Talent Isn’t Everything

7 Habits of Highly Effective Junior Designers

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.

… this myth of talent has very little to do with the success of a junior designer.

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:

  1. Work quickly.  Produce a lot
  2. Attend to details.
  3. Be versatile.
  4. Make an effort to learn.
  5. Anticipate problems.
  6. Set goals.
  7. 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.

Idea generation

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.

Production

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)
  • Web development (XML, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, PHP/MySQL, Flash)
  • 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.

Conclusion

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.)

Recommended reading:

NOTE: This article is based an earlier blog post on LifeClever, published July 12, 2006.

Posted in Professionalism, Workplace and Career | 13 Comments »

13 Comments

  • johannes von sichartshoff

    April 10, 2007 at 2:42 am

    “Avoid gossip and talking ill of fellow coworkers, clients, and competing studios.” – bah Humbug. Great Gossip is a fabulous ice breaker and shows you care for the industry and are aware of the market. As long as it is juicy and funny. I don’t know, it seems like you forgot to add “Be an android.” – if this list is really what it takes, I don’t want to be a successful designer anymore. And surely not at Meta.

  • Mac Randall

    April 10, 2007 at 4:57 am

    So often I encounter junior designers that want to be “idea people.” While I greatly respect the power of ideas, someone has to execute them. As an interactive producer I greatly value talent, but also greatly value the ability to execute ideas. A humble attitude mixed the tips mentioned in this article could serve any new designer very well in starting on the path to becoming a creative professional.

  • Manish Pillewar

    April 10, 2007 at 5:06 am

    Communication:
    This has to be polished to a professional extent. Newbies need to practice clear communication in order to articulate their ideas to the clients at times. Clear and professional communication also helps in defining the exact goal of the UI exercise and helps to eliminate ambiguity. Junior designers need to practice writing professional emails and polish their talk as well.
    Subset : Vocabulary:
    Again from a professional perspective, designers need to learn the talk. Know and practice using UI jargons, read a lot for the same. Designers need to be armed with examples for every UI design they suggest as well. Clients, often from the business side, need to be given examples they know & UI’s they have seen, to understand things better.
    My two cents.

  • Kathy Marks

    April 10, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Nice article. Good advice for experienced, as well as beginning, designers.

  • Teresa Torres

    April 10, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    It’s not enough to anticipate problems. You also have to explore solutions to those problems. Nobody likes the person who always points out what’s wrong with an idea or what could go wrong with a plan. But if you point out the problem and suggest some possible solutions, then you are being productive as opposed to just critical.

    Otherwise, a good article. :-)

  • Regnard Kreisler Raquedan

    April 13, 2007 at 4:32 am

    “Alert managers when work falls out of the project scope.”

    Easier said than done. But it’s really better to be upfront about project delays. Perhaps there are good recommendations on how to be the bearer of bad news?

  • Christina Wodtke

    April 13, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    When I managed a team of designers, I used to say, you HAVE to give me an estimate. And You HAVE to learn how to geg good as estimating the time it takes to do you work. And I want you to tell me 12-24 hours in advance when its’ gonna be late (even 2 hours is better than not at all). BUT you won’t get in trouble. But if the due date ever comes, and your work isn’t there and you didn’t warn me ahead of time. your ass is mine. All is forgiven, unless I get bad surprises.

    As a manager my job was to protect and grow my designers as professionals. But that means knowing what’s up. If a project does get out of scope, better i knew that ahead of time– even if the designer might still make deadline– than find out from an angry client. More over, when a designer tells me these things, I can help them deal with it– advise how to handle growing scope, advise how to deal with floating deadlines. Something I can’t do if I don’t know what’s going on.

  • Christina Wodtke

    April 13, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    When I managed a team of designers, I used to say, you HAVE to give me an estimate. And You HAVE to learn how to geg good as estimating the time it takes to do you work. And I want you to tell me 12-24 hours in advance when its’ gonna be late (even 2 hours is better than not at all). BUT you won’t get in trouble. But if the due date ever comes, and your work isn’t there and you didn’t warn me ahead of time. your ass is mine. All is forgiven, unless I get bad surprises.

    As a manager my job was to protect and grow my designers as professionals. But that means knowing what’s up. If a project does get out of scope, better i knew that ahead of time– even if the designer might still make deadline– than find out from an angry client. More over, when a designer tells me these things, I can help them deal with it– advise how to handle growing scope, advise how to deal with floating deadlines. Something I can’t do if I don’t know what’s going on.

  • David Glaze

    April 13, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    As someone who’s been managing designers for about 20 years, I can say “I half agree”. While it’s true that success for a young designer typically does include on the kinds of skills described in this article, it would be a mistake to undervalue talent in the mix. A junior designer who is organized, productive, detail-oriented, positive and communicative but not a particularly talented designer is often destined to find his or her career path shifting towards Production, running a studio, or becoming a Creative Services manager. All noble callings to be sure, and invaluable to the success of any design firm, but not necessarily the designer’s original goal.

    I find points 1 (Work quickly. Produce a lot.) and 3 (Be versatile.) to be particularly problematic in this regard. These are great traits, to be sure, but pointless if the output is not good. Quickly produced reams of mediocre, off-target or un-executable work is far less valuable than a few well-conceived concepts. Ditto for versatility…being able to do mediocre work in different styles is a questionable skill at best.

  • Rahel Anne Bailie

    April 17, 2007 at 12:04 am

    Talent isn’t *all* you need, but talent *is* definitely part of what you need to be great at design. Just as some will never be great dancers or musicians, some will never be great designers. It’s the talent that gets you to a certain point, and the work ethic that takes you the rest of the way. I’ve supervised my share of designers, and have seen the various mixes of high-talent/low-habits, low-talent/low-habits, and low-talent/high-habits, and high-talent/high-habits. The first two might are the same nightmare in the workplace – missed deadlines, sloppy deliverables, and eventually departmental dissent as coworker resentment rises. Of course, we all want to work with high-talent/high-habit designers, but I’ll take an average-talent/high-habit designer any day, particularly in a junior position where they have the opportunity to bust out and gain confidence.

  • wayman Luy

    April 18, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    As a Junior Designer this article definitely drew me in. I can’t say where I sit on the talent/habits poll but I have learned a lot in this first year. Talent is important but not as much as it’s forgotten sibling skill. Talent sounds like it just got pulled out of a hat. I started from a programming background and learned how to design, draw, and communicate visually. It’s not a natural talent for me. I’m still learning, everyone not just designers continue to learn and grow their skills. From my perspective the most important things is to soak up the knowledge around you. UI designers, visual designers, and developers all have something to impart. You could say I’m one of those ‘idea people’ but realizing “hey I’m just a junior designer” definitely leads to a lighter weight on your shoulders. It also lets you open up to the free exchange of ideas that is hopefully happening in your office/studio.

  • Michael Beavers

    April 25, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Chanpory, this is a nice article. When you mentioned coming up with a lot of ideas and contrasted with also not doing sloppy work, you touch on an issue that will be increasingly central to design companies and agencies. There should be a clearer role definition between visual design and interaction design. In many agencies, these separate roles are still practiced by a single creative team.

    Visual design is about “concept”, which includes interpretations of mood and feel, while interaction design is much more focused on details of creating testable prototypes–based on how user research is guiding the working product. Loose ends and too many “concepts” from visual design can actually serve to distract users during testing–not to mention the likelihood of blowing through a research budget. Both money and user respondents are difficult to come by.

    The creative and interpretive pressures on these two types of professionals are quite different from one another, but both are critical to developing a good experience. For junior visual designers, you’ve done a nice job of outlining some success (or failure) factors. I’d love to hear more about your experiences with successful junior IDs, too.

  • johnny wolfe

    May 11, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    Great article. (I just signed up to this account — How do I bookmark this to my profile so I can refer back to this later?)

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