Here’s a common myth: To be a successful creative professional, all you need is talent. It’s a nice myth to believe in. “Talent” suggests a divine or evolutionary genetic gift, so if you’re blessed with the talent gene, you’re special and can be a cool creative person. If not, you’re destined to be an accountant.
After working three years at “MetaDesign”:metadesign and since starting my new position at Dubberly Design Office, I’ve noticed this myth of talent has very little to do with the success of a junior designer. Instead, I have found that those who survive and last more than six months practice these seven habits:
- Work quickly. Produce a lot
- Attend to details.
- Be versatile.
- Make an effort to learn.
- Anticipate problems.
- Set goals.
- Display a positive attitude.
1. Work quickly. Produce a lot.
In a design studio with large collaborative projects, time is money. Being fast is critical to your survival. The studio relies on your speed in two areas: Idea generation and production.
Being a junior designer often means your final work won’t be polished. Fortunately, design is not just about quality. It’s also about ideas and concepts. The more ideas you generate quickly, the more value you bring to the studio. Having many unrevised ideas, as opposed to one perfect concept, helps your creative director and design team to:
- Envision the solution space, the set of possible solutions, for the project.
- Evaluate what’s conservative, feasible, or ridiculous.
- Create a pool of alternatives to choose from in case a client rejects the team’s initial recommendations.
- Invite early client participation, by having more options to show and discuss.
Ideas shouldn’t remain in your head; you need to find ways to express them. Some ways to show ideas include brainstorming via outlines, concept maps, mood boards, and sketches. Also useful is rapid prototyping, the iterative process of creating rough and imperfect proof of concepts. Here are some ways you can present your ideas.
Outlines are lists organized hierarchically, much like the lecture notes you took in school. They’re a quick and familiar way to organize initial ideas without worrying about what the final design looks like.
Concept maps show relationships between concepts in the form of nodes and links. Each node represents an idea; each link represents a relationship. Both should be labeled. Their advantage is the ability to show one-to-many and many-to-many relationships.
Mood boards are collages that combine images, colors, and words to capture the general feeling of what a product or service might evoke. They’re useful for discussing general conceptual approaches without getting bogged down in details such as layout and typography. For examples of mood boards in all shapes and sizes, check out Flickr’s Inspiration Boards Pool
Sketches are drawings that approximations what a design might look like. They can be rough or detailed.
When generating ideas, keep in mind that in the early phases of a project, you should first try to generate a lot of ideas instead of having a few perfectly defined.
Second, you should create distinct ideas rather than variations or permutations of the same idea. (I still have a hard time with this one.)
Finally, don’t be afraid of dumb ideas.
Even if your ideas don’t work out, you can help refine, improve, and implement the ideas of others on your team. Production—the execution stage of a design process—is a vital skill for every designer. This means you need to be well-versed in the most commonly-used software applications and prototyping methods in your studio. You don’t need to know them like the back of your hand; you just need to know enough to meet the possible demands of the studio. To become more proficient:
- Seek help by asking another designer how to do something.
- Search online for answers. Google, message boards, blogs, and wikis are your best friends.
- Keep updated on product announcements, tutorials, and updates.
- Try-out and adopt new software.
- Practice your skills by experimenting on side projects, such as personal websites and designing for your friends and family.
- Read sites like this one for tips and tricks.
- Take classes on new or unfamiliar technologies. Your employer may even sponsor you.
Most major applications now come with a set of tutorials that demonstrate old and new features. As a daily or weekly exercise, choose and complete one tutorial on an unfamiliar part of the application.
2. Attend to details
Successful junior designers take great care in preparing files for others to use. They pay attention to pixels and picas, check spelling, remove unneeded files, and strive to make it easier for someone else to understand their work. Nothing will annoy your supervisor or creative director more than having to clean up sloppy work. Some tips:
In programs with layers, such as Photoshop and InDesign, name and order your layers with a logical naming convention. Delete any layers and ruler guides that are unnecessary.
Keep files managed with clear naming conventions and a logical hierarchy of folders. This makes it easier for your boss and other coworkers to find a file later.
If you have linked or placed images in a file, make sure they work when you package them for your creative director to review. Linked images should also be named according to a logical naming convention.
Make it easy for your manager to give you feedback by making a list of specific questions you need answered to take the project to the next step.
3. Be versatile
Versatile and flexible designers can weather the economic ups and downs of a design studio because they can be staffed to more types of projects. A sure-fire way to shoot yourself in the foot is saying “I don’t do web” or “I don’t do print.” You’ll be seen as a diva and won’t last long.
Effective designers instead say “I don’t know how yet, but I want to learn how to do it.” Eventually, you’ll learn new skills and—more importantly—ways to adapt these skills to new demands. Being well-rounded also gives you a wider range of experiences and skills to draw from when designing. This means more variety when generating ideas and a better understanding of how different disciplines can work together.
Hugh Dubberly, a design planner and educator, shared this anecdote:
“Herman Zapf, famous type designer, tells a story of his first job. He interviewed with a printer who asked if he knew how to use a process camera. Zapf said yes. He got the job and went straight to the library to read up on how to do it.”
Unlike what Zapf would say, I still hear many designers proclaim, “I don’t want to design websites. It’s too technical.” These designers close themselves off to the possibility of learning and growth as well as the reality of technology’s prevalence.
With the ubiquity of technology and the Internet, it’s impossible to avoid getting technical. I encourage every designer, whether print-based or software/web-based, to have some understanding of:
- Basic programming concepts (functions, loops, conditionals, and variables)
- Social networking and collaborative authoring (blogs, wikis, message boards, MySpace)
- Cybernetics (study of systems, goals, and feedback)
- Search and search engine optimization (metadata, tags, page rank, contextual advertising, personalized search)
- Version control and content management
4. Make an effort to learn
To be versatile, you must learn new skills all the time. Effective and successful designers are lifelong learners. They are curious, enthusiastic, and passionate about design and want to learn more. This passion translates to better job satisfaction and productivity. They also:
* Seek out mentors, perhaps a teacher, manager, or industry expert they admire. * Choose jobs based on those that let them learn the most. When you’ve stopped learning, it’s probably time to leave. * Have projects outside of work (such as cute productivity blogs). * Participate in the design communities by attending lectures and other events. * Keep up with technology and become an early adopter. * Read books on unfamiliar topics. * Write about what they’ve learned and share it with others. It helps organize their thoughts.
5. Anticipate problems
Junior designers can make themselves indispensable by recognizing and anticipating potential problems for their managers. For example, you can:
- Point out potential production issues that might delay the project.
- Accurately estimate the amount of time you need to a task. Junior designers are notorious for underestimating the time it takes to do something, so give yourself some padding for anything that might go wrong.
- If you need more time to do a task, tell your managers at least 24 hours ahead, so they can rearrange the schedule.
- Alert managers when work falls out of the project scope.
6. Set goals
To be an effective designer, you must set goals for yourself. These goals can be skills you want to learn, responsibilities you want to have, and types of projects you want to work on.
Knowing and articulating these goals is especially important during performance reviews. Reviews should be more than just about discussing your past performance; use them as an opportunity to present your goals. This shows that you want to grow. It also allows both you and your manager to agree on a plan for achieving your goals.
For more about goals, check out Erin Malone’s article on the five-year-plan
7. Display a positive attitude
Companies change. One day, your company is the leading design studio for non-profit corporate identities. The next day, it decides to specialize in websites for luxury European cars. As company vision shifts, so can the staff, location, and other resources. Amidst change and uncertainty, it’s important to remain positive. Nobody likes a grump.
Here are some ways to show a positive attitude:
- No matter how junior you are, mentor others by sharing information you’ve learned.
- Identify problems in the studio and find ways to make them go away.
- Ask what you can do to help.
- Avoid gossip and talking ill of fellow coworkers, clients, and competing studios.
Certainly, these habits apply to other fields as well as design. They also may be obvious to some. Nonetheless, it’s important to restate and articulate what we often forget. For junior designers who want to eventually become senior designers and managers, it’s vital to avoid believing that success depends on talent alone.
Success for a designer depends on how much value he or she brings to an employer or client. Quality and talent can be part of this value, but success requires more than that. Designers also bring value through speed, versatility, foresight, and other qualities that have little to do with talent. Talent, if it exists, is only a small part of success.
(Special thanks to “Hugh Dubberly”:dubberly for his feedback on an earlier draft of this article.)
- “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen
- “Learning How to Learn, by Joseph D. Novak and D. Bob Gowin
- “The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, by Neil Fiore
- “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell
NOTE: This article is based an earlier blog post on LifeClever, published July 12, 2006.