To be a great designer, understand business

Filed Under: Tools and Resources

I was lucky enough to spend some time recently with a friend who plays in a band, a pretty brilliant and successful one. Like all the greats, they make amazing work look easy. After the show, we started to talk about process: song making and making design.

We both shared stories about how hard it is to make good work, and how nearly impossible it is to make great work. And how terrifying it can be to share that work with the world. It gave me comfort to hear that I wasn't the only one who really needed to get a lot of bad work out of my system before getting to anything good. My friend talked about the 20 songs that need to be written to get to the one that makes the album. I talked about the hundreds of sketches and work sessions that lead to the final piece.

It reminded me that in all worthwhile endeavors—creative ones, especially—you need to grind it out. And you need to be scared to death that the work won't be good enough, isn't better than anything you've done before. I find that it helps to set the bar high. And yes, at times that leads to some anxiety, but it's all worth it when you create something that makes you proud.

Sadly though, in the world that we find ourselves in today, hard work isn't enough. As a matter of fact, beautiful, award-winning design skills aren't even enough—they are the cost of entry.

For a young designer to succeed years from now, you had better have some serious design chops—so start working hard. But in addition to this, you'd better understand how to deploy those design skills in a way that helps solve the business problems for your clients. So you've got to understand business, as well as how to tell that client's story across a wide variety of media. Print may not be dead, but the tools that we have to tell stories these days are dramatically different from those of even just a few years ago. In other words, there are plenty of designers out in the world who know how to make a nice poster, but the select few who are going to thrive in the months and years to come are going to be the ones who can tell a complex story across a range of media in a simple, clear and elegant way. So learn from the great storytellers—watch tons of films and read lots of books. And while you're at it, read the business section every day and start to pay attention to the analytical studies that your strategic planners keep talking about. It will pay off.

And of course—keep working your ass off at the job of making great work.

This essay originally appeared in the 2010AIGA|Aquent Survey of Design Salaries.