17 Design Pros Dish Their Best Career Advice

Terry Lee Stone asks a group of seasoned design pros: If you could give young designers one piece of career advice what would it be? In other words: early in your career what do you wish someone had told you? Their thoughts may surprise you…

1. Sean Adams www.adamsmorioka.com

“What did I know? I knew that relationships were critical in design. I knew that hard work was required. I knew that I needed inspiration beyond graphic design.

“What did I not know? I didn’t know that time is forgiving. Saul Bass told me that success is defined by a series of successful projects over an extended period of time. I didn’t listen. I was convinced that every project was my last chance to succeed. Alternatively, each failure signaled the end of my career. Saul was right. Some projects were as ugly as something the cat coughed up, but the next one was better. And some projects were incredibly successful, and then the next one came along and it was left behind. The world isn’t black and white.”

2. Stefan G. Bucher www.344design.com

“Almost any situation gets better when you ask yourself this: How can I be most useful right now? — Most useful to your employer, to your client, to the people you care for in your personal life, even to your future self. Asking ‘How can I be most useful right now?’ will get you past too little ambition, past too much ambition, past many interpersonal conflicts, boredom, frustration, and creative block. Sometimes the answer is ‘I can be most useful to everybody — including me — by leaving,’ but usually it’ll lead you to creating better work!”

  • Find More Advice: 29 Things That All Young Designers Need to Know.

3. Margo Chase www.chasedesigngroup.com

“Emphasize your peculiar talents. Be eccentric and memorable. There are far too many cookie-cutter design portfolios. I am always impressed when a young designer includes personal work that they’re passionate about — even if it isn’t graphic design. Illustration, photography, painting, embroidery, jewelry… it’s all design and requires skill and dedication to do well. Shows that you’re a multidimensional person. “Also, think about your portfolio as a whole design statement and try to make the presentation format fit the work. It should be easy to see and display, but I would much rather see an unusual presentation than a ‘perfect’ portfolio full of boring work. If your style is high-tech, minimal and clean, showing your work on an iPad makes sense. But if painting or drawing cartoon characters is your unique talent, find a way to present your work that highlights your particular skills in a memorable way.”

4. Barry Deck www.barrydeckgroup.com

“Early on, if anyone had been able to tell me exactly the right thing, I would have dismissed it as preposterous because the world has just changed too much in unforeseen ways.

“However, here’s my advice: get a second degree in something totally different— neuroscience, medicine, linguistics, or whatever feels right.

“Design is what all humans do when they have intent and act upon it. Good design skills are most powerful when applied where they intersect with another discipline or two, or three. It is no longer enough to be a specialist only in design. Make your niche at those points of intersection, where future innovation will bloom.”

5. Marc English www.marcenglishdesign.com

“Early in my career someone DID give me a piece of sage advice, but they never elaborated on it. The late great corporate communications designer, Robert Miles Runyon, advised me: ‘Forget the fame. Fame will take care of itself. Go for the fortune, because rich is the bitch.’

“I’ll take Runyon’s advice to the next level, with a few caveats. Working hard, doing good work, guarantees neither fame nor fortune. Any project taken on for fame is banking on the future. The client or project may garner attention, but that attention does not necessarily mean future work that is rewarding — either financially or any other way. I’ve seen a number of talented folks not reach a level of critical acclaim or financial comfort, let alone become ‘rich.’ Fame is a carrot dangled out front, and while it is comforting to be recognized for your work, that comfort does not pay the bills.

“Fortune demands being a professional. And being a professional demands at least three things: a list of deliverables, a deadline and a budget. If you are not clear on deliverables, how can a budget be established or series of deadlines be met? If there’s no deadline, then the project is open ended, and likewise your client may have open-ended principles that allow the project — and you — to fall out that end. Without a realistic budget, how can you hope to do what a business needs to do to continue operating?

“Remember, design is just a job. But damn, if you are lucky, it’s a fine job. And fun. And sometimes the work we do makes a real difference.”

Career Resources for Designers

  • Enroll Now: Web Design For Beginners Series.

  • 2012 Creative Professional’s Marketing Plan Bundle.

  • The Designer’s Career Collection.

6. Bill Gardner www.gardnerdesign.com

“Be interested in something besides design. It is invigorating to work with a designer that is passionate about what they do, but I am finding myself in too many conversations with designers that only know their field and nothing else. Read anything that you can. Know the classics for reference purposes, understand mythology, know how a steam engine works, how to change a bobbin, calculate compound interest, and why the North Star doesn’t move.

“Yes, great design skills, knowledge, and draftsmanship are fundamental. It’s what you know beyond that world that allows you to conceive of a solution your fellow designers are oblivious to. Load your chamber with everything you can so when it’s your turn to take a shot, you have something to fire at the challenge besides surface.”

7. Amy Graver www.elementsdesign.com

“Never stop learning. Embrace what interests you and stay on top of it. Everything you need to know is a never-ending pursuit. It doesn’t stop when you are handed a degree or when you accept your first job. Keep taking classes. Find ways to mingle with other designers who do what you do. Actively research and discover what is out there and who is doing it really well. Ignite discussions with them. Share your passions with your colleagues, friends, spouse. Keep acting as your own teacher and play, practice, experiment and share. Above all else, stay curious and authentic.”

8. Alexander Isley www.alexanderisley.com

“Don’t assume people are familiar and comfortable with (or even aware of) the design process. What we do is often a mystery to people, and it’s worth taking the extra time in input sessions and (especially) presentations to explain, in normal and human and non-jargony terms, how you went about approaching the solving of a problem. You’ll be surprised how well this approach will serve you.”

9. Debbie Milman www.sterlingbrands.com

“I wish someone had told me that patience and persistence pay-off. I wish that someone had told me to trust my instincts when they warn me to stay away from people that are bad for me. I wish that someone told me that, despite my fears, I would not end up homeless by the time I was 40. I wish that someone told me to get a dog as soon as possible. And most of all, when I was first starting out, I wish that someone had told me not to worry so incessantly; someday, in the far distant future, I would be really really happy.”

10. Noreen Morioka www.adamsmorioka.com

“I wish someone would have told me to put my personal life aside and focus on my career. I’m not saying that is right for everyone, but each of my career mistakes was caused trying to make adjustments to keep a relationship. In the end, those relationships failed and I learned that if your partner doesn’t want to you to stay focused on your creative career, then it’s better not to have a partner. “I’ve always said the difference between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ is that ‘good’ is about creating, and ‘evil’ is about destroying it. Being a ‘Creative’ is a superhuman trait, and it’s important to make sure that no one or anything stops you from doing great work. Never loose focus.”

11. Shel Perkins www.shelperkins.com

“Talent is essential for success as a creative professional, but you also need mastery of current methodology and tools, excellent people skills, and business savvy to make your career sustainable over the long haul.”

12. Christopher Simmons www.minesf.com

“There’s a lyric from the song, Ooh La La by The Faces that says, ‘I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.’ I think of this any time someone asks me what advice I would give young people just starting out. On the one hand, there are a thousand things that I’ve learned over the years that would have made my early professional life easier; things I know now. On the other hand, the great joy of life is learning and growing and making one’s own mistakes. I’d feel robbed if— when I was younger— someone had taken that away from me.

“So my advice is to remember that success is a map of failures; Explore with courage. Draw the contours with grace.”

  • Check out Christopher Simmon’s latest book “Just Design” that highlights socially conscious design projects.

13. Gail Swanlund www.gailstudio.com

“Work for things, and with people, you believe are good. Good work and good people attract more good.

“Work outdoors. If you’re stuck, go outside and watch squirrels or take a walk. Take paper and a pen.

“Give your own work devotion.”

Career Resources for Designers

  • Enroll Now: Web Design For Beginners Series.

  • 2012 Creative Professional’s Marketing Plan Bundle.

  • The Designer’s Career Collection.

14. Khoi Vinh www.subtraction.com

“I wish someone had told me that the secret to design is selling, and that every great designer is also a great sales person, someone who knows how to market him/herself to the world. The ability to design without the ability to sell is the definition of futility.”

15. Jennifer Visocky O’Grady www.enspacedesign.com

“I like to tell my students this story: I landed at Cleveland State, bright and shiny at the end of my graduate studies, as a part-time instructor. Naturally, I applied for the first job opening I encountered: Assistant Professor of Graphic Design (they already knew me, neat!). I didn’t even warrant an interview… that is until three other candidates turned down the offer. I like to remind my students of this, as they’re struggling to build their own resumes. We all start somewhere. It’s rarely a glamorous reception.

“Thirteen years later, I’m the Chair of the Department. (Even neater.)”

16. Petrula Vrontikis www.35k.com

“Make sure to balance work and life. Without balance you may experience early career burn out or create undue emotional strain on yourself and the ones you love.

“Connect with nature. Get out of your head and into your body. Nature reminds us to listen, think, and feel in ways that feed our intuition.