General suggestions for being great.
I recently spoke on a panel at Daemen College to a group of students and prospective designers on building a better portfolio, landing your first gig and what employers and professionals are really looking for in an entry-level designer. We discussed all the important basics: a diverse portfolio of outstanding work, passion projects, understanding trend vs. timelessness and when to employ each, and being the right fit for a team.
I wrapped up the talk with a broader take on having a successful launch to your design career called “General Suggestions for Being Great” (based on the experiences of a just okay human who was lucky enough to get my dream job despite a gross lack of evidence of my competency at the time).
Here’s a snippet:
You can do it and very few things are totally unfixable disastrous mistakes. Fake it ’til you make it is a very real thing so exude an air of capability at all times, even when you don’t feel it. Freak out behind closed doors when necessary (not yet a 10,000 hour expert on this one).
Don’t be too confident
That doesn’t mean don’t be humble, make sure you always tell the truth (to be clear, that means never, ever lie) and cap the confidence just shy of arrogance.
Kill your ego. Friend-zone all your ideas
So you got an awesome job at an agency and now you’re on a team and that’s great because you’re no longer horrifically alone in a dinghy bobbing on the creative ocean. Congratulations! But now the competitive instinct that got you in the door needs to be punted to a neighboring state. Tim, Ryan and I go head-to-head on many projects for initial concepts, but even if I’m bummed that mine didn’t get picked, I’m still just as happy that someone’s did (way preferable to a client saying, “Um… no thanks.”), and most of all happy that as a team, we put together something incredible. Sometimes you don’t get the “fun” project. Sometimes your work isn’t great and someone has to tell you. Be totally okay with that, for the greater good. On a similar note, do not ever, ever, ever fall in love with an idea, even when it’s a fantastic one. It’s the way of the wicked world that it will be the one that gets cut.
Have interests outside of design
Have hobbies. Keep up-to-date on current events. Get outside, go explore, get dirty. Travel whenever and wherever you can. Write creatively. Read. Read. Read. Everything should influence your work and if you only spend time scouring design blogs, it will become harder and harder to think for yourself. One of the first questions Patrick asked me at my interview was “So what do you like to do besides design?” I froze, started sweating profusely and thought “I am an interesting person. I have interests. I know I have interests. Too many interests! Interests that are obsessively specific and no one else will ever like! I do so much stuff!” I had all my design-related responses delicately prepared, but to that question I think I answered “Um. I. Go… on… walks?”
Become a thinker of thoughts
Have something to say. Know what you like, be able to articulate it. Be able to defend it. Be able to identify and empathize with the counterpoint and try to make an argument for it. It doesn’t matter how well you know how to use your tools, if you don’t know what you’re building you might as well take a nap. Think of where a project can go, then think of where else it could go, and then scrap that and think of another ten ideas.
Work the hardest you can
Work-life balance happens eventually (I promise! Though every hard worker loves a good humble brag about the long days, they will not be every single day for the foreseeable forever) but it will not happen at first. When you start working you should be prepared to be at work early and stay at work late. There will be midnight oil sometimes. Be generous with your time.
Easily the most important. More important than your portfolio, than your work ethic, than your accomplishments, than your drive. Be humble, always. Be polite, always. Never say a bad thing about anyone, ever. Smile when you’re talking to people, laugh easily, be flexible. Don’t be a friggin’ jerk.