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Let Yourself Be a Beginner

In recent years, medical schools began accepting more candidates who hadn’t followed the usual path to becoming a doctor, those who’d taken a few years off to travel or pursued a PhD in dance before discovering their calling was medicine. What they bring to top medical schools and residencies are ways of thinking that can’t be taught in a classroom. Their interdisciplinary studies aren’t holding them back from being professionally competitive—they communicate effectively, are excellent with patients, and report high levels of satisfaction in their work.

The design world can learn from their example. While we’ve been quick to shift our focus from craft to concept, we’ve failed to shake one craft-driven habit: getting absorbed in our product. How many designers do you know that claim to “eat, sleep, and breathe” design? Who is inspiring them besides other designers? What else are they passionate about except the latest font family, hot trend or UX conference? This narrow focus can improve technical expertise, but you won’t be truly innovative unless you are willing to learn other, non-design things. Maybe even things you are really terrible at because they are so far removed from your field of expertise.

Choosing to devote time to interests outside of design does not make you less of a designer. It is a strategic choice that can improve interdisciplinary thinking and inspire fresh ideas.

When I reached a high level of technical skill and my personal art began to feel stale, I bought a loom. It took a few basic tries before I attempted more artistic projects, which are still very rudimentary. I can’t rely on any of my pre-existing skill sets; every bit of time spent weaving is educational. As a beginner, there is no pressure to produce a masterpiece so there is complete freedom to experiment without inhibition. Weaving has ultimately changed my way of thinking about color, texture, and process, which I have been able to carry over to my creative work with great results.

Even more recently, I started practicing yoga. It has no relation to anything I do in my work or spare time, so I am truly a beginner. Humbling myself enough to keep practicing and take advice from those more experienced is a healthy exercise. There is also something to be said for the pride of learning a new skill; it makes for eager artists.

Weaving and yoga are not directly relevant to client projects, but some hobbies can be more obviously beneficial. For example, an interest in the stock market is a great advantage when a financial client comes around. No matter their perceived relevancy to client work, side projects spark ideas and help push aesthetic boundaries. So try something you’ve never done before and see what it can offer. You may even find a new passion to master.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • If you’re a web designer, try something tactile like watercolor painting. It’s basically permanent once on paper and you’ll probably want to tear your hair out when you can’t input a HEX number to get the same color twice. This is great for practicing a creative process you may not use when working digitally.
  • All about typography and WhatTheFont? You might like other classification-based fields. Have you ever found an animal skull on the ground and wondered what kind of creature it was? You can clean it up and deduce a lot just from examining the teeth. This would play to a typographer’s strengths of recognizing small details and shapes, as long as you can get over the yuck-factor.
  • If you’ve mastered layout composition, try bouldering. Bouldering is a type of rock climbing that is done without ropes. You’ll have to nail some difficult climbing techniques in order to get good at it. The basic moves of bouldering may feel reminiscent of editorial design fundamentals. Instead of margins and a grid, you have finger and toe holds.
Rachel Semenov, Former Senior Graphic Designer at Grafik
Rachel Semenov

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