First off there is no magic pill for a successful career. But if theres some lessons that I’ve found to be true throughout my career and also exhibited by those that I admire, it’s these 5 lessons. You may be shocked at their simplicity but that is precisely the point. When you look broadly it is actually a bunch of simple steps that you take over time that build on to your experience and value as a designer – that helps you progress with your career. So without further adieu here are the 5 lessons:
1. Try to learn something new at least once a week. Something that you didn’t know about or haven’t done before. Learn it and apply it. If you’ve done this successfully – in a year you’d have learnt 52 new things. In 5 years it’s 260 things. All of which will help you create better work and increase your value as a designer. I love to read, listen to podcasts and watch videos to continually learn new things. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about design. Learning new things can become complimentary to your work without you even realising it. Your experience in learning about marketing may assist your design decisions for example. They can be big lessons where you learn something tremendous, or it can be little nuggets of new found knowledge. Something simple could be using a new typeface, learning a new program or exploring a new design pattern in your work that you’ve never used before. Or it can be something larger like learning to present and pitch to a client for the first time. I’ve found the best way to learn is to consume the information, then try to internalise it by actually doing it. I’ve found that you when you put application to something is when you will actually learn the most. It moves it away from being theoretical to something that is actionable in a live environment.
Here are some books, videos, podcasts and authors/mentors that I’ve learnt a lot from throughout the years
Grid systems in graphic design by Josef Müller-Brockmann
Elements of typographic style by Robert Bringhurst
New Perspectives in Typography by Scott Williams & Henrik Kubel
Designing News by Francesco Franchi
2. Do things that push you outside of your comfort zone. When a opportunity presents itself, put your hand up and say yes. I’ve actively tried to not shy away from these things, even though in the moment they seemed totally daunting. I’d used to always shit myself before hand, but because of the fear I tried to research, practice and prepare as much as I could. It’s scary and you will stuff up a bunch and know that that’s ok. You will grow and learn from it. But also realise that you will also succeed a bunch as well. When you challenge yourself and when you make it out the other end is when I find you learn the most. So if an opportunity appears put up your hand and say ‘yes’. As your comfort zone expands everything becomes easier and the challenges you take on suddenly become larger and more impactful.
3. Don’t think about yourself instead bring value to others. This is something that I cover in my Process: Masterclass. But I will share it with you here as well. Want to get paid more? Want a promotion? The truth is no one gives a shit about what you want. In order to become valuable think about how you can create value for others. You can either deliver value to a lot of people at once, Nike make great shoes that people love. 1 product can provide a lot of value to lots of different people. In the same token if you make something that is worth $100 (that people find extremely valuable) and sell it to 1000 people you will make $100,000. Pretty simple logic right. Or you can help a company make millions and charge $100,000. You have to create situations where everybody wins.
What can you bring to the table that can help others? If you work in an agency what new processes can you bring to your workplace that can either improve efficiencies and operations or improve client offering. For example does your agency promote prototyping? Can you be the champion that introduces this process to the company and offer prototypes to client deliverables and create better products for end users? Think about what can you bring to the table and what is your unique selling point. When you become indispensable or a linchpin as Seth Godin calls it, you inherently become valuable. Because people need you and you are not replaceable. You bring an energy and a specific set of outcomes that not many can achieve. You can ask for what you want because you have leverage and because your worth can be determined by what you can bring to others and the problems that you can solve for them. So focus on bringing value to others – the more value you can bring the more valuable you will become.
4. Work hard. I’ve never met or heard of anyone who is successful who doesn’t work hard. Innate talent can get you an advantage, but I truly believe hard work beats talent 99.99% of the time. Learn to show up and do the work. Learn the ins and outs of your craft and be willing to put in the extra effort and to really care. Don’t be the person who says “it’s not my job” or “it’s not in my job description” so I won’t do it. That’s a one way ticket to mediocrity. Go above beyond what people expect of you. If you under promise and over deliver every time, you will grow a reputation because of it. And suddenly good things and opportunities will magically seem to present themselves. It’s easier when you love what you do, but there will always be days where you can’t be fucked. But it’s in these moments that you can show the most character. By saying fuck it I’m showing up and doing the work because I’m a professional. I respect the process and what I’m doing, I’m showing up because I give a crap. It is this drive that will allow you to go on and do greater and bigger things. So become a work horse, work hard and keep honing in on your craft. I worked hard for many years and then eventually I learnt to work efficiently thanks to the hard work. It pays off.
5. Be nice. And this final lesson seems weird but it’s not. It doesn’t hurt to be nice. Be the type of person that people want to be around. Be that leader that empowers others, be that employee or boss that treats everyone with respect. Don’t treat your clients like dog shit or dollar signs, treat them like real humans and help their businesses realise their best potential with your work. People can sense this etiquette and generosity. It doesn’t cost you anything to be nice and I have found that the universe has a funny way of balancing things out. So be good to people and you’ll find that it’ll be paid back to you ten fold.
So there are my 5 lessons to advance your career. The key is to take action and make yourself accountable. Are you applying the above steps into your career, it’s easy to read things or think or them as hocus pocus but things will never eventuate until you take action. Use this as a guide to take action and make the most of your design career.