Our world is changing by the second. The programs and processes you learn today can become outmoded and obsolete tomorrow — if not later today. So no matter what the creative industry looks like, it will require curious, passionate and adaptable creative professionals.
You can always master the shiniest new gadget, but, as an early-career professional, it’s more important to focus on the technology you’ll own your entire career — your brain. The best part: Learning new things doesn’t have to cost you thousands. Here are nine ways you can improve yourself and ensure your value to current and prospective employers.
Recognize the Bottom Line
The minute you start your first full-time job, you’re costing your employer money. Beyond salary, there could be insurance, retirement and equipment costs. Knowing this, many firms are looking for talented people who work across disciplines. Recognize your employer’s needs and understand that letting your skills mix with your colleagues’ is how good work gets done.
“Design is solving a problem, not creating something with a particular tool,” says Mule Design Studio co-founder Erika Hall. “We work closely to understand problems and come up with solutions, and then decide what artifact we need to make to demonstrate the thinking or help a client make a decision. So while each of us has our special skills and aptitudes, anyone who defines and limits themselves primarily by the tools they use is going to have a bad time here. Everyone participates in the research. Everyone presents work. Everyone needs to be able to write clearly.”
Being able to write is synonymous with many other traits, including thinking clearly, making ideas easier to understand, taking another’s perspective and knowing what to include and leave out. A journalism professor once told us, “If you can think clearly, you can write clearly.” Now that I’m a designer, I realize employers believe the opposite to be true, too.
Start improving your writing by reading. Surround yourself with good writing and consider why you like it. Next stop: Practice. Start a blog, or volunteer to write for your company’s. Consider buying The AP Stylebook and The Elements of Style — both will streamline your writing. And make sure to maintain a daily routine. Even logging what you do every day is an exercise in inclusion and omission that will better your writing. Most importantly, don’t wait: Writing doesn’t have to take place on your computer; it can be as simple as a notebook and your curiosity.
“What differentiates okay designers from great designers is a strong point of view,” Hall says. “Speaking and writing help you develop that point of view. And, they are a part of the design process. You need to be able to get the information you need to do the work, communicate with others while you are doing the work and then sell your solution, convincing others that it’s the right way to go. Speaking and writing for an audience beyond clients helps develop confidence and comfort level, as well as a habit of looking outside of oneself.”
Learn From Everyone
I was a production artist at a previous job, and there was an actual physical divider between our desks and “creative.” The lines between disciplines at your company may not be as stark, but it’s easy to get stuck in silos. So learn everything you can from those on the other side of artificial dividers.
Ask to shadow the researchers. Ask account people to walk you through their process. Ask for briefings from the social media team. Having graduated doesn’t mean you’re done learning. The sooner you grasp everyone’s roles and where they fit in the larger production, the sooner you’ll find your footing and also discover ways to improve things. And yourself.
“Everyone has something to give to others,” says Joelle Riffle, who works with high school students as part of The New School’s Parsons Scholars program. “Everyone’s experiences and skills are valid, and being able to apply and develop them in service to others is fundamental. You can’t be a good designer unless you are a well-rounded person with other skills and interests. You can’t work in a vacuum or outside the context of industries, culture and society.”
Become Your Own Client
Think about your client work: An identity project, for example, includes finding inspiration, studying trends and exploring type and color. When this pays off, it’s a great feeling that breeds momentum. What would you do if you were your own client? There’s no magic formula to getting what you want out of your career. If there were, it would look like the lessons you learn working with clients.
With them, you’re asking the right questions. Doing the proper research. Examining your decisions. Acting based on your hard work. Turn it around and become your client: Ask yourself the questions. Put your successes and struggles under the microscope. Act in a concrete manner to respond to what you learn about yourself and use it to inform your perspective and career. You’ll discover what you previously considered roadblocks eventually become opportunities.
Roll with the Punches
It takes time to adjust to a new job. “Even a cruddy first job teaches you so much,” says bestselling author and artist Austin Kleon. “Basic stuff, like how to get along with people different than you. If you’re an average recent college grad, you’ve just spent four years around people your own age and rough socioeconomic status. Your classmates were all paying to listen to you, and your professors were getting paid to listen to you. Now you’re out, and guess what? Nobody gives a damn. That first job teaches you how insignificant you are — in a good way! You realize that you’ve got to work, you’ve got to actually be useful to people.”
Something else you’ll discover is that a full-time job can afford you the safety net to experiment creatively in your free time. “If it’s a good job,” Kleon says, “you learn a lot, meet a lot of interesting people, work on your own stuff in the down time and figure out your next move. You might realize you like going to a regular job with a steady paycheck and benefits. Freelancing ain’t for everybody, even if you think it is.”
Pursue Passion Projects
In some jobs, you’ll have ample opportunity to seek creative growth. In others, however, you won’t. “It’s okay to be completely unsatisfied with the work that you are doing, because that unhappiness can be harnessed to push you toward doing something that you are happy with,” says illustrator and educator Kate Bingaman-Burt. “Exploring work outside of your main work enriches you and your main work, too!”
Case in point: Designer and illustrator Matt Stevens, who undertook an unofficial rebrand of Dunkin’ Donuts. A design blog took note, which brought Stevens a lot of attention. When a donut shop later stole his look, he turned a negative into a positive by working with them on their own brand.
unofficial rebrand of Dunkin’ Donuts by Matt Stevens
This eventually led JJ’s Red Hots, a restaurant opening in his backyard, to work with Stevens on a complete branding effort. All because he took a few minutes to re-imagine Dunkin’ Donuts.
branding for JJ’s Red Hots by Matt Stevens
“Side projects can be a chance to build and demonstrate expertise beyond that which you might be doing in your day-to-day,” says Hall. “They can give you a chance to engage with the wider world and keep having fun. Many of our side projects are social experiments and we learn a lot from them that feeds into our other work. New clients have found us through our side projects. If you’re intellectually curious, you can’t help but be doing stuff on the side all time.”
A note of caution from Bingaman-Burt: “Be selective in the work that keeps you busy,” she says. “If you are finding yourself super busy with work that doesn’t fuel you, well, your fuel is going to run out quickly and burnout happens.”
Pay It Forward
One of the best aspects of learning new things, Riffle adds, is how passing along those skills further sharpens them. Even though you’re in the early stages of your career, it pays to show others what you know. “Teaching a technical skill or concept exercises and strengthens your own understanding of that skill,” she says. “When you explain something to a beginner, you are forced to interrogate and articulate how you know something and find a way to share that knowledge with another person. You learn to be open to new interpretations of concepts that you thought you knew inside and out.”
Riffle, who advised Parsons Scholars as an undergrad, sees another benefit to not waiting until you’re older to become a mentor: Community. “My role, especially early in college, was just as much about being mentored as it was mentoring,” she says. “I found the program at a time I was looking for a lot but didn’t necessarily know it. Primarily, I was looking for a job, having realized that I’d had no idea how much going to this school and living in this city was going to cost. I didn’t know I was also looking for community. This close-knit group of people — intentionally or not — guided me and gave me something to belong to in an otherwise isolating time.”
Before Stewart Scott-Curran helped design World Cup uniforms for Nike or visually explain the news at CNN, he learned the most important lesson of his career working at an unglamorous call center in Amsterdam. When he figured out many older callers didn’t have questions and were lonely and wanted to talk, he ignored productivity goals and engaged with them about their lives. “They taught me empathy and how powerful it can be to know that you are being listened to,” he says.
We face many pressing problems — some big, many small — that design can impact. Before you work toward solving them, consider those affected. “If we approach our work and the projects we give our time to from a place of empathy, we can design products and systems that actually make a net contribution to society,” Scott-Curran says. “If we are working on a product that makes it easier for us to do something, is there a downstream impact to others? Is making something easier for one person making it harder for someone else? If you can see yourself making a difference, it will come through in the work.”
Make Friends, Not Networks
For too long, we’ve referred to the relationships we build throughout our professional lives as “networking.” But go to a networking event and you quickly realize the high degree of artificiality: The personal elevator speeches, the exchange of cards, the forthcoming LinkedIn connection, the subsequent email about “grabbing coffee.” Scott-Curran suggests there’s more value to a lifelong friendship than a handful of business cards.
“‘Networking’ is based upon a relationship that only exists because you might be able to do something for each other,” he says. “Those relationships aren’t sustaining or nourishing. The best relationships in a professional context are the ones that have your back, care for you, challenge you and are happy to chat about things without an agenda. Those are the relationships that fuel our creativity and inspire us.”
Practice what Robert Krulwich calls horizontal loyalty. Instead of reaching out to your heroes, forge productive relationships with your peers. You’ll start projects with friends faster than you’ll hear from your idols. “When we leave this world, we will judge the quality of our life based on the depth of the relationships we had with people,” Scott-Curran says, “not with how many LinkedIn connections we had.”
In the end, heed Thomas Edison’s advice: ”Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Put yourself in position to succeed by approaching everything you encounter in your working life as an opportunity to learn and grow. Be willing to ask questions and help your company in every way possible and you’ve got the recipe for a long and fulfilling career.
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