How to Grow as a Designer
Enjoy your design career and steer away from burnouts
I spent nearly a decade working in a B2B company that develops flexible apps for (big) data management. It used to feel a bit scary to be the only designer onboard. Although I began as a web developer, I quickly moved towards a role that allowed me to influence more aspects of the whole brand. As a Creative Director, I have gone through many highs, a few failures, and an exhausting burnout. Sounds familiar? How do you tackle the responsibility, workload, and challenges of a fast-paced business? How do you become a great contributor and thrive for years to come?
Long gone are the days when making things pretty was a designer’s primary assignment. People learned to appreciate good design, quickly blaming the creatives when something didn’t meet their expectations. Designers can serve as silent assistants or vocal leaders, proving vital to organizations of any size. Should companies hire agencies, freelancers, or in-house designers? It depends. But it’s certainly true that a loyal designer with intimate knowledge of the business can bring a lot of value in the long run. So where do you begin?
Join a good team
I have invested more than eight years of my life in the same company. I was there when we grew from a small team into a successful international business with nearly a hundred colleagues devoted to building powerful software products. Although I didn’t initially start as a designer, I earned the role by engaging with much more than just website development, which I had been hired for.
Treat luck as a hard-earned achievement, not magic.
Successful people usually work hard to reach their dreams. Dream jobs are not pinned on job boards. Find a good job that has the potential to turn into a dream job. Do not sell yourself short — present all your relevant knowledge and skills, not just what falls into the design category. Work hard, focus, and connect with others. You won’t need much luck to succeed.
If you get happily employed at a great company, be prepared, people can often expect more of designers than of anyone else on the team — even though their definition of design is frequently narrowed down to creativity. When others spot your versatile qualities, it won’t take them long to pay attention, ask for a smart advice, and respect you.
Let your colleagues know you are their partner, not a tool.
A design career is a lifelong mission, not one that blossoms overnight — earn trust slowly and patiently. Work across disciplines to better understand what your colleagues are trying to achieve. Be a loyal helper whenever you can, act as a skilled negotiator when a reasonable outcome is threatened, and become an inspiring leader when there are colleagues eager to follow.
Businesses consist of ideas, visions, goals, clients, employees, and so much more. All parts should be equally important to any designer. It takes time to understand the bigger picture — but it’s imperative for nurturing the brand’s image and tone of voice. Even though it requires a lot of devotion and insight, the results can be impressive and surprisingly rewarding.
Designers envision paths where others build walls.
Colleagues from focused teams often have their own distinct agendas and can easily fall victim to tunnel vision. Designers should learn to avoid such traps. Keep an open mind and always entertain different points of view while exploring a wider context.
Exercise non-design skills
Designers are great at being flexible and perceptive. If you don’t intend to be a specialist (famous for mastering color and type pairings, for example), you should look to expand your fields of understanding. Can you gather valuable feedback? Are you able to handle subjective criticism and individual preference? Learn how to effectively communicate and start getting a good night’s sleep.
A designer is well equipped for any kind of cognitive work.
Use your sense of empathy, passion for exploration, and ability to learn swiftly to connect with teams of experts. You are the one who is likely to recognize how insensitive a marketing campaign can be, or how an application’s complicated feature affects and undermines its ease of use. People around you are used to working within their territories — you can have no boundaries at all.
Don’t stop learning
A designer often studies his whole life, collecting thousands of questions and making hundreds of assumptions, yet only finding a few answers. If you haven’t started learning yet or have stopped, your chances to secure a successful career as a designer will be significantly decreased.
Where there’s no mentor, there is the internet.
It’s not always easy to keep up with the speed of innovation. Don’t limit your book selection to topics you are currently working on. There are brilliant books that won’t assist you with layout or typography choices for your next brochure; instead, they will highlight how influential and helpful you can be as a designer. And remember, if you have trouble finding an experienced teacher around, look to articles, conferences, and creatives willing to share their insight.
Expect to have little time for anything important. Even with deadlines looming around the corner, take a deep breath, focus, and deliver your best. Keep your desk and task list neat. Empty your head and start fresh when you feel overwhelmed. Use your brain to store vital information only; put everything else in a place where you can easily find it when necessary. One day, you’ll become less aware of what and why you are doing and more aware of what needs to be done (i.e., your task list). Take a step back and get in the driver’s seat again.
Rest your mind
There will be times when you feel exhausted, both mentally and physically. I would say it’s inevitable, especially when you naturally want to do your best at all times. Try to maintain a positive outlook. Tame your wild expectations, aim for the most feasible option, and stay sane. Learn to say no and only engage in meaningful battles. Keep a healthy distance, don’t get too attached or personal — this alone will give you a lot of relief.
Seek other achievements than perfection.
Become a hero
If challenges drive you towards better results, consider joining an ambitious organization that will set the benchmark high enough for you. Get ready to learn a lot along the way. Some of your newly acquired skills might be harder to reflect in your portfolio — the way you talk to people, collaborate, educate, and lead. Luckily, your life is not about your portfolio. What counts is how happy you are. You’ll become a useful contributor only if you consistently help others reach their goals. It takes years or perhaps a lifetime — so stop being a designer and start being a hero.
Are you looking for ways to make the most of your design career? I will be happy to hear about your experiences and tips to overcome any obstacles.
And while you are here, find out more about my goals and strengths. I am open to new challenges and almost always ready to relocate.