A Beginner’s Guide to Being Indispensable

You’ve graduated, and landed your first job as designer. Now what? Seven pieces of starter advice to set you on the road to success.


One piece of career advice from a wise fellow designer, @amycooperwright, has always stuck with me: ‘Make yourself indispensable’.

It sounds deceptively simple. But how should you go about it?

Last week I was invited to speak to design students and recent graduates at Design Manchester about my experience, and offer advice, from my 10 years as a designer.

Remembering that advice, I broke indispensability into seven specific tips for the talk, in no particular order.

1. Be humble, be confident

I recently visited the head of a graphic design course in London. She told me about a student who had applied with a confident business card.

Not the exact card

The course leader suggested that claiming such a broad range of skills might be a bit disingenuous for a 17-year-old.

The student (perhaps feeling a little criticised) stood her ground: “But I want to be like Pharrell!” she said.

Spotting when to be confident and when to be humble isn’t easy, but recognising good advice when it comes your way is a skill to practice.

When you work with other designers you need to switch modes between confidently leading and defending your point of view, and humbly stepping back to let others improve your ideas. This is how to collaborate: it’s not just working on the same project at the same time; it’s a process of push and pull.

Great collaborators will earn and keep their position in any team.

2. Get ready to learn and re-learn tools

Ten years ago when I started out, you could make a lot of money as a Flash developer. It seemed a safe, and lucrative bet. Today, Flash is all but gone.

We’re working in an era of continuous change, disruption and innovation. Whatever you’re doing today, there’s a good chance you won’t be doing the same thing in three years. That’s incredibly exciting. It’s also incredibly challenging.

Here are the tools I used every day three years ago:

My old tool belt, circa 2012

… and here are the tools I use today:

My toolbelt, today

Almost every one of them has changed. You’re a member of a profession in the ascendancy: design has never had so much influence and credibility. But this comes with the responsibility to stay on top of your game, and your tools.

Today I ply my trade as an interaction designer. There may be more or less change happening in my discipline than in yours, but the advice is true of all the designers I work with at IDEO.

I don’t see this trend changing. For designers it’s not mastering one piece of software or another, but continually picking up new tools.

That’s not to say what you know now is useless. But if you expect to be changing tools every six months it might change the way you use software.

Staying on top of your toolkit will mean you’re ready for the next brief that comes your way, whatever the challenge.

3. Make others successful

It might seem counterintuitive, but when you prioritise the success of the others in your team it raises the standards for everyone including yourself.

When you begin your career, making your boss look good will certainly have a positive impact on your success. You should have the same approach with your colleagues and those junior to you.

Finally this ethos should extend to those paying your wages: remember that your job as a designer is ultimately to make your client successful.

Any designer who works hard to make me look good ranks highly on the indispensability rating.

4. Surround yourself with interesting people…

We’re lucky to work in a world where — thanks to social media — there’s nothing stopping you from being in the company of interesting people. It’s now possible to build a rich and varied list of people to follow on Twitter, Medium, Pinterest and LinkedIn, to widen your intellectual horizons.

But your contemporaries and fellow graduates are interesting too — granted, some more than others — stay connected to them. They are all on the same path as you and over time will build their own networks and areas of expertise. It’s impossible to say which of your peers will go furthest, but assume that any one of them might.

Your network is part of the value you will bring to the teams you work with. Start growing your network now as an investment in the future.

5 …Be an interesting person

The flip side of surrounding yourself with interesting people, is being one yourself. This will mean different things to different people but I can recommend two things:

Read (widely)

Make sure to look beyond your field as you’ll find inspiration comes when you draw connections from the otherwise unconnected. Pop science, classic literature, business theory — it doesn’t matter which part of the internet you find something to read, just make sure you don’t start in the design section.

Write (with focus)

Recently I’ve been writing about Design Research on Medium. (Shameless plug, I know.) It started with a lot of work on my part, but remained focussed on a topic close to my profession. Writing about the work you do as a designer will develop your opinions and knowledge while you take ownership of the information you share.

Interesting people are indispensable as they’re guaranteed to bring something to the conversation. Inspiration is found in the links between disparate ideas; the broader your palette of ideas the more likely you are to inspire those around you.

6. Be bold

In your early career you’ll be faced with opportunities that might look risky. Be bold and step up to take them. The chances are the people around you will be your safety net — it’s rare that you’ll be completely on your own. Rise to the occasion and trust your instincts.

Being the kind of person willing to make decisions with confidence will make you incredibly useful. The most complex design projects today are solved by teams of individuals empowered to make decisions — the old model of a ‘Creative Director’ acting as a bottleneck are numbered. The sooner you demonstrate the ability to take responsibility, the sooner you’ll unlock opportunities to progress your career.

7. Look for opportunities to learn (on projects)

Finally, your journey as a designer will be one of continuous learning. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to act on some of the advice above while getting paid to do great work. As designers we’re unbelievably fortunate to have that chance.

The moments of greatest harmony are where your personal interests align with the goals of a project. If you reframe each of your projects as an opportunity to learn something new you’ll find motivation comes easily.

Any good workplace will know the value in supporting their employees’ desire to learn, but it’s much easier to support the learning when it’s adding value to the project and client at the same time.

If you can upgrade your own skill set alongside your day-to-day responsibilities you become a very valuable member of the team.


Closing thoughts

Looking at the advice I’ve shared here you’ll note that i’m not suggesting any technical skills or abilities. I’m not, for example, suggesting you should learn to code or master Photoshop.

You’ll also notice that there’s nothing in my advice that’s specific to a career in design. I’d like to think that the mindset that makes you indispensable will be relevant whatever you’re doing in 10 years time, wherever your career takes you.

Thanks to Ed White ( @edwhite28 ) for ever valuable wrangling, refining and rejigging.