Odds are, you won’t succeed as a designer

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The following article by Mark Busse was published in June 2012 in Design Edge Canada Magazine.


Most of you won’t make it in the graphic design industry.

Sorry if that stings, but it’s time someone told you the truth. The odds are stacked against you. Colleges and universities are churning out more design program grads than there are jobs, yet ironically, the single biggest challenge for those running busy design studios is recruiting and retaining productive designers. So how does one get noticed?

Aside from experience, skills and portfolio, those who ultimately succeed tend to share personality traits that lead them to create opportunities and reach their potential.

Here are a few tips based on my experience over the past 20 years:

Set goals
Successful graphic designers establish realistic, measurable goals at the beginning of any project. Likewise, identify specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely (S.M.A.R.T.) goals and focus on them. Revisit them often and adjust as required to stay on track. Design is a wide open profession—define it for yourself.

Move your ass
Successful designers are tenacious and almost always in motion. The design profession doesn’t tolerate laziness. And those who stand out and get noticed are generally those who show up—everywhere—and perform. If you find you’re caught up in your favourite TV series, then you’re likely not hustling enough to make it in this business.

Productive, not just busy
While taking action is vital for success in this career, getting caught up in the chaos of it isn’t the answer. Live the saying “work smarter, not harder” and figure out where you should be focussing your energy. Do one thing at a time, take breaks every couple hours, never skip lunch. Successful designers solve problems quickly and understand that results are more important than the amount of effort or time it took to achieve them.

Share your passion
Designers who thrive are often those who are fired up, exuding a positive energy and excitement about what they do. Like confidence, this is hard to fake, but something worth practicing. Whether design firm employers or freelance clients, everyone appreciates someone who is a believer in what they do. If you believe, they’ll believe.

Get naked often
The best designers aren’t afraid to tackle a challenging project—in fact, that’s their sweet spot. Seek out and embrace situations that scare you and make you feel vulnerable as though naked. That’s where emotional and intellectual growth occurs. In a business as challenging as design, that may mean quitting a studio job that isn’t serving you, moving to another city for more opportunities, or going out on your own and focussing on a particular design specialty.

Fail more
We live in a world where we’re taught to avoid mistakes and failures, but that can be paralyzing in design. Successful designers are good at failing—it’s where we learn the lessons we can apply in our practice later. If you promote yourself as a designer with a perfectionist’s attention to detail, then be prepared to be disappointed.

These days it’s hard to break into the graphic design field if you don’t possess a myriad of skills. A design grad who claims to only do print is bound to face career challenges, but being exceptional at a particular specialty, be it brand identity, magazine editorial layout, or web interface design, can be an advantage. Emphasize the area of design you are passionate about, understanding that design firms will likely still need you to be competent at tackling other traditional graphic design tasks effectively.

Say no
Every job you take, every client you work for, every project you produce, is an expression of who you are as a designer. Be logical about those choices and don’t rush into situations because of a fast buck. Move past emotions and ask yourself if this opportunity will result in an addition to your portfolio which will open up doors for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t take an in-house contract or production job to pay the bills, but make that decision with intent, understanding the associated risks. Successful designers are masters of saying no, but it requires practice.

Think small
Most of the designers I’ve met are big dreamers. This is great in theory, but highly successful people tend to focus on making small, continuous improvements in their career. Remember how one eats an elephant: one bite at a time. Tackle the small stuff first, like creating one case study for your portfolio or securing an internship at a firm you’d like to work at. Your confidence in your abilities will grow and before you know it you’ll be a successful design professional.

Analyze yourself
Designers are taught how to conduct SWOT analysis on their clients, but seldom do it on themselves. If your goals are indeed realistic, take regular time outs to assess your career progress. Much like a design studio manager needs to step back from “working IN the business” to “work ON the business,” so too should you make the time to take steps to fine tune your actions to focus attention on your primary career objectives.

Spend time with the right people
Working as a junior designer at a studio is one way to learn, but successful designers regularly surround themselves with those they can learn from. Identify members of the design community who have achieved career goals similar to yours and connect with them. Consider yourself the sum of those who you spend the most time with. And before you dive into freelancing or declare yourself a design studio, ask yourself what you really know about running a business, and consider the wisdom you can glean from working with others more experienced.

Maintain balance
Don’t let your design career consume you. Being a designer can be a tremendously rewarding job, but those most successful at it understand it is still just a job. If you maintain balance and engage in an active life, then you will keep learning and be better equipped to do that job. Don’t spend all your time attending design events and socializing with designers. The best design is a reflection of the real world, so close your MacBookPro and get out there!

Be stubbornly positive
Successful design professionals are stubborn at the best of times. They see the silver lining in every situation. Don’t mope if a concept is rejected. Debrief everything and learn what went wrong and how you can improve your process next time and own it. Negativity is everyone’s enemy, but especially the designer. Learn what you can, adapt and move forward.

Suck it up
By the way, nobody owes you anything. Despite what your coddling Baby Boomer parents or teachers may have told you, you need to shake off any entitlement attitude and realize that hard work and personal excellence is how a successful design career is built. Just because you showed up and put in the effort doesn’t secure you a high paying job as a designer. The sooner you realize that and get on with it, the better.