5 advice for young designers

I’ve seen a few questions about the future of design come up in the threads—I thought I’d share some advice for young designers in particular who may be contemplating these issues. (I didn’t want to hijack any threads with my admittedly China-skewed perspective, so I’m starting a new one here.)

1. Work on your ability to THINK, not think BIG.
I know, this is very vague, but it’s also really true. Designers (and companies nowadays) love to talk about design thinking, strategic thinking, innovative thinking, etc., but those are big catch-all phrases that get misinterpreted or misused all the time. You have to take care not to fall into the terminology, because those words tend to be grander in meaning than they are in reality, so people who rely on them skip “thinking” and instead jump right into thinking “BIG”. But that’s a blue-sky/arbitrary marker for success; it’s like trying to build a skyscraper without digging a foundation. What’s important is to constantly work on your ability to simply THINK: to challenge your own presumptions, to absorb and critique as many different ideas as you can, and to construct—preferably from zero—your own perspectives about every topic. Don’t just agree or disagree; investigate different sides of an issue. This will help you build confidence in your own convictions and therefore be more persuasive when you inevitably step into a discussion with a variety of opinions.

2. Look for opportunities to help DEFINE. Then lead in that area.
I can’t tell you how many times mid-level or higher management people will throw this gem into a discussion: “What we really need to do is innovate a creative solution that ladders up to our brand and communicates our values to our target consumers in an emotive way that meets their needs.” Almost everyone in the room or on the phone will be nodding away, but if you really listen to it, you’ll realize that 1) no one has shared any insights, and 2) no one has taken up the responsibility to ACT on them, if there were any. That’s a dangerous combination. No amount of great sketches or renderings will solve this issue. As a designer, your opportunity to shine is to help a team DEFINE the intangible when no one else is able to, and LEAD in that particular area when no one else is willing to. Look hard for those opportunities. This is a skill that’s applicable whether you’re an intern or a creative director.

3. Every once in a while, step back and evaluate your life as a designer.
Young designers can burn out quickly because he/she had worked long hours for years where the work just became automatic and the “creative” disappeared. Don’t let yourself get to that point. It make me sad to see great talent and hard-working designers burn out because they tried too hard to live up to their own expectations, as if they want to be “successful” (which is abstract) in year 1. The only expectation you should have about your design career is to ENJOY the experience of just being a designer. I have worked with people from a wide spectrum of careers—accountants, lawyers, marketers, non-profits, librarians, engineers, actors, models, pharmacists, bankers, etc.—I still believe that we designers are very, very fortunate to be doing what we do. So don’t enter the field right out of school or go into your second job tripping over your insecurities; you’ll get over each challenge, just like you did in school or in your first job. Don’t get me wrong: it takes hard work to be in this industry, but remember to “reset” often—take a step back, think about why you wanted to be a designer, why you may not be happy about what you’re doing, and make a decision: do you stay stuck or do you “design” your career path? Don’t let things just happen; because if/when they don’t, you’ll be disappointed—likely in yourself. Don’t fall into a mental trap that you yourself probably created. When troubled, take a deep breath, step out, relax, find your motivation and energy again.

4. Be creative for work, but also for yourself.
If you land an office job—either in in-house studio or an independent one—congrats! You’ll likely want to dive right in and try to commit 100% of your efforts into your new job—also great! But once you’ve settled in and have gotten a good hang of things, remember to to do creative work for yourself on the side. Whether it’s keeping a notebook to sketch cars, keeping a blog, visiting museums, or playing a musical instrument, don’t forget to keep a creative part of your life that’s OUTSIDE of work. It’ll broaden your perspectives, loosen up your thoughts, and keep you grounded.

5. Don’t worry about competing with China, other design fields, other designers, other people…
This might be contrarian of me—since school was highly competitive and you DO inevitably compete with applicants for that great job—but what I’m trying to stress is the overwhelming worry of some young designers about things that are not within your control. China, for example, is pumping out hundreds of thousands of designers a year; you might be worried about losing your competitive edge. I’ve seen the worries of UX/IXD becoming more popular at the expense of ID. I’ve also seen (and have gone through myself) the worry of not being “good enough” at 3D rendering, sketching, or other particular skill sets of being a designer. But the truth of the matter is, you should just be the designer you want to be—and work hard at being better at it. If you absolutely hate a particular skill, you’ll feel miserable whether or not you are good at it. Instead, invest the time and energy into something that really gets you going everyday, motivates you to step into the office, and, perhaps most important, makes you want to share it with everyone else. This will always be your competitive edge. Love it, embrace it.

Thanks for sharing this (and your AMA re: China). It’s great to have you share your thoughts openly, and as a student, to have confirmation/assurance of some pre-conceived notions of the design world outside of school.


Of course! I’m not sure if this has helped anyone else here, but I’m glad you found it useful. :smiley:

I would add one more.
Work on your core skills. Throughout the years I’ve seen portfolios become more and more superficial. Design Thinking should be a given skill for every industrial designer, not a title. What differentiates industrial designers from business people who know about design thinking is the ability to create visual/tangible solutions to the discussion. Also, the advancement and ease of use of 3D modeling and rendering software has hindered the ability of students to drive the design and instead sometimes let their software skills dictate design features. Sometimes they are more concerned with how shiny and dramatic the rendering is than the actual quality of the design.
Similar to the Skyscraper analogy…Focus on and master your foundation skills now so that in 5, 10, 15 years you can have a wonderful skyscraper. Think of the skyscraper as your career as a designer.

Thanks for sharing! Good to refresh our memories once in a while…

Your advice would certainly help the young designers who are brimming with ideas, but are feeling frustrated for not being able to use their creativity on a bigger platform. But the practical thing for them would be to utilize every opportunity that comes their way, because that might someday lead them to a better place.

Thanks for sharing valuable ideas that younger designers needed the most.

What I was hoping to emphasize is a designer’s ability to be choiceful; I don’t mean for designers to act as design divas. When I was in school and just graduating school, I remember distinctly how so many of us (including myself) would say something like, “I want to get into [world-famous design studio] to do product design” without thinking—thoroughly—what that entails. The problem here, of course, is that you get completely discouraged if you DON’T get into your ideal studio; or you DO get in, and years later, you find out that you never liked doing that kind of design in the first place.

To those who got into a job that they absolutely loved and felt motivated to work hard—GREAT, good for them, I’m super happy for them—but I’m not really addressing them, either. I’m speaking to those who have the heart and drive to be really good designers but never had the little bit of advice that I’m trying to share here—something that would clear up a bit of the mental “cloudiness” that I think most designers have experienced.

Personal anecdotes: I have ID friends who started their own shoe company when they found out fashion/ID is their true calling; who found out that they loved doing public space/park design; who were AWESOME designers in school but got burned out doing 3C/tech designs in the Bay Area, then went into a totally different field, then hated THAT, then circled back to design work for animal shelters, and then LOVED it. All of them shared with me this: they all still love design and being creative; what they WISH they had done was ask themselves what they really wanted to do, years earlier in their careers. All of them also thought “design studios” were what they wanted out of school and, years later, found out that simply wasn’t true. They’re not dismissing the years of work experience, but they all had close calls with leaving the industry (one actually did). And knowing the kinds of contributions that they are making to their respective fields, I’m glad that they didn’t.

Opportunities will come and go; your decisions about whether to take them will undoubtedly impact your career down the road. What’s more important is, then, the thinking you put into making these decisions. What will I get out of this opportunity? What kind of effort do I need to put in in order to take this opportunity? Will this opportunity pay a lot but take me in a different career direction from what I had imagined? and, if so, would that be ok? Would I want the kind of life that’d be required of this opportunity? What kind of gains could be had or sacrifices would be needed? Is this an opportunity that I would even enjoy? All of these questions (and more) are important and require mental/emotional discipline to ask yourself on a consistent basis.

But what I have observed is many young (and sometimes, experienced) designers, in fact, DO NOT ask any of these questions. What they often do is see situations/opportunities/scenarios at face value: _if I do/do not _______, then I can/cannot __________. This is not a formula for a satisfying career or even an efficient one. In any case, in hindsight, I think if someone had told me some of this, I’d make some better, more satisfying, and perhaps even more empowering decisions in my career.

Thanks for the advice. I enjoyed reading your take on the subject!

I enjoyed reading this post a lot, I am a 5th year college student who will be an art major. Design is a big interest of mine and hopefully I become a designer in the future and eventually move up to a creative director (if we are talking about big goals). I know I keep saying how awesome it was to read this post, but that is because it was insightful, it made me step back and think of what I was doing as a future designer and what I should keep in mind for the future. The two that really stuck out to me was, “Be creative for work, but also for yourself” and “Don’t worry about competing with China, other design fields, other designers, other people…” Both of these were a great reminder for me because sometimes even in school you get lost on the technical stuff instead of creating to your full potential and having fun doing it. Also, I always think if I will make it out there after school and sometimes I get down on myself because I feel there are better people/designers out there. This post was a great reminder to just step back and remember why you love designing or creating art in the first place.

Thanks to share nice post. I really get new point form it. Keep it up.

Beware the lollipop of mediocrity - lick it once and you’ll suck forever.

Thanks for sharing these tips and tricks with all of us. As i am a beginner in designing field and need such a good blog or information to understand the things in brief. Your post is very much useful for me.
Thanks for sharing again.

I also advise to build relationships very consciously and to remain critical.
Find out what it is that makes you happy and then find people who think alike and whose values align with yours before just entering certain projects because there is some affinity, for the money etc. although that’s just fine. But you’ll be many steps or even a leap ahead if you dare to remain critical - the right opportunities will be there. Then work really hard on developing and maintaining relationships and developing new projects.

Also, never lose touch of your inner child and enjoy making mistakes :wink:

This reminds me, early on in my time at school someone advised me to make friend with people who are better than you at different things… I think this advice still holds true 25 years later. :slight_smile: Knowing engineers, developers, marketing people, and other designers who excel at different facets of all different design disciplines has been invaluable.

All good insights (included FH13’s add-on), I really appreciate this post. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard #2 coming from clients—it really is an important skill to be able to translate “innovation” talk to something tangible. That’s often the hardest part of this job, but also the part that gets trimmed out of proposals too easily.

From a professional standpoint your 5 tips are all good ways to avoid burnout. You often have to find opportunities to make products better within realistic constraints AND you have to figure out what aspects of your job and your work make you feel satisfied. Most projects are not going to be blue-sky, ground-up, infinite budget, game-changers, but that doesn’t mean the job has to be boring or redundant. The game is finding what you can do with what you have. It’s a really broad field, so you can do a lot with the skills you have… If you know what you want to do and how to sell it.

I also wish design education had a little more insight into the reality of professional design sometimes. I have students drop in every few weeks to chat, which I enjoy, but I am surprised by how many feel blind to what a professional designer does and subsequently what they want to do with their career. I think a lot of students feel pushed to sell themselves in a particular way and often get jaded and either never get a design job or get stuck in a job they don’t really enjoy.

Frequently I talk to students that don’t like sketching, CAD, or shop work, but still try to build portfolios that sell themselves as a traditional industrial designer. If you want to be a traditional industrial designer, you should probably enjoy at least one of those things and work to develop those skills. If you prefer research, project management, UX-UI, etc. those skills need to be cultivated and put in the forefront instead. Creative thinking is important, and powerful, but it has to have more purpose and direction than just a vague notion of “innovating.”