Designers, get uncomfortable
Being stagnant in this industry is as bad as being dead. In order to grow your business, you need to be doing things you’re not prepared for.
You’ve probably seen quotes like:
You’re never going to be 100% ready and it’s never going to be just the right time, but that’s the point. It means that every moment is also the right moment. If you want it, you just have to do it.
I don’t know who said that first. If you believe everything you see on facebook it was probably Abraham Lincoln.
It’s often applied to things like getting married or having kids. But it’s appropriate for almost anything.
I’m as guilty as anyone of waiting until I feel 100% ready to take action. That often means you take action way too late, or never. But if you work in the digital design industry, or any tech-related business, you’ll know how quickly things change. Being stagnant is about the same as being dead.
Which is why you need to be willing to take on work that’s outside your comfort zone. You need to actively seek out design work that stretches your skills and experiences and forces you to grow. To always be learning is an absolute requirement for the design profession. It is for most professions these days.
Overcoming new challenges gives you far more skill and experience than repeating the same ones you’ve already mastered.
Here are some personal examples:
- I recently took on a project that included some interior design work — material selection, moodboarding, rough shop fit-out concepts, signage. I’d never done that professionally before although architecture and interior design has always been an interest of mine. It was a far stretch from my usual web UX/UI design work, and a great learning experience.
- I’ve been doing more and more app design projects that require custom icon sets. Instead of searching for hours finding the right commercial set of icons to use, I’ve started designing my own custom icons from scratch. I’m still no whizz at icon design but it’s given me heaps more confidence I can handle that kind of work when it arrises in the future.
- I’m taking on more jobs which require me to oversee and direct other designer’s work. As a freelance designer who usually works alone, I have little people management experience to fall back on. So far, so good! But I wasn’t trained or prepared for it.
- I often choose which projects to take on depending on how they contrast work I’ve previously done. I’ll choose a project that requires a very different visual style from other recent projects so I don’t ever get too stuck in a rut designing interfaces with a similar look and feel, or the same colour pallets, or the same font styles, etc.
- Writing articles like this is new to me too! I’ve only been doing it for two months. I’ve already found that writing forces me to clarify ideas and makes for a great conduit to speed up my learning process. It also makes me more prepared to mentor others.
Was I 100% ready for any of those challenges? Nope. Probably less than half ready for some of them! Truthfully you’re never 100% ready to practice a design skill until you’ve done it at least once in a real-life context, on a real client project. So that first time is never just the right time. It’s always a little uncomfortable.
If you’re feeling it, you know you’re learning. If you’re not feeling discomfort, you’re doing the same thing over and over again. That may be easy. It may satisfy you for now. It may be profitable. But how long will it last?
Artificial intelligence is going to replace all our jobs, blah blah blah, blockchain, blah blah deep learning, blah blah blah. How do you best prepare for that inevitable future? By growing and reinventing your skillset all the time.
That doesn’t mean as a designer you need to learn how to code or build apps yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to branch out into copywriting, or video production, or playing the ukulele. All those things may be good ideas, but knowing your niche is important too. You don’t want to dilute your skills by straying too far away from your bread and butter.
Instead, learn new skills on the periphery of what you already know. Slowly and subtle broaden your experience into a generalist safety net of skills which you can call upon to get you through those extra demanding (and extra rewarding) projects. Maybe that means you branch out into a more branding and art direction. Maybe you dabble more in code. Perhaps it’s as simple as trying out new styles or new design processes to make you more adaptable to unique client demands. It doesn’t matter what the challenge is, so long as it’s building a skill that might be useful again in the future.
Designers, kill your labels
Redefine your freelance service offering as a complementary process that delivers your ideal clients the most value.
More confidence, more value, more irreplaceable.
Getting through that awkward moment when you stretch yourself makes you that much more valuable to your next client. Do that for 5 jobs in a row, and you’ll be amazed at how much more you feel confident doing well.
And if you hadn’t yet realised, that experience and confidence is what drives your rates up. You have to offer more value to justify higher rates. You have to learn new things to offer more value.
And when the time comes that the machines get better than you at your core service, you’ve got all those other skills to fall back on and extend into.
Design mediums change. Best-practices improve. Design processes get replaced with better ones. Design trends come and go. But design fundamentals are always there. Professionalism never changes. If you’re constantly expanding the breadth of your skills and experience, you’re putting yourself in the best possible place for future flexibility, value, and growth.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
MediumTop writer in Design, Business, and Entrepreneurship.