Dethrone your design gods

Five practical tips to shed your dependence on thought leaders and be a more thoughtful designer yourself.

There’s a lot of advice going around these days from “design royalty” that doesn’t really paint a full picture of success.

Success looks different to many people, here’s some ways I’ve found that have helped me become more “successful” as a designer.

1. Don’t compare yourself to “successful” people, and realize that some people have become successful because of privilege and/or luck

There’s a lot of loud voices in the design world who declare their way of gaining success is the best or only way. They get interviews, retweets, and sometimes even publishing deals.

It’s easy to look at those people and think, “Yes! I want that. I want to be just like them!” but their path to success will always be different than yours.

Avoid comparing yourself to those people and the methods they used to achieve their success. They may not have had the same barriers or struggles that you have to endure. Sometimes they were just in the right place at the right time.

Instead of looking up to those people, look around you and try to find, talk to, and work with people doing great things that aren’t getting notoriety and fame. Lift up voices that have previously been silenced. You’ll likely find yourself much more excited and inspired if you do.

2. Take time for yourself

It’s good to look around and see all the amazing new design content people are creating daily, but sometimes it can make you feel pressured that you have to be making and sharing things nonstop.

Stop comparing yourself to other people.

If you do something for yourself, do something that makes you happy and you don’t even have to share it with the world if you don’t want to. It doesn’t have to be design related at all, and sometimes it’s actually more enjoyable if it isn’t.

Don’t underestimate what your time is worth to yourself. If you’re constantly “hustling” for other people’s attention you can easily find yourself burned out and miserable much quicker than you think.

Invest in quiet time. Meditate. Spend time with family and friends. Recharge.

3. Be smart

The creative industry is one that can be difficult to navigate. Creatives are expected to often do more than they’ve been trained for and are put in situations that are often stressful and not geared for you to be successful.

Educate yourself on what you want to do and where you want to go. If you’re working for a company or a client, find out what is important to them and learn skills that can help impact those those things.

Understand when you should be generating ideas and when you should be honing ideas. Find people you trust and ask for specific and directed feedback in areas where you’re unsure of a decision.

It’s okay to make mistakes, but be intentional with your decisions, follow them through and learn when you make a mistake. Talk to people you respect and ask them about mistakes they’ve learned from.

At the end of the day experience is just a collection of learnings from mistakes.

4. Make informed decisions

“Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions” — Dr. Grant, Jurassic Park III

Do your research. Make sure you understand the audience you’re designing for, what their problems are, and how you can solve those problems with design. Design is not art—information will nearly always improve your designs and ability to make design decisions.

Attempt to understand how your designs could be misused or misinterpreted and what the consequences of those things are. Understand what the state of the world is and realize there are biases. Design with those biases in mind or even design to break those biases.

Realize your own biases by talking to people with different skin colors, gender, sexual orientations, cultures, and backgrounds.

When it comes time to make a decision, make sure you’re informed, but commit to that decision as much as possible until you’re wrong. Have strong opinions, but hold them loosely. Listen to people and have dialogs without taking things personally.

(Yes, I did in fact just quote Jurassic Park III. It’s not the best, but hell, it ain’t the worst either, pal.)

5. Take care of yourself

People will always find ways to take advantage of your time, energy, and skill. They’ll ask you to do things for free, for “publicity,” or try to get away with paying you as little as possible.

Educate yourself on what you’re worth and do your best to hold the people working with you to that. There will always be areas you have to bend here and there, but try to hold your ground and don’t be afraid to say “no” if you need to.

If you’re in a spot financially and creatively where you can take a risk on a project or job, sure, go for it. Just make sure to determine what you’re investing (time, energy, resources) and determine if you think the return will be worth it before you say yes.

The blindly-happy starving artist trope is played out. It’s also okay to ask for more and believe you’re worth more. Don’t feel guilty about it.

You’re not going to naturally love everything you work on all the time. Even in your dream job, doing what you love, it will never be perfect. Find a balance of doing something you’re good at and like doing with people who value you and your skills enough to pay you accordingly.

On the flip side of this, if you’re in a position where you’re the one doing the paying: pay people what they’re worth regardless of gender or race and fight to make sure pay is equal and people have what they need to survive and thrive.

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