10 Years / 10 Learnings

10learnings

Back in 1999, when I began my career as a graphic designer, I really had very little idea of what I was in for. Sure, there were plenty of glimpses into the field from classes, design lectures, books, magazine articles, and conversations with professional designers, but nothing ever spelled out what it was like to be a designer. Internships, while helpful, offered only a brief taste of real design work. The only of way of truly knowing and understanding design was to dive in and do it.

Now, as 2009 draws to a close, I look back on my career with some sense of accomplishment. There is much I have yet to learn, many more challenges to overcome. So, for those who may be embarking on their own journey as designers or whose careers may already be underway, I present the following top 10 learnings in 10 years:

  1. Design is a service, above all. Contrary to popular design press, professional design work isn’t about pure self-expression or self-gratification. Nor is it about executing orders just to please a client. It’s about understanding clients’ problems and devoting serious time and effort to solving them — “creating value” for them and their customers (apologies for the cliché). Good service is the foundation upon which rewarding long-term relationships are built. Of course, recognition and praise are always welcome outcomes of the process.
  2. Design is a business, like any other. The toughest lessons to learn about design revolve around business: contracts, finances, client relations, hiring, et cetera. Regardless of your role, being knowledgeable in the business side of design helps you work smarter and handle many on-the-job challenges with the big picture in mind. In the later stages of your design career, business savvy pays off huge dividends, so it’s never too early to start learning.
  3. Clients aren’t the problem. Misunderstandings are. All too often, well-intentioned designers and clients end up at each other’s throats over easily-avoidable mistakes. Assumptions, misinterpretations, and other communication gaps can quickly grow into giant chasms as clarity and common grounding are sacrificed for expediency or “efficiency.” Communication skills are critical in all aspects of design work and life in general. As Steven R. Covey states in Habit 5 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.”
  4. Creativity is more important than craft. I like experimenting with software and cool “designy” effects as much as anyone, but I came to recognize early on that the capabilities design programs offer can actually constrain the depth and quality of solutions you develop. Proportionally speaking, getting to the core of a problem and generating solutions should occupy no less than half your time, and should involve generous amounts of investigation, exploration, sketching, rough prototyping, modeling, and experimentation. Simply put: invest in process before product.
  5. Be fast. Be good. But don’t be cheap unless it’s for a good cause. Design work should be based on an agreement that is fair to both designer and client, a “value for value” exchange. However, a designer must be careful to maintain the balance between work expended and profit received. Making accurate project estimates is critical, as is constant communication with a client over the course of a project as time and budget are spent. When deciding on nonprofit clients and/or pro bono work, weigh the benefits and potential positive outcomes against the resources you’ll need to devote to the work.
  6. Back up every design decision you make with sound reasoning. Design solutions don’t sell themselves; make sure everything from the high-level concept down to the finishing techniques you choose link together seamlessly. “Because it looks cool” or “because I like it” aren’t valid justifications for the choices you make.
  7. The devil is in the details. Whether it’s the final files you’re sending to the printer, the e-mail you’re drafting to a client at a critical point in a project, or a big design presentation to win an account, you must vigilantly mind the details. Failure to do so (especially under a tight deadline or in the late evening hours) can be costly, both financially and professionally. Leave time for revision, and try to enlist the help of a fresh pair of eyes to cover your blind spots.
  8. Maintain professionalism at all times. It may seem like a given in a field like design, but it’s astonishing how often professionalism is disregarded by designers, especially those just starting out. It spans everything from e-mails and written communication to telephone demeanor and face-to-face interactions. Professional conduct is less about being impersonal and stiff than it is about respectfulness, sincerity, and consideration in all business contexts. That means biting one’s tongue in the face of criticism, keeping a cool head under stress, and not letting conversations get too personal or casual with clients. We’re all human, but we should be mindful of the boundaries that define our role as designers.
  9. You never stop paying your dues. I still have a hard time with this one, but I’m slowly coming to terms. At every stage in one’s career, there’s always a new challenge or obstacle to overcome: long hours to be logged, tight deadlines to meet, sensitive situations to defuse, new fires to put out. Waiting for the day when you can kick your feet up and reap the rewards of your success can ultimately lead to frustration. If you’re lucky enough to achieve such rare success in design, then congratulations. The best the rest of us can do is to persevere. Sometimes the payoff comes in ways you don’t expect.
  10. Broaden your horizons outside of design. It’s a common trap to fall into: having lots of designer friends, going to design events, reading design magazines and websites, and doing mostly design-related things. A solid diet of design can quickly lead to staleness. Being a designer means participating in the world at large and pursuing diverse interests. By absorbing a range of experiences, you deepen your cultural savvy, broaden your visual vocabulary, and can carry more interesting conversations at design events.

Looking ahead, I’m not sure what the next 10 years will bring, but I’m trying to be optimistic. The economy may continue to expand and contract, markets may emerge and vanish, and the design profession itself may continue to evolve through it all, but some lessons will probably always hold true.

13 comments

  1. Tamika Brown says:

    Mike, I absolutely love the website! I’ll have to come back and reference it. You brought up some details that get lost in the shuffle of life. I’m not a designer, but your words reached me!

  2. fritz desir says:

    Thanks Michael, very open and honest post. I think this should be made into a meme of some sort—10 years / 10 learnings, again great stuff. If I pick it up (if I ever find time) I’ll put it on Facebook and see what happens. Thx again for writing.

  3. Mundir Razik says:

    You just do not know how right you are with this: “Maintain professionalism at all times”

    I have had a load of problems being unprofessional. One of them being the customer does not regard you the way you should be.

    Nice site, bookmarked you. Will be back for more!

  4. Chris Butler says:

    Michael,

    So far, your post is the first decade-retrospective piece that has truly resonated with me. Each one of your ‘learnings’ is a significant principle that could merit its own post, if not something larger. The third item, “Clients aren’t the problem. Misunderstandings are.” was one that is indicative of the kind of humility you need to be really effective as a designer. I’ve learned this principle the hard way; I imagine there is no easy way to learn it. Realizing that your clients are people too- often good, well-intentioned people who are not out to steal from or abuse you- often comes through the kind of painful experience that exposes your own arrogance and abuse of others, rather than one where you were the ‘victim.’ It may seem hyperbolic to put design in these terms, but most designers I know give it everything they’ve got, which is precisely why misunderstandings end up being so painful.

    I could go on and on about your other points (particularly #5, “don’t be cheap unless it’s for a good cause” – see my post on using pro-bono work as a client building strategy: http://www.newfangled.com/transitioning_pro_bono_service_to_paid_accounts), but I won’t clog up your comment stream.

    Thanks for putting this out there.

    Chris

  5. Michael says:

    Wow! I’m floored by the responses to this post. Thanks everyone!

    Tamika: I was hoping there would be some relevance to a larger audience than designers, so thanks for commenting.

    Fritz: The meme idea is great. It would be interesting to see what other people can contribute in this vein, whether it’s 5/5, 10/10, and so on. There’s no doubt a wealth of great insight out there. BTW: Hope you’re practicing your Visual SenseMaking skills!

    Mundir: Professionalism does go both ways. How designers are perceived and treated by clients is a huge issue, especially as traditional design services have become more commoditized and democratized to some extent. Communicating the value of what you do and establishing mutual respect with a client is crucial from the very start.

    Chris: You’re right. There’s much more behind these lessons than what’s written, but a common theme is that many are learned the hard way. Miscommunication and misunderstanding problems are particularly painful, and it’s hard sometimes to set one’s ego or one’s own will aside so that a balanced, civil, and productive dialogue can be restored.

    As for working pro-bono, I’ve seen both the good and the bad sides of this in practice. Sometimes well-intentioned designers get pulled into pro bono work they later regret, or they don’t get the results they expected. It always comes back to issues of clarity, fairness, and purpose. Your blog post on this topic is excellent; thanks for including it in your comment.

    Jamie: Thanks for elaborating on this on your blog! I’d be curious to hear what your old professors have to say. There’s only so much, I think, that design schools and design programs can hope to achieve; however, that’s no excuse for the recurring gap that exists in design education. If there was some way to incorporate more real-world lessons, that would benefit students, potential employers, clients, and the schools themselves — by producing higher-caliber graduates who are better prepared to handle the challenges of the design profession.

  6. The one thing I try and teach all of my consultancy client is that professionalism and great service is crucial to the success of any business, not just design … yet so many business owners treat their customers with so little respect …

  7. Taylor says:

    Michael, this is a timeless piece of advice that will always be relevant, and be relevant to pretty anyone out there trying to provide professional service to others, even if its outside of the design.

    Really well written. Hard to argue against.

    I can see why so many people has taken the time to digest what you’re saying and looks like many have internalized it as well.

    thank you for putting this together.

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