design stage then I’ll pull away from my original wireframes. If timelines are an issue, I’ll jot down my new idea and pitch it to the client after the project launches.
#23 – Only you can make the things you want to happen, happen.
No one is standing in the way of your goals. The only person who can hold you back is you. Sometimes you just need to dig deep down inside yourself and find the motivation and courage that will help you get to where you want to be or have whatever it is you want to have.
#24 – There is no substitute for hard work working smart.
I prefer the term “working smart” over “working hard”, but to me they’re not far apart. You can work hard all you want but you need to be doing it right. It’s pointless putting in a ridiculous amount of hours into something if you only needed to put in a handful to get to the same result. To say you need to “work smart” doesn’t insinuate that it will be easy either. The most successful designers work smart. They know how to manage their time, get better at their skills and know what they need to do in order to have success. This doesn’t imply that they’re not working hard at it but it certainly implies that they’re doing it right.
#25 – Keep learning.
The day will never come when I’ll be content with what I know. When I look back at all I’ve learned over the past year I become hungrier for more knowledge. I’ve grown exponentially as a designer and although it’s obvious that my design skills need to always be getting better, I know I always need to be learning about all the elements that surround design.
These are lessons and pieces of advice that I will always carry with me. As the clock strikes midnight and I become one year older, I’m looking forward to seeing what challenges will come my way, and how I can use what I’ve learned this past year to overcome these challenges. I can only hope that twenty-six brings the same, if not greater, wealth of knowledge that twenty-five did.