A career in design is both creatively satisfying and financially rewarding. Talented designers not only get to create exciting things, they sometimes even get to touch millions of people with their work. A lucky talented few like Sir JonyIve even get to shape the zeitgeist with a few landmark designs.
However, building this rewarding career isn’t an accident. You have to take the right career steps and carefully plan everything out. It’s easy to stumble into a good job and then get stuck. You have to constantly innovate and challenge yourself if you want to build the design career of your dreams.
Regardless of what you focus on – graphics, UI/UX, web – there are a few tips every designer should know for building a great career:
1. There is no replacement for hard skills
If you look at the day-to-day of the world’s top designers, you’ll find that they rarely get hands-on with design work. Rather, they focus on overall design thinking and strategy.
This can create the impression that as a designer, focusing on strategy alone will help you build a great career.
As important as design strategy might be, it is not a substitute for sheer hard skills. The world’s best designers, be it Dieter Rams or Vera Wang, are fanatically good at their core craft. After all, it’s decades of hard skills and experience that tells them whether a concept can actually be realized and manufactured at scale.
So before you chase those “design strategist” dreams, make sure that you are at the top of your core design skills.
2. Being a team player often trumps individual brilliance
There is a perception common among young designers that design work is a lot like pure invention. They envision their favorite designers toiling away at a great design like modern day Edisons, only to come up with a piece of individually brilliant work.
The result of this belief is that young designers sometimes tend to be aloof and arrogant. They might disparage collective thinking in favor of individual work.
The truth is that great design work is very, very seldom the result of individual brilliance. Rather, it is a collective team effort. Even the tiniest of ideas and input from a team member can have a transformative effect on a finished design.
In other words, learn humility and the value of team work. This is especially true if you landed, say, an agency web designer job – the most common type of design job there is.
3. Learn the value of patience
Take a deep breathe. Relax. Take your time.
Building a design career is a marathon, not a sprint. Barring a few geniuses, the world’s best designers didn’t produce their top work until they were in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s. You have time – a lot more than you realize.
Instead of fretting about arbitrary goals and timelines (“chief design officer by 30”), focus on mastering your craft first. Become so fanatically good at your work that you can’t be ignored.
4. Diversify your experience
If you want to remain a cog in the design machine all your career, go ahead and focus on a specific skill and stick to the same type of jobs.
But if you want to become a design leader, you will have to diversify your experience. At creative director or design director can’t be just a graphic, UX, or industrial designer. Rather, she’ll want to have experience of all three – and then some more.
How do you get this experience? By taking on new challenges and working across roles, industries, and companies. Don’t be afraid to dive-in headfirst into a field you know nothing about. Don’t just work in creative agencies all your life; move to a tech company for a different challenge. And when that gets stale, try working in a non-profit.
Build up a resume that’s as broad as it is deep and you’ll be a fantastic position to be a design leader.
5. Failure is okay – as long as you learn from it
You will inevitably have moments of failure in your career. Some projects won’t come out as you envisioned. Some clients will trash your work. And some products will fail even before you launch.
Understand that failure isn’t just normal, it is even necessary. The more you fail, the more you learn. Every time you fall behind budget on a project, you will learn something about managing your time and material costs. Each client you rejects your first draft teaches you something about managing client expectations.
What’s important is that you accept failure in the right spirit. Always be open to learning from your rejections and disappointments. If you see failure as a learning opportunity, not a seatback, you will build a thriving career.
Over to you
Building a stellar design career takes effort and a lot of heart. It is easy to be impatient and lose hope when you encounter setbacks early in your career. It is also easy to become complacent and lose the edge. The key is to take your time, sharpen your skills, and broaden your experience to the point where you can be a true design leader, not just a designer.