How To Be A Successful Designer

There are certain things that some designers do that has made them successful in their careers. It’s not necessarily about their technical skills or their ability to pitch an complex idea, though those things certainly add to a designer’s success. Some of the qualities of great graphic designers are that they can solve design problems, ask the right questions, triple check everything, continually learn, are organized, support other designers, can ask for help when needed, can properly communicate an idea, build from criticism, and are patient. Here’s a bit more about what each of those qualities mean.

1. Solve Problems

Every work of design is an opportunity to solve a problem. Not just visually, but on a level that drives engagement. Great designers know that making something look good is easy, but getting to the root of the problem is key. A client might want a way to tell customers about a new promotion with a magazine ad. But is that the best way to promote it? Could there be a better media that would engage with the main demographic of the product better? Maybe, maybe not. It really depends. But great graphic designers know that a problem isn’t always surface level.

Designers are also often faced with visual problems that aren’t always obvious. You might need to figure out how to re-design and modernize a logo so it still retain recognition. Does this involve a completely different typeface or something similar to the before? Does the symbol need refinement? Or maybe simplification? Will existing customers be able to recognize the new logo? How far can you go without hurting brand recognition? This is the type of problem that’s common for designers.

2. Ask Questions

It’s hard to solve problems without asking questions. The most important part of problem solving is asking why. If you ask why enough, eventually you’ll get to the very root of a problem. For example, a client comes to you needing a new business card. You need to know why. The client says it’s because they need to get out and network more, and business cards are a key part in that. You ask why again. The client says business has been slow, although their competitors are doing well. This is going to be the catalyst for a lot more questions. If their competition is doing well but they aren’t, some business cards aren’t going to fix that. Figure out where the company’s weakness really is, and if you’re services can do anything to fix that. Maybe they need a social media marketing campaign, a more user friendly website, or an entirely new brand identity. Asking questions will help you get to the root of what the client needs, and it shows you actually care about helping their business.

3. Triple Check

Proof everything. Proof it again. Now one more time. There’s a lot of information coming at us all the time. As designers, our job is to sort that information along with imagery to craft a visual message. That typically involves working with headings, large amounts of body copy, taglines, or contact information. This information needs to be accurate, 100% of the time. Check for typos in the heading and body copy, check every link to make sure it connects, etc. Make yourself a checklist for specific projects if you think it will help your proofing process. It also helps to have someone else look over your design. A fresh set of eyes will often see things you don’t. Even if everything looks good to go with no typos, there might be a contact address that is outdated, or a link that goes to the wrong site. Check everything. Then check it again.

4. Keep Learning

The design industry is constantly evolving, and great designers know that. What we did ten years ago is different from what we do today and it’s crucial to stay up-to-date with the industry. Changes in software, devices, culture, brand perceptions, and trends change how we design. We need to stay relevant and competitive and we can only do that by learning. Every single day.

In addition to constant learning about the industry as a whole, we need to continually grow our technical skills. This means taking courses, experimenting with new design techniques, and being curious about the techniques of other designers. There’s a wealth of information online for us now, and taking advantage of that is key. Want to learn motion design? Check out some tutorials on SkillShare. Curious about how to charge clients more for your design work? Check out TheFutur’s channel on YouTube. Just keep leveling up your skills and your clients will be amazed at the work you create.

I’ve actually learned a lot from the Book of Ideas book series by Radim Malinic. All three books are great sources of beautifully laid out information and inspiration and I can’t recommend them enough.

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5. Stay Organized

Great designers know that keeping projects and files properly organized is massively important. Keeping meticulous records of client deadlines and deliverables makes all the difference on a project. Often you’ll work on a project that you need to reference a previous project for. If your files and records are not perfect, this could be troublesome. Your files should be organized well enough that anyone would be able to go your computer and find a specific file. If you work with other designers this is actually a common situation. If you’re on vacation or taking a sick day, another designer might need to go through your files to find a client project. You need to make it obvious where they need to look.

Teamwork - Working as a Graphic Designer6. Support Other Designers

Fostering the design community as a whole is always a good idea. Great designers mentor, critique, and support other designers because it grows the industry. Helping other designers is also a fantastic way to learn new skills and come up with new ideas. I enjoy blogging and being a resource for other designers because I learn a lot on the way. There’s so much to learn in design that no one can ever know everything. Sharing skills, ideas, and techniques is absolutely key for being a great graphic designer.

There are many ways to support other designers and foster the design industry. You can mentor another designer, teach a class, make online videos, write online articles, or even share information in a visual way via social media. The more you help and support other designers, the more you will be looked upon as a leader and expert in your field.

7. Ask For Help

In every industry, no one person can know everything about a topic. Our brains are not computers. Sometimes, we need to ask for help. That certainly holds true for designers, especially when there are so many designers with different specialties. Know your limitations and your strengths. Great designers are not great at everything, and great designers can’t do everything. If you’re stuck with a project, or uncertain about the best technical way to do something, ask another designer. Everyone’s design knowledge is stronger in certain areas than others. Asking for help, whether it’s just a quick Photoshop question or working in an unfamiliar territory like motion graphics, is key.

8. Communicate Ideas

Being able to communicate your ideas is a must-have for all designers. In fact, it makes up a huge portion of what we do. Communicating ideas takes some work, but great designers have learned how to do this extremely well. A lot of this begins early in the research stage of a project. Thorough research gives you the tools to be able to effectively rationalize certain decisions that are made in the design process. You should be able to fully explain why something was designed in one way, and be able to defend your ideas if necessary.

9. Take Criticism & Build On It

This is an area of design that many designers don’t like. Great designers know that’s it’s just part of the job. Taking criticism happens every single day as a designer. Often, it’s internal from your boss or other designers, but sometimes it’s from clients. Designers you work with are likely to offer helpful suggestions after a bit of criticism, like trying something in another font. Usually, this is good criticism to get because it’s coming from designer eyes.

You can also get good criticism from your boss, but not always. I’ve had a project where my boss simply said ‘this is horrible’ with no helpful comments at all. It was obvious he hadn’t communicated what he was originally after very well, but it was still not valid criticism. Sometimes criticism will come out of frustration or anger, and there’s really nothing you can do about it, because it’s not about you. I’ve had a project manager angrily come to my desk, say ‘all of this is wrong’ and drop the project folder on my desk. Again, this is not valid criticism and is in no way helpful. He was simply angry and taking it out on me. I know this because it wasn’t even my project he slapped on my desk.

Clients are usually the worst offenders of offering unhelpful criticism. They want to be involved in the process even if it means asking for unnecessary changes. At the stage where you have something to show a client, you’ve already done your research on their company and competition. A client saying ‘my wife hates the logo’ is not valid criticism. However, a client asking for a slightly larger font size on a flyer because most of his customers are elderly, is absolutely valid. That’s good criticism and you should learn from it going forward.

10. Have Patience

There is no timeline on creativity. Coming up with a solid concept or design takes time. You could be sitting at your desk for hours without a single idea. Other times you’ll have great ideas right off the bat. Sometimes you won’t have a single good idea at all until you randomly find inspiration elsewhere. Even when working with a team, getting to a great idea takes time.

I’ve gone into team brainstorming meetings with a few half decent ideas that didn’t totally answer the original problem. After some discussion, the team members all fed off each other’s ideas and came up with something much better. At that point, we all left to work on the concept we came up with. Doing that brought up a whole new bunch of potential issues. After a few more meetings we finally had something great. It took time and a whole lot of ideas, both good and bad. But that’s the process. You can’t rush creativity, and if you try you’ll probably end up with something that isn’t very creative, or something that doesn’t solve the initial problem.

Qualities of Great Graphic Designers – In Summary

Being a great graphic designer isn’t just about having the best technical skills. It’s so much more than that. Designers do a lot and it takes time and experience to get really good at it. Fortunately, if you’re passionate about design and have the desire to get better, you will.

What other things do great graphic designers do every day that make them successful? Let me know in the comments below.


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