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Practical Wisdom for Young Designers

It’s a sad reality that schools are ill equipped to impart some of the necessary practices that make a truly successful designer—and I don’t mean the kind of success that comes with money. I’m referring to maintaining your sanity and creativity in the face of a relentless onslaught of external pressures and your own internal anxieties. The truth about this industry is that it will eat you alive if you’re not prepared for it—the competition is fierce, the environment fast-paced, and burnout is rampant. However, if you’re a young designer fresh out of school, there are fundamentals you can learn to sustain your creative career.

Many of the obstacles I had to face were overcome because I was able to establish some key habits to keep my creativity on a steady course. And I was fortunate to have some amazing mentors early on to guide me. It is with gratitude to my mentors that I pass along some wisdom to you. But before diving in, I should note that this is not by any means a comprehensive list; I invite you to comment and provide your own ideas and insights.

So, here are three habits to get you started:

1. Creativity is a battery. Recharge often.
If there is one thing you take away from this article, it’s this: our creativity is finite, yet infinitely rechargeable. We are all born creative, but not all of us know how to harness it and fewer still do well at managing it (mostly because they don’t understand it actually needs to be managed at all). Without actively bolstering your creative input, you are risking the worst possible outcome a designer can face: burnout. Believe me, it’s not pretty to watch or be around, let alone experience—creative blocks that last for weeks and unchecked apathy, just to start.

To help you maintain the creative flow, you need to establish some hard-set habits and stick to them. We’re all different, and I’d be lying if I said my methods will always work for you. But to get you going, here are a few habits I’ve learned to manage a steady creative output:

  • Focus, then step away. Creative thought needs time to germinate and stew—the constant churn of rapid-fire ideas only leads to one outcome: lame ideas. So, take the time to really think about a problem (without external distractions). And once you’ve given it some thorough meditation, just step away. Although it may seem counterintuitive, giving your brain a good rest will often yield some brilliant “ah-ha” moments when you least expect them.
  • Get. Away. From. The. Computer. Take a walk. Try to get out of the office if you can. And always make an effort to eat away from your desk—desk lunches suck.
  • Set aside actual, honest-to-goodness time for inspiration. Note that this does not mean staring at Pinterest or dribbble. Go somewhere new. Learn something you haven’t studied before. Read actual books. Talk to strangers. Make human contact.
  • Travel. You will never regret it and it makes you more interesting. As Buddha said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” The journey is the most important part—so be in the moment.
  • Remember, long meetings are the enemyavoid them like the plague. They will drain the life from your body, do irreparable harm to your productivity, and make you hate people in general.

2. Find a mentor. Then become one.
Finding someone to act as your trusted counselor, motivator, and advisor on whom you can rely for sound guidance will be one of the single greatest decisions you make in your career. Forging a path can be frightening, and like all great explorers, having a guide is the key to making wise, long-lasting decisions. Your choice of mentor should always be made carefully as you will be (or, should be) talking openly about your career. Also, you should seek out a mentor with relevant industry experience.

As Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Understand that your success will not be by your hands alone. Your mentor—and many others—will contribute greatly to your learning and experience along the way. If you are able, you owe it to them to pay their kindness forward. Know that in doing so you will reap rewards far beyond what any monetary compensation will bring you.

3. Failure is not an option, so embrace it.
A simple truth of a creative career: if you’re doing it right, you are going to fail. And you’re going to do it in so many fantastical and stupefying ways that, like an out of body experience, you’ll hardly believe it was you. However, making a habit of planning for failure in your creative process will defuse your anxieties toward trying new ideas and being truly innovative.

Accepting a mistake is not an acceptance of defeat, and the sooner you embrace the uncertainty and adapt, the stronger your career and creativity are going to be. When creating the light bulb, Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  From your stumbles will come a deeper understanding and knowledge than any immediate success can bring you. So don’t brood over it. Learn from the experience, pick yourself up, and quickly move on.

If you’re new to graphic design and find yourself overwhelmed, these are but a few methods to help you better manage your creative output. Long-term success depends on you establishing effective practices and tools to overcome the everyday pressures of the job. My hope is these habits will help get you started.

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