Stop Wearing So Many Damn Hats

When I was in college, I knew for a fact this is where I wanted my career to end up. I was damn good at design, so why not make that my focus? In college, I only had to wear one hat: student. With this hat, it was okay to not have a perfect piece (even if I loathed it) and it was okay to keep learning. This simple little hat is the first of many that I’ve learned to wear.

When I graduated and landed my first full time job, I realized that many small businesses don’t have the capital to hire people for individual tasks. The agency I worked in focused on web design, social media management, digital marketing, campaign organization — the sky was the limit. However, in that job I had to wear many hats. Many, many, many hats. When there was a role that needed to be filled, someone in our office would have to wear this hat.

Although we were multi-tasking because we wanted to be the very best, for me — I believe it can be problematic. The American Psychology Corporation credits a 40 percent drop in productivity when workers multi-task and move across projects. You can see there’s a problem there, right?

This wasn’t merely at my old job, it’s how we’re being taught as designers to be. The most versatile designers are often the most valuable designers. Employers look for people who have skills that show variety, but in reality it can also cause a lot of conflict in a creative mind. There’s a balance that we need to always chase.

When you’re a designer, there are a lot of bleed over into other skill trees. It’s a beautiful but oh so deadly combination.

If you want to do print design, you can easily learn digital design.
If you apply digital design to social media, you can learn social media marketing for your clients.
If you have an interest in film, you can apply your design skills to filmography and upsell your clients to a commercial.
If you’re quick with catchy slogans or can easily pass college-level essays, you can pair your design with copywriting.
If you’re passionate about video games, you can partner design with 3D animation and modeling.
If you have consistency and love to offer solutions to people, you can pair design with blogging or vlogging.

See what I mean? Design is a skill that doesn’t stick to a computer or pen and paper. It’s a never-ending web that branches into different genres, hobbies, professions and formats.

So when do you stop and focus on what skills will bring home the money and keep your sanity?

There’s never a clear answer, unfortunately. Whomp, whomp. Having these skills are crucial. It is our goal as a designer to be versatile and always learning. One of my bad habits is trying to be a “one-stop resource” for my freelance clients. I want so badly to see them succeed, so desperate to know that they are able to make their dreams come true. It’s easy to transition from one hat to another—web designer on Friday and event campaign consultant the next Tuesday— but I have gotten to a point now where I begin to think: no one is going to reward you for spreading yourself thin.

My advice to all designers: don’t always bend over to learn new things. Don’t dig deeper than basic understandings unless you’re being paid for research hours. The time you spent learning something can be turned into a fruitful opportunity, but there is a reason why there are different job titles.

I’m not passionate about SEO (search engine optimization). I’m not passionate about running keyword research, but I do some entry-level stuff for freelance clients. I decided when I started freelancing that I would never change my hat from a web designer, but instead learn the basics to empower my clients to find someone who can help them fully. The issue with stretching yourself to wear many hats is that it can contribute to what I like to call creative congestion.

Creative congestion is having so many skills and entry-level knowledge, but never being able to refine and focus to advanced skills. Businesses want designers who are able to handle advanced level work just as much as they want versatile designers. The balance is understanding that teams work better when they do what they’re best in.

Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great. 
— John D. Rockfeller

The business you’re apart of won’t die if you don’t have advanced skills in every facet of their company. If your company hires you as a web designer, make sure to be transparent that your job is to create websites. The world is looking for greatness, not “goodness”. To be the very best you can, focus on what you’re able to do great and branch out from there.

A few tips I have for narrowing your focus and cutting out the congestion are:

  1. Do research about the creative circle in your local community.. Is there a need for more web designers? More print designers? Social media marketers? Your community is the best source to get involved in. Look at local businesses and see what areas you can help fill a gap into.
  2. Think about what skill allows you to create quickly and efficiently. If you stress out every time you open inDesign, maybe focusing on magazine design isn’t for you. If you find yourself coding endlessly and still not getting tired, maybe web design is a worthwhile focus. The key here is to cut out stress and see which skills align with quickness and effectiveness.
  3. Can someone else do this? It may be hard to let go of something, but even if you’re good at a skill… is there someone else who can do that job better in your organization? If you own a company, can you hire a designer that can take the weight off your shoulders so you can lead? Distributing skills can allow people to focus on what they went to school for and allow you to have a business that streamlines itself towards an endgoal.
  4. Take them off for a week, see if they can stay off. Maybe you can’t afford to always take your hats off— it’s okay, I don’t judge the hustle! Taking time away allows you to clear your mind and cut the multi-tasking. Focus on getting one task done during the week without distractions—do you need to truly put the hat back on? Can you live without it?
  5. Make sure to think of income. Passion and profit can go hand-in-hand—don’t let anyone guilt you otherwise. I think it’s a thing a lot of designers are afraid to do: ask for money. If you do the work and do the work well, it’s okay to focus on tasks that bring that income in. Wearing many hats allow you a taste of different fields, but finding one that yields more profit should always be considered as well. Passion and profit have an equal place for a designer of any skill level.

At some point, the creative congestion will become overwhelming. If you’re self-employed through freelance, moving into wearing less hats can be difficult. The key to this is to eventually work towards finding people who can do better than you and trust them to help lift your company up. Make a five year plan to hire an employee, make a partnership, or merge into a business where experts are capable of contributing without restriction.

The less hats you wear the more time you will have to pursue the things you’re really good at. That special gift you have as a designer—that is what the world needs. It needs people excelling in specific fields with passion and dedication to make a difference. It’s okay to take the hats off and focus on that. Find a few that fit you and cut the congestion!

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