Talent isn't everything

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by Chanpory Rith on 2007/04/09 |

Here’s a common myth: To be a successful creative professional, all you need is talent. It’s a nice myth to believe in. “Talent” suggests a divine or evolutionary genetic gift, so if you’re blessed with the talent gene, you’re special and can be a cool creative person. If not, you’re destined to be an accountant.

”… this myth of talent has very little to do with the success of a designer.”

After working three years at MetaDesign and since starting my new position at Dubberly Design Office, I’ve noticed this myth of talent has very little to do with the success of a junior designer. Instead, I have found that those who survive and last more than six months practice these seven habits:

1. Work quickly. Produce a lot.

2. Attend to details.

3. Be versatile.

4. Make an effort to learn.

5. Anticipate problems.

6. Set goals.

7. Display a positive attitude.


1. Work quickly. Produce a lot.

In a design studio with large collaborative projects, time is money. Being fast is critical to your survival. The studio relies on your speed in two areas: Idea generation and production.

Idea generation

Being a junior designer often means your final work won’t be polished. Fortunately, design is not just about quality. It’s also about ideas and concepts. The more ideas you generate quickly, the more value you bring to the studio. Having many unrevised ideas, as opposed to one perfect concept, helps your creative director and design team to:

  • Envision the solution space, the set of possible solutions, for the project.
  • Evaluate what’s conservative, feasible, or ridiculous.
  • Create a pool of alternatives to choose from in case a client rejects the team’s initial recommendations.
  • Invite early client participation, by having more options to show and discuss.

Ideas shouldn’t remain in your head; you need to find ways to express them. Some ways to show ideas include brainstorming via outlines, concept maps, mood boards, and sketches. Also useful is rapid prototyping, the iterative process of creating rough and imperfect proof of concepts. Here are some ways you can present your ideas.

Outlines are lists organized hierarchically, much like the lecture notes you took in school. They’re a quick and familiar way to organize initial ideas without worrying about what the final design looks like.

Concept maps show relationships between concepts in the form of nodes and links. Each node represents an idea; each link represents a relationship. Both should be labeled. Their advantage is the ability to show one-to-many and many-to-many relationships.

Mood boards are collages that combine images, colors, and words to capture the general feeling of what a product or service might evoke. They’re useful for discussing general conceptual approaches without getting bogged down in details such as layout and typography. For examples of mood boards in all shapes and sizes, check out Flickr’s Inspiration Boards Pool

Sketches are drawings that approximations what a design might look like. They can be rough or detailed.

When generating ideas, keep in mind that in the early phases of a project, you should first try to generate a lot of ideas instead of having a few perfectly defined.

Second, you should create distinct ideas rather than variations or permutations of the same idea. (I still have a hard time with this one.)

Finally, don’t be afraid of dumb ideas.

Production

Even if your ideas don’t work out, you can help refine, improve, and implement the ideas of others on your team. Production—the execution stage of a design process—is a vital skill for every designer. This means you need to be well-versed in the most commonly-used software applications and prototyping methods in your studio. You don’t need to know them like the back of your hand; you just need to know enough to meet the possible demands of the studio. To become more proficient:

  • Seek help by asking another designer how to do something.
  • Search online for answers. Google, message boards, blogs, and wikis are your best friends.
  • Keep updated on product announcements, tutorials, and updates.
  • Try-out and adopt new software.
  • Practice your skills by experimenting on side projects, such as personal websites and designing for your friends and family.
  • Read sites like this one for tips and tricks.
  • Take classes on new or unfamiliar technologies. Your employer may even sponsor you.

Most major applications now come with a set of tutorials that demonstrate old and new features. As a daily or weekly exercise, choose and complete one tutorial on an unfamiliar part of the application.

2. Attend to details

Successful junior designers take great care in preparing files for others to use. They pay attention to pixels and picas, check spelling, remove unneeded files, and strive to make it easier for someone else to understand their work. Nothing will annoy your supervisor or creative director more than having to clean up sloppy work. Some tips:

In programs with layers, such as Photoshop and InDesign, name and order your layers with a logical naming convention. Delete any layers and ruler guides that are unnecessary.

Keep files managed with clear naming conventions and a logical hierarchy of folders. This makes it easier for your boss and other coworkers to find a file later.

If you have linked or placed images in a file, make sure they work when you package them for your creative director to review. Linked images should also be named according to a logical naming convention.

Make it easy for your manager to give you feedback by making a list of specific questions you need answered to take the project to the next step.

3. Be versatile

Versatile and flexible designers can weather the economic ups and downs of a design studio because they can be staffed to more types of projects. A sure-fire way to shoot yourself in the foot is saying “I don’t do web” or “I don’t do print.” You’ll be seen as a diva and won’t last long.

Effective designers instead say “I don’t know how yet, but I want to learn how to do it.” Eventually, you’ll learn new skills and—more importantly—ways to adapt these skills to new demands. Being well-rounded also gives you a wider range of experiences and skills to draw from when designing. This means more variety when generating ideas and a better understanding of how different disciplines can work together.

Hugh Dubberly, a design planner and educator, shared this anecdote:

“Herman Zapf, famous type designer, tells a story of his first job. He interviewed with a printer who asked if he knew how to use a process camera. Zapf said yes. He got the job and went straight to the library to read up on how to do it.”

Unlike what Zapf would say, I still hear many designers proclaim, “I don’t want to design websites. It’s too technical.” These designers close themselves off to the possibility of learning and growth as well as the reality of technology’s prevalence.

With the ubiquity of technology and the Internet, it’s impossible to avoid getting technical. I encourage every designer, whether print-based or software/web-based, to have some understanding of:

  • Basic programming concepts (functions, loops, conditionals, and variables)
  • Web development (XML, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, PHP/MySQL, Flash)
  • Social networking and collaborative authoring (blogs, wikis, message boards, MySpace)
  • Cybernetics (study of systems, goals, and feedback)
  • Search and search engine optimization (metadata, tags, page rank, contextual advertising, personalized search)
  • Version control and content management

4. Make an effort to learn

To be versatile, you must learn new skills all the time. Effective and successful designers are lifelong learners. They are curious, enthusiastic, and passionate about design and want to learn more. This passion translates to better job satisfaction and productivity. They also:

  • Seek out mentors, perhaps a teacher, manager, or industry expert they admire.
  • Choose jobs based on those that let them learn the most. When you’ve stopped learning, it’s probably time to leave.
  • Have projects outside of work (such as cute productivity blogs).
  • Participate in the design communities by attending lectures and other events.
  • Keep up with technology and become an early adopter.
  • Read books on unfamiliar topics.
  • Write about what they’ve learned and share it with others. It helps organize their thoughts.

5. Anticipate problems

Junior designers can make themselves indispensable by recognizing and anticipating potential problems for their managers. For example, you can:

  • Point out potential production issues that might delay the project.
  • Accurately estimate the amount of time you need to a task. Junior designers are notorious for underestimating the time it takes to do something, so give yourself some padding for anything that might go wrong.
  • If you need more time to do a task, tell your managers at least 24 hours ahead, so they can rearrange the schedule.
  • Alert managers when work falls out of the project scope.

6. Set goals

To be an effective designer, you must set goals for yourself. These goals can be skills you want to learn, responsibilities you want to have, and types of projects you want to work on.

Knowing and articulating these goals is especially important during performance reviews. Reviews should be more than just about discussing your past performance; use them as an opportunity to present your goals. This shows that you want to grow. It also allows both you and your manager to agree on a plan for achieving your goals.

For more about goals, check out Erin Malone’s article on the five-year-plan.

7. Display a positive attitude

Companies change. One day, your company is the leading design studio for non-profit corporate identities. The next day, it decides to specialize in websites for luxury European cars. As company vision shifts, so can the staff, location, and other resources. Amidst change and uncertainty, it’s important to remain positive. Nobody likes a grump.

Here are some ways to show a positive attitude:

  • No matter how junior you are, mentor others by sharing information you’ve learned.
  • Identify problems in the studio and find ways to make them go away.
  • Ask what you can do to help.
  • Avoid gossip and talking ill of fellow coworkers, clients, and competing studios.

Conclusion

Certainly, these habits apply to other fields as well as design. They also may be obvious to some. Nonetheless, it’s important to restate and articulate what we often forget. For junior designers who want to eventually become senior designers and managers, it’s vital to avoid believing that success depends on talent alone.

Success for a designer depends on how much value he or she brings to an employer or client. Quality and talent can be part of this value, but success requires more than that. Designers also bring value through speed, versatility, foresight, and other qualities that have little to do with talent. Talent, if it exists, is only a small part of success.

(Special thanks to Hugh Dubberly for his feedback on an earlier draft of this article.)

Recommended reading:

Learning How to Learn, by Joseph D. Novak and D. Bob Gowin

The Now Habit, by Neil Fiore

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell

NOTE: This article is based an earlier blog post on LifeClever, published July 12, 2006.

Best iPhone apps for a creative designer?

First of all, I’d like to take some precautions here…

Generally I don’t like the “Best of” anything on the web because it’s never accurate to me. What is great for an accountant may not be suitable for a designer, and vice versa. This is why I will try to create a “Best of” for people like me, designers, geeks, creative. We should share some interests… That is the first point.

Then, you have to understand that is MY point of view, MY best of to me myself and I. I just share what I like here. You may think this app is crap and/or doesn’t work on your iPhone; I’m not an IT person; ask to the developer who did it, I can’t help you. Sorry.

Then there is the date. Important the date; there maybe an upgrade for the app I’m talking about in 2 days and I don’t know it yet, should I be insulted and beaten to death for that? Well, maybe : (

To sum up, let’s say that you are here reading this article because you LOVE the iPhone.

See? There is already something we share

DISCOVER is an app. to share your files between your iPhone and your Mac.

First I bought AIRSHARING, thinking that if you have to pay for it, it must be because it’s good. I was wrong; and someone in Friendfeed told me so. Thanks a lot guy! I have to tell you that I’m a total newbie; just download and install and it has to work, that is my goal.

AIRSHARING was, in that way a bit complicated to me, this IP thing you have to search, blah blah, boring.

With DISCOVER, you start the application, and you see all your iPhone files instantly in your browser: magic. Then you just have to drag and drop! That is perfect for me!

Go and get it.

Now, a little part on the GTD things, because you just have to Get your Things Done buddies! As you are certainly a big manager with dozen of tasks per hour, these apps will help you to organize them, in a nifty way.

This one is quite “original” if you speak Texan (I’m jokiiing!), well it’s in English, so the poor French like me must choose the right “accent” before using it. I guess you won’t have this problem.

So, REQALL is a nice GTD app as you guessed, you just have to speak and say your tasks and it will be translated and transformed into text with the right date and all! Wow. This is good voice recognition here.

That’s it. For example, you are in your Jaguar and you forgot to tell to your mistress to wear this… Ok. I’m done here. Find your own tasks.

Evernote is a FANTASTIC tool I’m using for everything, it is connected with my desktop application so you just have to Sync and you will have the same documents on your iPhone, your Mac desktop and on the net. Very beautiful end useful.

This is why I couldn’t choose between all these apps for my tasks, they are all so good now!

THINGS is also incredible but I must say I have a problem with it, it doesn’t work on my Mac. Don’t know why. It is perfect on my iPhone anyway and it does the job very well. Question of taste!

Same here with this hit, RTM can be used for everything and it’s totally compatible with your iCal or/and Google.

Well, I really like Toodledo too!! Basically it can do everything too(dledo?), again you will decide which one is right for you.

  • iTalk
  • Dev: http://www.griffintechnology.com/support/products/italk
  • – FREE
  • – 3,99 € (Premium)

Now, let’s be serious. Noise and Beatmaker (see below) are the best apps I ever seen on the iPhone (for now on), I’m totally addicted.

I would say most stunning design, technically perfect, very joyful and amazing possibilities. + you can show off in front of your friends that only have Free Piano. Then when you will connect the iPhone to your 1500W speakers your neighbors will be very happy to share ideas on music with you.

But careful, you have to be a bit “musician” to understand all the possibilities you have here, otherwise you may be a bit lost at the beginning with the choice offer…

Ok, maybe you won’t be Timbaland tomorrow. But who knows? In case I give you the idea to buy Beatmaker and you become famous, don’t forget to pay me back (at least 48% of your total revenue). It can happen with this app because it has all you need to create the future worldwide hit. And it’s this kind of app that if you are bored, you can always return to it and enjoy to create a new… Hit. (let’s pretending).

The maximum of pleasure come when you connect your iPhone (again??) to your Mac in using GarageBand… Infinite possibilities, the Ali-Baba cave.

For now, I really think Beatmaker and Noise.io are the best music/game app on iPhone. All this technology in so tiny space! Congrats to the Dev. people…

Linkedin, because it seems to be THE social web service now to create contacts, try to find a new job (to have a salary to pay your iPhone apps) etc.

One of my favourite mini-blog web service on the net, so I found it very useful on the iPhone to blog even in my toilets.

Yes, there are 2 versions and I “prefer” the free version ; ) It’s enough for me to have a little fun with it.

Well, that’s it folks, hope you liked it, don’t forget it’s just a selection, in case you didn’t know these ones, but of course everyday plenty of new apps are coming on iTunes Store and I didn’t mention about all the online apps like Facebook, Friendfeed etc. because you may already know about it…

I really enjoy Music and Photo apps so if you know some new stunning apps, feel free to add it in comment!

Enjoy!