We broke our learnings down into five parts: self-improvement, honing your craft, client relations, collaboration, and ‘big picture,’ which is a fancy way of saying everything we couldn’t fit neatly into another category. Onward!
Self-comparisons and one-sided competitions are toxic. Ignore ‘em.
“I have learned that comparison and competition are enemies of the artist,” says writer Mike Sager. “How did he get that assignment? How could she win that award? How many books did she sell? What’s his hourly rate? All that should matter is the piece of work that sits before you. There is you. There is your art. At the elemental level, nothing else matters.”
Safeguard your freedom to pursue happiness.
Amos Kennedy Jr. quit his job as a systems analyst to become an letterpress printer, taking a major pay cut and sacrificing security to pursue his craft. “We have this model of working forever for somebody and then retiring and going off to play golf. And that’s the good life,” he says. “We aren’t taught to be independent and free… That freedom that we so long for is, basically, an ability to express ourselves and just be happy.”
If you’re going to strike out on your own, have a little cushion.
When you take the leap, give yourself a timeline and some cash runway, or else you might wait forever. “I had six months’ worth of savings,” Ugandan photographer Sarah Waiswa says of ditching a corporate career and striking out on her own. “I told myself, ‘If I can’t create a sustainable career as a photographer in six months, I have my Masters to fall back on, and will get another job.’… It’s easy to wait for the perfect time to leave your job, but fear will kill your dreams.”
Don’t approach your next project with a pre-planned excuse.
Researchers believe about 70% of us will experience a period of career self-doubt, a common workplace symptom known as Imposter Syndrome. This can lead to shame, anxiety, and giving yourself a ready-made excuse for when things go wrong. But new research shows how you can fight back against the self-doubt and rebuild your confidence.
If there’s a barrier to your calling, find a way around it.
Photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi covers unrest and turmoil in places like the Congo, South Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda. She started out as a humanitarian aid worker in Congo, but when her colleagues were evacuated during a crisis and the photographers were allowed to stay, she embarked on a new photojournalism career. Now she stays in conflict zones long after everyone else has left the field, lending a different kind of hand to those in need.
Find the subject that will make you a student for life.
“I was bad at everything in school,” Todd Hido admits. But once he discovered his interest in photography, Hido pulled a 180. “I wanted to go to school because that’s where the darkroom was and I found something that made me excited about being there,” he says. “Ever since, all I’ve ever done is photography… I’ll be a student of photography until the day I die.”
Don’t call Beyoncé. She’ll call you.
Laolu Senbanjo wasn’t searching for Beyoncé when he left his human rights law career in Nigeria to open an art gallery. “[The gallery] was my safe haven where I could create magic with people who understood me,” says Senbanjo, who later moved to Brooklyn. Shortly thereafter, Beyoncé got wind of him, and Senbanjo answered a cold call from the singer’s reps to bring his Afromysterics design aesthetic to her album, Lemonade.
Get fluent in financials.
“If a designer is able to translate something like a creative brief into a business brief, that gives you a huge leg up,” says Amazon Music's digital design and UX lead Marisa Gallagher. “It’s a craft in that you’re learning how to speak with the right language.”
Be the person who sticks up for you.
“I wish I knew not to be so hard on myself and not to beat myself up so much,” says Debbie Millman, host of the podcast Design Matters, reflecting on her 20s. “I wish I knew not to take everything so seriously in terms of my worth and my value. I wish I had spoken up more and stuck up for myself.”
Adopt the perspective of the age you feel, not the one you are.
“I’m surprised to find myself with the chronological age of 77, when really I feel as if I’m still somewhere between the ages of 14 and 28,” says Sydney-based painter Ken Done. The key is “keeping your eyes open and trying as best as possible to get the most out of every day.”
You should have the right to disconnect. And you should use it.
France has passed a bill that bans bosses from contacting employees past 5 p.m. and on weekends. The rest of the world can take a hint. France’s “right to disconnect” legislation is a recognition “that asking people to work crazy hours just isn’t helpful economically,” says Katrina Onstad, of The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork. “We’re so tethered to our workplaces and our devices that that concept seems almost sacrilegious or a sign of weakness.”
Never give up, at least until you’re ready.
“When you get booted out, look at that as the beginning to create something new,” says animator Floyd Norman, reflecting on when Disney forced him into retirement at age 65. But Norman wasn’t done yet. He returned to the Disney lot, found an open office space, and kept right on working on his own designs. “You’re in charge of your life, not the corporation… Always remember—it’s not over until you say it’s over.”
Be as big a fan of yourself as Kanye West is of Kanye West.
When was the last time you Tweeted something like, “Hi Grammys, this is the most important living artist talking,” or “I'm not even gon (sic) lie to you. I love me so much right now”? If it’s been a while, take a page from Mr. Yeezy himself who reminds us he’s got our backs: “I am of service to the world with my art and I just want to serve more.”
Stay gold, Ponyboy.
“Try a bunch of stuff,” says artist and author Adam J. Kurtz, “Be a little reckless, smoke weed one time, kiss someone nice, stop trying to be cool—it’s not working, it never works—and generally let yourself live.”
Break with Tradition
While Master Calligrapher Aoi Yamaguchi has respected the spiritual and aesthetic customs of her craft, she’s also branched out from the tradition to make it her own. “I do calligraphy in various formats to make a living from teaching, logo work for clients and businesses, and commissioned work for personal collections,” says Yamaguchi. She’s even turned her handwork into live performance.
Don’t do something well over and over. Do something new over and over.
Ivan Chermayeff, the late graphic designer behind the familiar logos of Barneys, National Geographic, and NBC, stayed creatively active late in life. “People who want to retire want to do other things," said Chermayeff. "Travel. Plant a garden. I don’t. I’ve been doing those things every day my whole life.” Just as in his craft, Chermayeff demanded novelty and new terrain from his golden years.
You don’t have to be a 9-to-5 person, but rhythm can help your creative flow.
Australian hand-letterer Gemma O’Brien says she’s not a 9-to-5 person, but she is most productive when she sticks to a routine of working overnight (from 4 p.m. to 2 or 3 a.m.) With calls and emails at a minimum, she’s able to tap into a “distraction-free” zone. “I just feel like there is something about nighttime where I get in a less alert state, and that allows me to relax and do the work,” she says. “It’s deadly quiet, and from the attic I can see the moon. Sometimes, if I have a really hard deadline, I can also see the sun come up.”
Draw every damn day.
Laura Seargeant Richardson, creative director at Argodesign dodged her mother’s suggestion to be a writer in favor of design research and strategy. But she still looks back with regret on not building a deeper habit of drawing. “While I have an eye for design, while I can creatively direct designers of all types,” she says, “I can never bring my ideas to visual life in a gratifying way. If I had to do it all over again, I would trust my instincts and draw every damn day.”
Plan you next road trip around inspiration.
Is there more to vacations than planning where you’re going to eat? Well, yes. These artist studio museums aren’t a bad place to start.
Put revision ceilings in your contract.
In one of her first client jobs, designer Kelsy Stromski lost thousands of dollars in billable hours struggling to interpret opaque feedback through untold rounds of revisions. “Now I show clients a few rough concepts early on (rather than perfecting dozens of options) and my contracts clearly note that each project includes two revisions, with additional rounds charged at an hourly rate,” she says.
Size doesn’t matter. Unless it does.
Stefanie Weigler and David Heasty, the husband-wife team behind Triboro Design, focus on being selective rather than trying to get everything that is out there. As a result, the studio can dedicate itself to special projects like branding for Everlane and customizing a typeface for Vanity Fair’s “Best-Dressed List.” By staying small, Weigler says, “we have better control of the work and a lower overhead that allows us to not take on every project.”
Just do it.
Cedric Kiefer, cofounder of Berlin-based studio onformative, believes you shouldn’t overthink decisions, big or small. “I used to think that a concept would be more valuable the longer I worked on it. After a while, you learn that the simplest idea is usually the best one.” Kiefer lives the impulsive mantra he preaches. He founded his studio without ever having met his cofounder in person and moved to Berlin. “I think if we had thought about it too long, we might have missed our chance,” he says.
Does that buzzword mean what I think it means? #leverage
“There is a big gap between our understanding of what ‘innovation’ is in a digital agency versus what clients imagine innovation is,” says Pauline Ploquin of Struck. “For them it’s the shiny object and virtual reality. Those are not a long-term strategy.” What is Ploquin excited about? “The next frontier is the mind of the consumer,” she says, “We are geeking out on neuroscience, rather than just virtual reality.”
Avoid “small” changes that create a ripple effect of additional work.
Clients will always see the opportunities for a nip and a tuck in everything that comes their way. And who doesn’t want to make their client happy, right? But whether it’s a changed word in a mission statement, or a logo color shift, those small tweaks can have a resounding (and time-consuming) effect on all the already completed work in your project. The founder of the San Francisco firm Elefint suggests putting up workflows, shortening feedback loops, and making clear SOWs to stymie client’s small changes habits.
Ask Psych 101 questions.
Graphic design icon Louise Fili is a client whisperer. She brings the same care and attention to client meetings that she brings to her logo designs. “Whenever any students ask me what I recommend that they do to become a designer: Take a Psych 101 class,” Fili says of preparing for dealing with clients. Often, her questions aren’t too different from those a therapist would ask. “They’re nervous. I talk them off the ledge, and then it’s usually fine.” Her favorite question to ask an antsy client? “What are you afraid of?”
Kill the deck.
“We are doing much less documentation,” Michael Burkin of Doberman says of new ways to foster client collaboration. “Our brave and creative clients have much more interest in spending the time we have together to iterate rather than us create a bunch of decks that we present to them and then wait for feedback and waste a lot of time on.”
Make a five-year plan, a ten-year plan, and a hundred-year plan.
Bill Makky runs a sculpture casting foundry in Brooklyn. His clients? Some of the biggest names in the art world today. And the art world of yesterday, too. Makky stores extra castings of bronze sculptures as an old-school form of insurance: an artist might not sell every edition of a sculpture in their lifetime, but their estate might sell one years after their death. Makky himself became an expert on intergenerational business planning, stewarding the bronze sculptures that his father and previous owners contracted decades before Makky took over the foundry.
Build up trust to last a lifetime.
“Politics is about who you know,” says Pete Souza, on becoming the chief White House photographer to President Obama. “You can be the best photographer in the world, but if an up-and-coming senator is already connected to a competent photographer they like, chances are they’ll chose them if they decide to run for president… There are dozens of photographers in the country who are more skilled than me, but I believe I was the right person for the job because of the way I worked with President Obama.”
Know where your clients’ bonus comes from.
Dave Snyder, Firstborn’s executive creative director, has helped brands like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Jet.com strategically reposition themselves. He says to earn clients’ trust, you must genuinely understand what’s driving them and it’s okay if it’s partly the cash. Learn where their bonus comes from. Then, he says, “you’ll have a better opportunity to position your ideas in a way that will earn them more money.”
For Pete’s sake, be on time.
Erik Spiekermann, a German type designer and entrepreneur, who juggles multiple businesses, lives by the clock. “I’m always on time. And everybody who is not drives me crazy,” he confesses. “It’s rude and inefficient.” The Edenspiekermann founder learned this the hard way after constantly arriving five minutes late to meetings. One day he calculated the four-figure dollar value of this wasted time and says, “From that day on, I realized I could be five minutes early.”
To get to know a city’s design community, find peers at its indie bookstores.
There really is no better way to connect with a new place than browsing the shelves of the city’s best bookstores, meeting fellow design and art bookworms. If you’re looking to explore in a new place, visit a design bookstore and you’ll find your community.
Work with people who make you laugh.
Roz Chast is well known for her portfolio filled with decades-worth of New Yorker cartoons. But, the artist has a litany of collaborative projects as well. From children’s books with Steve Martin to illustrating for Patricia Marx, Chast says it’s important to share a sense of humor with those with whom you collaborate. Especially, if you’re trying to make your reader laugh. It makes for a more successful product, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.
No silent disagreement.
“Speak up” is one of the mandates at the design agency Big Spaceship. It’s a culture choice certainly; there’s nothing worse for workplace culture than unexpressed disagreement. But founder Michael Lebowitz says the commitment to open communication is just as much about giving space for new ideas as it is about office relationships. “I have a lot experience in what we do, but I don’t have the perspective of someone who has a 23-year-old’s interface with the culture right now,” says Lebowitz. “An intern’s view is as valuable as mine, just in a completely different way.”
The fight that’s worth it is the one for common ground.
Ettore Sottsass, an 80-something Italian architect, was asked to build a Silicon Valley house for David Kelley, the 50-something American founder of the design firm IDEO. With different aesthetics, but a mutual admiration for each other, the two sparred and experimented until the final product managed “to express the vision of both architect and client.” The two learned habits of argument and negotiation that meant both could walk away feeling like a “winner” with their friendship intact.
Allies matter. Know who has your back.
Photographers documenting combat zones or natural disasters may be vying for coveted print space. But, on the ground, it’s important to know who can let go of the competition. “When you’re in a war zone and you’re working with someone who’s competing with you, it just doesn’t feel safe — and it is already not safe,” says photojournalist Annabell Van den Berghe. “You have to be with somebody who has your back.”
Historically speaking, we’re at ‘peak jerk.’ Plan accordingly.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, some people are born jerks, some people achieve being jerks, and some people have being an jerk thrust upon them. According to Robert Sutton, we have to watch out for that last one. He notes our workplaces come with all the trappings of “power imbalance, sleep deprivation, people who are overworked, overcrowded, and in a hurry.” Work to diffuse the effect of these powerful forces on yourself so that you don’t wake up to see that the office jerk is in the mirror looking back at you.
Never underestimate the power of the dinner table.
While WeTransfer founder Nalden (yes, just one name) envisioned his company as a service to make virtually sharing files easier, he still believes that, “in the end, people make the difference, so you want to look them in the eyes, have a laugh or two, and collaborate and make decisions together. That’s why you need to have people on the ground.”
Use your communication skills to empower social change.
Designers and the creative industry have the skills to resist and organize, to inform and educate. During this global period of instability, designers must use their particular talents to strengthen grassroots causes and challenge exclusionary political ideas.
Design to match your medium.
Francesco Franchi was one of the darlings of the Italian design magazine community. Then he took on a new challenge: newspaper. Now, as managing editor at la Repubblica, he’s knee-deep in news cycles and breaking headlines. One of the most important tenets that he brought over from the design world is an understanding that not every channel should try to do everything. Franchi’s strategy separates out the online newspaper from the print. “It’s about keeping breaking news as digital,” he says, “And then thinking about the paper as something more luxurious; something you can read on the weekend.”
Can’t change the technology of a product? Transform how people connect with it.
Changing the formulaic makeup of condoms is an uphill battle against government regulation. So, Tiffany Gaines and Claire Courtney co-founded Lovability, a company that’s repackaging condoms in discreet breath mint-style tins in hopes of shifting consumers’ perceptions. “We’re able to do these minor things that actually do a lot of heavy lifting in the anxiety battle. It transforms anxiety into power,” says Gaines, adding, “It needs to be more like lipstick, something that makes you feel sexier and braver and bolder when you use it.”
Bone up on your health sector knowledge.
"We are seeing a growing interest in design strategies applied to healthcare,” says Barry Katz, author of the Silicon Valley design history Make It New. “Biotech is now poised to make the same sort of move that software and electronics did toward the consumer markets.” Katz smells a whole new design space there. “That’s an enormous opportunity for design,” he says.
Discover your inner Benjamin Button
Architect Daniel Libeskind didn’t create his first building until he was 52. “There is an immortality to being creative,” he says. “As your work continues, you become younger. You discover youthfulness—braver, bolder, more confident, more adventurous. You discover possibilities.”
Need help telling your story? Connect it to larger life themes.
Start writing your story by finding universal pursuits and truths in your narrative (or your brand’s). Then, incorporate the one-of-a-kind details and experiences that bring your unique perspective to life. Norma Jeanne Maloney, for instance, is a Texas sign painter whose story of sacrifice for a creative passion is all too common, but whose Old West saloon-inspired lifestyle and cowboy hat sets her apart. Add action, conflict, your own style of voice, and leave readers with pearls of wisdom to apply to their own lives.
Forget the logo. Everyone else will too.
“A logo is a clunky piece of communication, unable to adapt to changing environments,” says Martin Lorenz of Two Points. Lorenz points out that as communication becomes increasingly context-related, the static logo will be much less important compared to the ability to develop flexible visual systems that are responsive to their environment. Look got the future and direct your thinking toward the information channels built for flexibility.
Design = business strategy.
“Design in the most classic sense is a potent business strategy,” says Firstborn executive creative director Dave Snyder. “That’s not to say it’s only about business efficiency. Everything needs a high level of craft,” he says. But ultimately, for Snyder, design is first and foremost a business choice, and a good one.
Design for friction.
Yes, everyone loves an easy solution. And sure, who doesn’t love having access to takeout at 10 p.m. at the push of a button? But what if the very thing technology trumpets most proudly—convenience—is getting in the way of the most important interactions—the ones that present challenges, build character, and widen our world view? Airbnb experience design manager, Steve Selzer, says that a designer’s golden apple should be moments of friction, not convenience. And that the question designers should ask themselves is not, ‘What product…’ but ‘What future do I want to create?”
Additional reporting by Zoe Zellers and Steven Thomson
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.