Interface Lovers is a great site where leaders in the design community answer a series of questions. My favorite question is "any advice for ambitious designers?" and decided to compile all of their asnqers and try to keep it up to date here on my website for when I need some direction to my design work/life.
Last updated 09/27/17
Remember that the principles you learn are the same for every kind of design. It frustrates me how many people specialise and then loses their critical eye for areas of design outside their wheelhouse. Principles like rhythm, contrast, value and tone are really the same thing whether you’re looking at colour, composition, timing, form, or anything else. Don’t restrict yourself to one point of view, especially when what design is, and can be, has become so fluid.
1) Ask for help. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, but the sooner you do it the quicker you’ll get better. If there’s someone whose work you admire, or whose journey you’re interested in, let them know and ask for recommendations. Everyone has different requests for how you approach them, but a great place to start is Out of Office Hours because you’ll chat with someone who has already expressed interest in helping designers.
2) Make your own projects. When I first started designing I would stay up all night making things. They all turned out pretty rough, but it was the act of making that helped me stay motivated and allowed me to create a body of work that would ultimately get me into graduate school. If you aren’t getting the opportunities you want or don’t yet feel ready for those opportunities, the best way to prepare is to do the kind of work you want to be doing. Don’t wait for permission.}
I’ve got 2 bits. First, do more design work. If you find yourself having to talk a lot to convince someone about a particular direction or design, stop and make some new artefact to convey your idea instead. This likely means you’ll have to put more time and effort into time and task management than you are already. Secondly, pause frequently to get feedback one-on-one from your teammates and anyone whose opinion matters to your career. Don’t try to correct their opinions or defend yourself, simply try to understand what they think and what led them to think that about you and your work. Then, it’s time to get back to work with that new information.
Think about where you want to be in a year, five years, and jot down some milestones you can hit along the way. Stay focused but remain flexible. No matter how dull a project might seem, there’s always something to learn. Be interested and be interesting. Be kind. Everyone will enjoy your presence more, including yourself. Chase dreams, not the money. (Money follows)
Stop comparing yourself to others. Get really good at listening to yourself. Anyone who gets in the way of that is scared of you or not happy with themselves. A path will come, and it’s okay if it’s not what you thought.
Empathy is a muscle that you must exercise frequently.
Drink water. Take walks. Sleep more. Keep your family and your ethics close to you. You and your work will fade away one day.
Last, to quote Jim Carrey “Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world.”
Say yes to new opportunities, but also know when to say no.
Your personality and work ethics will get you further than skills.
Focus on building relationships and perfecting your skills, money will come later.
Do what you love and love what you do. Don't settle for working on something you're not proud of.
Shoot for the stars but understand the long game wins. Patience is key.
Have interests outside of design and tech. It’s important to think about things outside of our industry, and it helps you put your own work into perspective. Study people and the way they think. This is more important than learning the latest Sketch shortcut. Design for humans.
I have these 5 advice points I wrote down in my Notes app years ago that I continually share with others because they’ve been crucial and extremely beneficial for my career:
I. You're a beginner; keep that mindset even when you’re at a mastery level.
II. Jump off the cliff, your best lessons are at the bottom.
III. Your design is bad, you're not a bad designer (or person).
IV. Find a mentor and don't be afraid to ask for help.
V. Learn the fundamentals of your craft first. You can't paint a house without a foundation and frame.
Be hungry for knowledge, kind to yourself and others, and never shy to speak your mind. Also don’t worry too much about your competitors, learn from their mistakes, be interested in what they are achieving and how they work but never let their progress and success take over your sanity.
Don’t be afraid, embarrassed or shy about asking for help. Make friends. Develop and articulate a strong process for approaching, solving and reflecting on problems. Look outside your industry for problems to solve too, because of hell, there are a lot of them. Consider your privilege and unconscious biases, listen more often than you talk, look for a mentor, prioritise work-life balance and, most importantly, be kind.
Draw insight from everything. Immerse yourself in the brand, the market, the user. Take a holistic view and a few steps back. It’s important to be passionate and work hard, but there’s no harm in taking it easy and keeping things light every now and then.
If you’re seeking mentorship, stand up so we can c u!
Work more. Practicing your design skills will always be worth a lot more than attending conferences, surfing Dribbble and basically all those things that look like work but aren’t.
Take a deep breath and look outside of our industry for problems to solve.
The world doesn’t need another on-demand-delivery app. Take on a problem like climate change, clean energy, safe water, gun violence, poverty, or health. If you’re feeling ambitious, tackle something big.
Surround yourself with people who are ahead of you. It’s the best way to learn.
Learn not just how to design things, but how to actually make them. Whether it’s coding apps, making posters, or designing shirts, there’s no substitute for the real-world experience you’ll gain by being involved in a product’s creation from start to finish.
Never stop learning.
To all you ambitious designers out there: take some time off work. Hustling all the time is a good way to get burned out, and when you’re toast you won’t produce your best work. If you feel this way, don’t panic. All that inspiration will come back with adequate rest and time away from whatever project you’re working on. I find that I get like this when I’m working on too many side projects. You need to be honest with yourself about how much time you have — if you’re starving yourself of personal time, you’ll start to resent your time spent working on side projects because you feel “behind”.
Don’t get comfortable.
If you want to do more user research or front-end work or prototyping or illustration (whatever it is) but can’t fit it into the process at your current company, start a side project and bring your ideal process to life. Do the things you’re curious about. It’s too easy to accept a non-ideal work situation and wait it out. But when you get to your next interview (and you’re trying to up-level) and they ask you about your experience, it’s going to sound so much better to say “I haven’t been able to do that in my past roles, so I started a side project to learn more about it” than “I don’t have that experience.”
Also, if you’re just starting out, immerse yourself. Go to events, follow people on Twitter and keep up with what they’re doing, ask questions, read, listen to podcasts. You’ve got to really care and be engaged to accelerate your career.Once you’ve landed the type of job you’d been dreaming about, get better all the time. Expand your skills and write about your work and your process (it’s the best way to clarify your opinions).
Foodies say you are what you eat, I say you are what you use. There are a lot of products out there, may you pick the good one to absorb, and avoid the bad ones and tolerating their flaws.
Designers with a strong desire to succeed must learn to listen to others. A large part of our job involves impacting people who are not ourselves. The best designers are humble and open to failure. They also never lose their sense of curiosity and are always learning. Success and ambition are not more important than retaining your humanity.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Yes, try hard. Yes, push yourself. But don’t beat yourself up. You’re going to fail, you’re going to get a lot of No’s throughout your career, and this is the best way to learn. Failure is the best way to learn, and eventually you’ll be finding success.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” - Steve Jobs
The best way to learn and grow as a designer is to build side projects. If you have an idea, there’s nothing stopping you to go build it and try monetize it.
Looking back in retrospective, I believe the experiences that has excelled me forward as a designer is my entrepreneurial background. During my teenage years and early twenties, I designed, built and launched countless ventures. I took an idea, into design, build and launched it. With every venture, I would set a goal on how much it had to make before I would move onto the next. By 21 I had sold $300,000 worth of affiliate marketing campaigns and websites. I learnt everything from design, code, viral marketing and the fundamentals of business. The best way to learn, is to do it.
To this day, I’m still working on side hustles every day.
Look outside of our industry for inspiration/heroes and don’t underestimate how far you can get by being kind to others. Most design problems are really relational or communication problems, so learn to talk to people and be human with them. Also, don’t look too much at the designer flame wars on Twitter.
Don’t stop practising and don’t be an asshole. Our industry is always changing so you have to be constantly pushing yourself to learn more and be better. This goes for attributes outside of technical design skills. You have to always be trying to make yourself a better human.
Don‘t be afraid to throw things away. When we start planning a new, relatively large undertaking at Dribbble (or anywhere else I‘ve been before) I always volunteer to sketch what the entire ecosystem of this new app/feature/whatever could look like. I let the team know I have no emotional attachment to this artifact and explain that it is simply a baseline for us to work from. By doing this, we can see the entire undertaking holistically and not in a vacuum. Then we can see how one change can have a ripple effect on everything else.
If you‘re not throwing things away you aren‘t replacing them with anything better.
Speak Up & Invest in your craft are the two things I think are imperative for ambitious designers. Being a shy person I have found that there are times I may have had a good idea and didn’t speak up. Speaking up increases your visibility at a company and is also great for getting your awesome ideas heard and implemented.
I have always been a strong believer in investing in things that can help you grow. Never be afraid to shell out those extra coins for things that will benefit you in the long run. Take that expensive Mandarin class, or go purchase that fancy tablet, as long as it adds value to your craft! :D
My advice is to always design more, it’s the best way for learning. I never formally studied design, but worked on projects after projects, and absorbed as I went. By designing many things, you start to see certain patterns in design, which then leads you to understand how to use them well.
Another piece of advice would be to aim to understand the technologies and mediums you’re designing for. You don’t have to know everything from the start, but over time, try to understand more. This way, you will intuitively design solutions that work well in that medium, are technically feasible and you might also stumble upon cool things that no one else has figured out yet. The intersection of design and tech is one of those areas where I believe there aren't that many people exploring.
You cannot do it alone. You may be skilled, but you'll always benefit from the support of others. Relationships, how you interact with people, are what makes a great designer. You should invest in this as much as in your technical skills.
You don’t have to know everything about everything.
Because our industry evolves pretty rapidly, our first reaction as designers is to try to catch up with everything that is going on: every new tool, every new technology, every new channel, every new design pattern that comes up.
All that pressure can create panic, FOMO, uncertainty – you name it.
Instead, focus on what people need. What are they looking for, and how can your product help? That, will never change.
I think every designer has to follow their own path to figure out what works for them. I don’t subscribe to a singular idea of success or ambition.
However, the one thing I do encourage designers to do is to write, as writing is no longer a skill that’s just limited to copywriters. Designers are solving more complex and nuanced problems and need to be able to articulate their work in an equally skilled and nuanced way. John Maeda’s Design in tech report also mentions writing as a critical skill in design. As a bonus, it’s also a great way to attract other like-minded people.
During my transition from architecture to product design, my friend Matias Corea advised me to, “learn from someone you admire.” Throughout my career, I’ve followed this advice and it’s led me to wonderful people and experiences.
On a related note, I’ve learned it’s important to never underestimate the power of a cold email. If there’s someone you’d like to meet or learn from, don’t be afraid to reach out. Many designers are happy to help.
It’s easy to be a good designer: work, and when you’re done working, keep working. A lot of people might disagree, but to me, there is no such thing as talent. Of course, some people will be slightly better at doing certain things, but nothing can beat hard work, nothing. In our industry, everything is always changing, and your value will depend on how eager you are to learn new things and keep pushing to stay on top of your game. The more you learn, the better you'll become at learning.
To move forward, you will need a direction. Otherwise, you might get lost and being LOST is not cool (even if you're a TV show). That's why you need to set goals for yourself, both professionally and personally. I'm not talking about what you want to do in 10 years, but at least what you want to improve on this year, and what kind of projects you want to work on.
Last thing for young folks, please do not blindly chase the money. There is money in our field, but it shouldn’t be the only reason you're joining a company. Choose the offer that you think will let you grow the most. Before considering taking a full-time position, always ask a lot of questions: with who you're gonna be working with, on what projects, for how long, in what context, and with which responsibilities.
If you’re ambitious, you need to always learn new things and keep growing. To do so, work closely with more experienced people that have been in your role before, and also work by yourself on anything you can—whether it’s freelance work, a side project, or anything design-related.