10 steps to a professional career as a designer

Christopher Cashdollar's pro tips will get you thinking beyond the pixel and on a path towards long-term professional relevance.

Design 'talent' can only advance your career so far. If you want to be more than just a flash in the pan, you need to diversify your skills and evolve beyond just slinging the hottest pixels. If longevity is an important aspect of your web design career, start preparing to expand your talents.

01. Learn your graphic design theory and history

How can you expect to master an expertise if you don't know any of the fundamentals? If you have a strong understanding of design history, you now have a mobile library of inspiration (i.e. your brain) to always draw from. Pull from this knowledge with purpose. Don't stumble through a historical design style without an understanding of how and why it originated.

02. Generate ideas

Don't stare at a blank computer screen. Successful designers learn how to generate concepts and avoid jumping into Photoshop too early.

First, articulate the design problem. Once you are prepared, plan, moderate, or participate in a quantity-not-quality brainstorming session. Only after the session should any ideas end up on the cutting room floor. For the ideas that survive, don't be afraid to sketch until a solution become clearer. Sketching doesn't have to be pretty, either. Moving through a volume of ideas rapidly before settling on a desired solution will take your design in a favourable direction faster.

03. Sell your work

While 'coffee is for closers', the spoils of design successes go to those who can instill confidence in their clients. One-on-one with your smallest client or unveiling new work to a poker-faced 60-person committee, you must be prepared to establish trust in how you talk about design.  

04. Become a better writer

Writing is another form of creativity. The more you work the 'writing' muscle, the more you'll learn. Be comfortable turning the jumbled mess of thoughts in your head into organised, written ideas. Your words become an extension of yourself, providing additional opportunities to share your ideas when you're not present.

05. Surround yourself with people more talented than yourself

Can you learn in a vacuum? You can't. If you don't work with talented people that you can constantly learn from, think about changing jobs.

06. Work alone or work as a team

When you are on a team, can you successfully integrate with the personalities and talents of the team? If you are a freelancer, can you manage yourself and your projects despite wearing all the hats? If you already work solo, join forces with some like-minded professionals to bring something to life. Look into local coworking spaces or professional organisations where talented folks fraternise and collaborate. New to working with a team? Learn to let go of control. If you can learn to trust your teammates and earn that trust back, you'll forge a strong professional bond.

07. Handle conflict professionally

What type of reputation do you want to project to your contemporaries? Employers, co-workers, colleagues, and clients; all of these roles in your professional life aren't necessary one-time cameos. You will cross paths with them again. If not, your interpersonal skills will act as your proxy. People talk, reputation spreads and if you make a habit of burning bridges, it will come back to haunt you.

08. Accept that you have limits

Yes, you used to draw when you were a kid. Does that make you the best candidate to create an illustration for a paying client? Who doesn't like to take snaps with our iPhones and turn them into nostalgic bits of memory via Instagram? Software doesn't make you a master of lighting photography. Know your skills and specific expertise.

09. Value making relationships, not just connections

You'll never know when the next job or job opportunity will show up in your inbox. The spoils come to those who take the time to nurture their network. That includes past coworkers, friends you've made at conferences, and the multitude of designers who inspire you.

10. Be forever curious

Whenever possible, practice new techniques, try new tools, take risks, push the envelope - this forces you to challenge your creativity, combats stagnation and can help keep you relevant.

A career is like a slab of marble waiting to be turned into a piece of artwork. Like Michaelangeo, who could see the form inside of the unblemished stone, you can begin to shape your career in the vision of your choosing.


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