New graphic designers often worry about their tangible skills. Am I a master of the pen tool? Am I adept enough at HTML & CSS to offer my services? Can I design a print piece to print specifications? Rightfully so, these are areas that all designers should be concerned about (amongst others). However, being a Creative Suite whiz does not guarantee a successful design career. Much can, and should, be made of efficiency, business sense and more; however, in this article I’d like to focus on specific characteristics that a designer must have (or develop) to truly be successful.
1. THICK SKIN
You need to have thick skin if you’re going to be a successful designer. If you don’t have it, that’s okay. It’s something that can be developed. I know I had thin skin for a while, until I realized that criticism helped me grow as a designer. What I mean by this is, if someone (be it a client, another designer, or someone else) criticizes your work, you’ll be much better off if you learn to handle it and take the positives from the criticism (as opposed to putting up your guard and claiming that they “just don’t get it”). But how do you develop thick skin?
The successful designer needs to be able to separate themselves from their work – this will lessen the impact of criticism. Clients won’t always be happy with the first draft – it doesn’t matter if you stayed up all night, sketched it out in your own blood and incorporated 15 different sub-meanings. Sometimes a client will tell you they don’t like a design, and that’s when you need to be able to separate yourself from your work, put on your thick skin, and forge ahead. People aren’t criticizing to tell you you’re a worthless hack – they’re expressing an opinion about a medium that is largely subjective. Besides – they might be right, and they have fresh eyes for the design you spent 8 hours straight on. So don’t take offense – take the criticism*, apply it if it’s worthwhile, and continue working on the project. It will probably turn out better than the first draft!
*excluding all criticism that includes the phrases “It needs more Comic Sans”
2. BRUTAL SELF-HONESTY
If you want to consistently put out quality work and progress as a designer, you need to be brutally honest with yourself. People have an inherent ability to justify their decisions (myself included sometimes); don’t fall into this trap. At repeated points throughout the design process, ask yourself questions. Hard questions. Is this the best I can do for this project? Is this actually meeting the needs of the client, or am I just telling myself this because I’m frustrated? Is Gotham the best typeface for this client, or am I just being lazy and not pushing the boundaries?
As well, ask yourself brutally tough questions about your skills & your career progression. Am I actually the CSS Guru I tell myself I am? Or am I coasting by on what I already know? When I tell people I’m focusing solely on print design because I find it more rewarding, is that actually true? Or am I scared to branch out?
These are just examples – the depth and scope of the questions will always vary – but brutally self-honest questions like these pave the path to understanding yourself better. When you understand yourself better, you’re one step closer to becoming a successful designer.
3. LOGICAL THINKING
Much has been made of thinking logically – you know, approaching each project with the end user in mind, designing a logo that is versatile, etc. However, I can’t discount it because it’s been covered before. Thinking logically is a huge gap between average designers and great designers. For example, a logo will be used at various sizes from huge to small. It’d be illogical to design a raster-based logo in Photoshop, because raster-based images cannot be upsized without a loss of quality. Thus, use a vector-based program to make your logos, like Adobe Illustrator.
BAM! There ya go. Thinking logically already!
But logical thinking progresses past Design 101 decisions like the one outlined above. Think about your career logically too. For example, if you want to build up your reputation as a killer WordPress designer, perhaps your own website should be WordPress-powered.
Logical thinking is a HUGE area of discussion, so I won’t go further. Just remember – thinking logically leads to solid design and career decisions – and it is a stepping stone to a successful design career.
4. GREAT COMMUNICATION
Great communication plays a huge role in the success of your career as a designer – and it stems from all of the other characteristics in this article. To put it simply, you need to be able to speak plainly about your design choices – why you chose them, and why they work. If you make your design decisions logically, you will be able to communicate why they work to your client. If you’re brutally self-honest during the design process, you will be confident about your decisions – which will help when convincing your client that your design choice is the right one for their business.
To be a great communicator, you have to use words that mean something. Sounds obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised. Most designers “just know” when their design “works”. Being able to articulate why it works is part of what separates good designers from great. For example, say you chose Garamond as the primary typeface for a client’s logo design. Did you choose it because “it looks cool”? Or did you choose it because the client wants to portray her business as traditional/elegant, and will be publishing a variety of print pieces that need to have high legibility as well?
Finally, great communication can be the tipping point in you landing a client and your competitor landing that client. Put yourself in the shoes of your potential client: would you rather put your hard-earned money in the hands of a designer who promises that your logo design will “look totally sweet”, or in the hands of a designer who promises your logo will “reflect the image you want for your business”?
If you’re not a great communicator right now, don’t worry. Practice. Practice on your friends and family – have them pick a logo or website, and explain to them why it works (or doesn’t) in your mind. Then ask their feedback – did you help them understand the specifics of the design? If so, you’re one step closer to being a successful graphic designer.
5. STRONG WORK ETHIC
So, by now, you’re a Creative Suite whiz who knows their design rules & design history. You’re a good, if not great, communicator who makes design decisions honestly & logically. You can take criticism and apply it. So you’re pretty much destined to be the next Sagmeister, right?
Nope. Not if you get up at noon, get in a quick round of Call of Duty, troll YouTube for a while, finally answer a client email at 4pm and then start to make your dinner. This is an extreme example, of course, but the point is the same: if you want to be successful at what you do, you need to work hard at it. Really hard. Ridiculously hard. SUPERMEGAEXTREMETOTHEMAX hard (okay, maybe not that much). Seriously, though, if you want to be a successful designer, you need to put in the time. And be brutally honest with yourself again – when you decide to pack it in at 3pm because you “worked like crazy” all day, did you actually work like crazy? Or are you just justifying your reasoning for quitting an hour and a half early?
I’m not saying you have to work 12 hour days every day. But be disciplined. Stick to work during working hours. If you’re a freelancer in a slow period, perhaps try building up some passive income (you can start by reading Outlaw Design Blog’s Guide to Passive Income). Or maybe it’s time to learn a new skill. Regardless of the specifics, it boils down to this: the harder you work, the better chance you have at being a successful designer.
If you are lacking in confidence, your clients will lack confidence in you. Simple but true – clients can see a lack of confidence like that kid could see dead people in The 6th Sense. The answer to this? Don’t try to fake confidence. Build confidence. Build confidence by asking for criticism (while having thick skin!), thinking logically about your design decisions, being brutally honest with yourself about your design decisions, working really hard, and developing great communication skills.
If you do all these things, you will be confident. Your clients will notice, and they will tell their clients and their friends. Then you will woo them with your confidence (not cockiness though!). And you, my friend, will be a successful designer.