Setting yourself apart from the graphic design herd is a very worthwhile goal, and one that has many personal and professional rewards. It requires an honest assessment of yourself, a willingness to step outside your comfort zone, and a consistent desire to develop yourself and your business with a sense of passion and flexibility. Let's take a look closer look and map out a strategy.
Be honest with yourself. How much raw talent do you really possess? Creativity, like works of art, are subject to the tastes and preferences of the audience, but in a general sense you should realistically know where you fall. Ask your peers where they think you are as far as talent. Preface it by asking for an honest opinion of your strengths and weaknesses. You have to know where to grow so you can focus on those areas.
To borrow a phrase from the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, "Yes, we are all individuals." You have a unique blend of talents, abilities and experiences; you need to define them. You may be talented at graphic design, but what else are you good at in related fields that could make you a far better designer? A passion for photography, creative writing or an unusually high ability in color and composition are just a few. Any of these add value, so invest the time and energy to develop them further.
Unrelated fields can also boost your talent from an informational or inspirational standpoint. You may love reading fiction, have an affinity for grammatical perfection (I envy you) or a love for a particular hobby or sport. I happen to love history, current events, jogging and jet skiing (the stand up model). Having a broad scope of knowledge to tap into is a great formula for intelligent concept development. You have to be "in the know" not only with your clients industry, but the world as a whole. Jogging and jet skiing is such a liberating experience. I am free to let my mind wander without the interruption of phones and emails, and I have had some of my best “design epiphanies” on roadsides and lakes. Sitting in front of a computer is the worst place to be for brainstorming.
Experiences define who you are and influence your perspective on the world. Where you grew up, your cultural background and all the things you hold in your memory play into everything you design. Remember everything you experience today will effect what you design tomorrow, so go to plays, visit art exhibits, see movies and absorb the world around you. Finally, analyze and critique everything you see and experience in life.
Playing it Safe Gets You Nowhere
Taking risks is one of life's greatest joys and can be the first step to success or failure. I believe that success can even be found in failure. To set yourself apart you will have to develop a good set of stretch marks personally and professionally. I remember waiting in the conference room of an international company that needed a media kit for prospective customers. I was sitting there thinking that I was way over my head being here and I said to my partner, “If they ask us to do something I have no experience in I'll just say, that's not a problem.” I think the third or fourth time I said it she kicked me under the table and gave me a “what are you doing?!” kind of stare. In the end it was successful, but it required a lot of effort on my part. I had to learn unfamiliar software and solve problems in a medium I had no previous experience with. Had it been a failure I still would have the knowledge I gained and a greater desire to succeed the next time.
The same can work if you are an in-house designer or work for a design firm. Take time outside the work environment to learn more about your profession. Becoming more familiar with the operation system and software as well as keeping up with the latest design trends benefits you and your employer, and will help you rise above your coworkers.
The Costs and Rewards of Rising Above the Crowd
There is a trend in our society toward conformity and what is best for the group, instead of celebrating individual achievement. From grading students in groups to not keeping score on the soccer field. Trust me, the referees may not be keeping score, but the parents and kids sure are. We all have a natural desire to compare and compete with each other. As the saying goes, "the only unforgivable sin in life is success." Setting yourself apart will lead them to speak and act negatively toward you. It usually says more about the person doing it than it does about you.
Another cost is the time and effort you invest in your clients, and this has a far greater priority and impact if you are an independent designer. Your responsibility is to guide and educate each client as you go through the creative process. It also means you will have to put a lot more effort into being clear and concise about the business end of design. It is vital to you and your client that you write clear contracts, explain additional charges before they occur, and provide the best customer service possible. That means returning calls and emails when it's not convenient, extra meetings to explain your concepts and meeting unreasonable deadlines. Your goal is to provide a level of service unlike the designers around you. Your reward will be the coveted "referral". You won't have to grab for the brass ring...
it will be handed to you!
In the End
Developing a unique set of talents, abilities and business skills will eventually get you noticed and raise you to a level of success that will be measured in personal satisfaction, a higher position and more money if you are an employee, or more lucrative projects if you are independent. In the end, intelligence and energy are the two biggest qualities for success and the keys to ultimately rising above the crowd. It makes no difference whether you are a designer or a doughnut maker. It works for everyone. Now get started!
I have a list of attributes I keep above my computer to remind me what I need to be each day to reach my personal and professional goals.
My "Setting Yourself Apart" List
• Be honest
• Be friendly
• Be positive
• Be focused
• Be intelligent
• Be respectful
• Be persevering
• Be sales-minded
• Have a sense of humor
• Listen more than speaking
• Be different than everyone else
• Do not take rejection personally
• I am an intelligent colleague who is here to offer help
• Have an engaging conversational tone
• Be relaxed
• Speak clearly and concisely
• Don't use slang or profanity with clients or vendors
• Don't communicate political or religious views in business
• Don't hesitate or procrastinate
• Set goals
• Keep learning
• Be friendly, firm and fair in all your business activities.
About the Author
Derald Schultz is the founder and principal of Mediarail Design, Inc. His company provides creative services for print and web media to clients across the country. Mediarail Design also provides prepress and printing services. He can be contacted at 678-985-9981 or via email.
Derald is also the contributing news and articles editor at Creative Latitude.
© 2004 Derald Schultz, Mediarail Design, Inc.