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Embrace The “Dislike”

When it comes to designing, everyone has something they really enjoy doing. For some, it’s illustrating; others it’s Photoshop special effects; some really enjoy storyboarding while others like print design. But … what is it that you don’t like to do? It’s a simple enough question but one that we as designers and creative types often overlook or ignore. We figure, “I don’t like doing … but … I have to.” In my view, that’s what causes burn out, weak design and a distaste for the creative field all together.

I look back on college and the people I graduated with and realize that after six years I’m actually one of the few who have kept with graphic design. Isn’t that a bit odd? I don’t think it is but I know the source of this migration out of the creative field comes from people not spending enough time with the question, “What is it that I dislike doing?” I know for me, I can’t stand logo design. Oh sure, designers could find enough logo design work to keep them busy throughout the year but logos are simply not my thing. I can list all the reasons for my strong dislike for this field of creativity but simply put, I detest it. Whenever a logo design project comes across my desk I feel my eyes rolling to the back of my head, fingers gripping the sides of my desk and feel the life slipping from my body. That is exactly why I turn down any logo design work that comes my way unless it’s forced upon me in work.

There was a time early on in my career that I felt obligated to do whatever was offered or given to me. It was that sense of, “Well, this is work … you aren’t going to like everything you work on and this is money. I MUST do this!” Not always the case, though! I’ve found that after six years of working professionally, there are many times when it’s ok to say, “Hey, I really appreciate this opportunity but I’m not the designer for you.” I know my strengths and what I like to do. I enjoy illustration, I enjoy using very pop-ish colors, I enjoy learning more about web design and communicating my ideas and opinions about design and other topics. I do not enjoy, however, logo designs or setting up entire websites simply because both involve a billion revisions and I know I’m better at one-shot designs than I am at something that calls for meticulous attention and a lot of revisions. This being said, I occasionally do the things that drain me creatively but they are limited to only a few times a quarter or year rather than all the time.

People. It’s okay not to be good at everything. It’s okay to dislike certain creative projects and tasks. It’s okay to express this to your employers, employees and clients. You will feel less drained and more excited about what you’re working on if you’re doing the things you’re good at or are interested in. Identify and embrace the “dislike” so that you’ll spend your time working on the things you do like.

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Tips for Young Creatives: Know Thy Self

Continuing with the Doug Bartow “29 Tips for Young Designers” article in How’s January 2011 issue is tip 5: be yourself. I’ve tweaked it a tad bit to “know thy self” and am not in full agreement with Bartow on his spill on personal style vs. personal approach to design or creativity. Doug Bartow makes the argument that you need to have confidence in yourself as a creative type (designer, photographer, writer, creative personal in general).

That, I definitely agree with. Art and creativity are based upon how free and willing to share you are. Believe it or not, if you aren’t sure of yourself then that lack of confidence and authority over the subject matter will show in your work. I’ve come across many designers who lack confidence. The result is a piece that looks more like a mosaic of experiments and trials than a finished, coherent idea being played out. When creativity is a hobby and you are developing your craft, it’s ok not to be sure of yourself and to experiment a bit. When design and creativity are a means of your livelihood and financial support, you sure as heck better know what you’re doing. Clients and your employers aren’t paying you to experiment or find your way; they are paying you for work that will generate a profit and money and you can’t accomplish that through uncertainty.

This though is where I’m in disagreement with Bartow a bit. He writes, “Don’t work in a particular personal style …. Your commissioned work should never be about you, but it can certainly reveal your hand as the designer.” As a young creative (I can still call myself that at 26, right?) I’ve found that in most cases, this is the complete opposite in many situations. Most of the work I’ve picked up on a freelance basis has been based on my personal style rather than me just being a designer. Sure, some of that work and the work I do for my employer may be based on the style or work of someone or something that’s been established before I’ve come along but my clients and past and present employers expect to see my trademark style elements worked into my design pieces.

The biggest mistake I think any young creative could make is to become a chameleon creative type. Rather than having a style that will make someone snap their fingers and exclaim, “That’s (Fill in the Blank)’s work!” they try to copy and imitate what they view as cool or in style rather than putting in the time to work or develop his or her own style. Why should you have a personal style? You will enjoy your work more because you will have a more intimate connection with the work you create. Rather than your work being just another job, you will be able to look at it years from now and have it conjure up an emotional reaction. Don’t be afraid to insert yourself in your work – whether it’s for personal use or commissioned by another. Just be sure when the client or employer asks why you made a design/creative decision in the work you present that you have a better reason than, “I just like it” or “It looks cool.”

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Tips For Young Creatives: Who do you think you’re talking to?

Continuing on with the commentary about How magazine’s recent 29 Tips for Young Designers article by Doug Bartow, we’re on to the fourth tip: define your audience. I’ve worked with a lot of designers; I’ve worked within a company setting and as a freelancer; I’ve looked online and have been the recipient of design and I can easily say one mistake many designers or creative types make, me included, is not always being considerate of the audience who you are designing for. This is a double-edged sword and isn’t as clear cut an issue as one may believe.

Different audiences respond differently to various messages. In my opinion, successful designers are those who don’t really see themselves as artists or designers; they see themselves as marketers. Those in the advertising field will tell you that coming up with any successful campaign involves lots of research. You probably got into your chosen creative field so that you didn’t have to do research! Sorry buds, but graphic design is like any other professional line of work – it takes research, it takes knowing your audience, it takes time and some trial and error.

When I first started out as a graphic designer, I often designed things that I liked. If it looked good to me, I deemed it good design and called it a day, shut the door on it. That’s why when I look back on some of my early work, I cringe. It feels dated, a tad juvenile. Nowadays, I am constantly looking at other people’s work for inspiration; I usually start each design task with the question of, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” meaning if my audience is 56-70 something year old women into gardening, I had better not design something that a college freshman would jump on. Sometimes, I often will do something of a “red pill vs. blue pill” approach to design to present to the client: one is tame and in line with what is expected and has been done before to appeal to a certain group; the other is usually a bit more out there and pushes the standard. In the end, it’s rarely an either/or situation but a compromise of the two.

When you set out to do your creative work – look back at what’s been done before and see what you can do to “remix” it. Yes, take the approach of a DJ would to a song and take something people already like and make it a tad bit better. Don’t go too far out and lose sight of what made the original thing appealing to begin with but don’t always play it safe and deliver what’s been done time after time. This seems a bit paradoxical but I’ve found this approach has helped me produce some good work that all audiences have responded to. Keep in mind that whether you are a graphic designer, photographer, web designer or writer you’re first and foremost a communicator. Don’t just create eye candy but create a piece of work that has a purpose and connects to a specific audience. Only by doing this will you create something that has a lasting impact and impression.

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Tips for Young Creatives: Be Careful of the Bridges You Burn

A couple days ago I mentioned the article by Doug Bartow in the January 2011 issue of How magazine on tips for young designers. While the article may have been geared toward those in the graphic design field I believe his tips are ones that apply to people in all sorts of creative career paths including (but not limited to) writers, video and audio, film, painting, etc.

The second tip following “sweat the details” (which I posted about last week) was to play nice. Now, this sounds like something we all learned back in elementary school and have been told by our parents as we were growing up. You would be surprised by how we forget this savvy business rule as we get older. Working, especially in today’s economy, gets stressful. Our first reaction rarely is to ” let it go” and  in all fairness, it’s hard to just let something go when it really gets to you. So what do we do? We pick at it, we think about it non-stop, we complain to our friends, co-workers, family about it and usually we let those little things build up and seep into our professional careers and work. We’ll belittle a client who doesn’t have the slightest idea what a person with your creative talents really does; we’ll refuse to go beyond our definition of our given profession because we think or say we’ll never be compensated for our hard work; we’ll get online or go out in public and completely tear down somebody or a group of people because we think it’ll make us feel better to vent and let it all out.

Be careful of the bridges you burn in your career. Let’s get honest and real – we all have bad days, we encounter people in our careers who really seem to defy logic and reason and in some cases we are undervalued and mistreated. That being said, there is no reason for us to completely burn bridges in our professional careers that will leave us up the creek. You can’t anticipate the future or what’s to come. Say you’re laid off (which I have been) and all of a sudden you need references or help with leads on a new job. If you’ve played dirty and have had a reputation for not being a team player, you may find it a tad bit hard to find someone willing to help you out in your time of need.

The same goes for what you do online. We’ve heard countless stories of how seemingly nice people at work suddenly turn to the darkside online. They’ll go on Facebook and will rip a certain co-worker, they will complain about how much they hate their job, they will rant on and on about things related to their career giving you the impression that perhaps this person is in the wrong line of work. Don’t be that person. I’ve personally adopted a policy of not talking about work outside of the confines at work, and complaining while you’re at work seems like a waste of time. If you have nothing but complains and negative things to say about your job, you should probably be seeking new employment elsewhere.

So people, play nice. It’s harder than it sounds and takes more effort than simply ranting and raving about the downside of being a professional in today’s economy, but it’s worth the effort.

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Tips for the Unemployed Graphic Designers

Well, it has been quite a while since my last post. What gives? The answer is that since my last post, I’ve landed a new job. Does that mean I’m not posting anymore? Not at all! Between interviewing, Thanksgiving, starting the job and getting re-adjusted, I’ve simply been a tad bit busy.

I’ve spoken to many designers or people in general about the seemingly lack of jobs for us creative types out there. Many of you have expressed the same concerns that I have over the last few years or so – the opportunities for print designers seem to be few and far in between; people hiring don’t seem to know exactly what they really want or need; you interview but for whatever reason aren’t landing the job you think you’re fit for. My advice? Don’t sweat it. I know, when you’re unemployed and living on your savings or unemployment, that’s hard to do. I was unemployed from the first week of August of this year until the last week in November and now am back to work designing magazines as I’ve been doing for the past four years. Yes, a three-month unemployment period really isn’t all that bad but it’s taught me more than a few lessons that I thought I’d pass on to you all. If you’re an unemployed graphic designer or creative type in general, I believe you’ll find my insight helpful and useful. Our professions aren’t like others – where others may easily be able to neatly sum up their professions and experience in a resume, creative types need to actually show and demonstrate that they are creative. If you don’t do that in your outlook and resume and other material, you’re dead in the water and won’t be finding much in terms of employment. So here are a few tips to help you land a great job:

1. Breathe. The moment you’re facing being unemployed, your life seems to go from relaxed to super stressful and hectic. You think of all the bills you need to pay, you watch the news and fret over the continuous reports of how people are unemployed for not just weeks but for months if not years. Relax. Seriously, just breathe and take it all in. Take a day or two to get your thoughts together but immediately jump in on the job search. It may seem daunting but don’t put it off for days or weeks. Not more than 24 hours after being laid off, I was back on the job hunt.

2. Don’t think of yourself as unemployed. Do you remember that old saying, “You are what you eat?” Well, you also are what you think. If you accept and think of yourself as jobless, unemployed and whatever other negative adjectives associated with being out of a job, that’s exactly what you will be and will remain until you think otherwise. Yes, I knew I was without a job but I also knew I didn’t have the time or ability to accept being unemployed. I couldn’t live off of unemployment benefits for long; I needed and wanted to be able to support myself again and like most men, didn’t want to have to rely on others. I had down days when it felt like I’d never find that breakthrough and I had weeks when there really weren’t any good opportunities presenting themselves. I took days off of my job search to veg out and watch television, listen to music or just get out. I needed days to recoup and regenerate because searching for a new job is a full-time job within itself. There are days when I did nothing but search and look through job postings, follow-up, tweak the resume and send out the portfolio. So take a day off now and then but dedicate yourself to find a job by a certain date. Didn’t meet your goal? Push it back by another two weeks or so.

3. No one can help you but yourself. This goes against what most will tell you. They say that you have to network, that most jobs aren’t posted online, that there will be hundreds of people applying to the few jobs posted online. Guess what – they’re right. They are also wrong. Too often when you’re unemployed, you go on to think that you can’t do things on your own. That first week or two you’re really motivated then that motivation turns to doubt and dread as the weeks and months tick by. You think that the problem is “you” and and look to others to rescue you. Stop looking to others to find you a job. Even if they’re family, they don’t know you like you know yourself. They can’t fix your situation, describe your skills or help you find what’s going to make you happy. Only you can do that.

4. Get outside opinions. One of the most useful things I did during my unemployment period was to speak to a recruiting scout. The recruiter was able to help me put together my resume, give advice on how to spruce it up and clearly examine my qualifications and give me an idea of what I should be looking for in terms of employment and salary. You don’t even have to pay to get this done. There are many recruiting agencies out there for designers and creatives including The Select Group and some local agencies. Check out their website and they usually have job listings. Ask to speak to them about a job they are recruiting for and use that opportunity to have them look over your resume, portfolio and give you an idea of how to make yourself more presentable. Do this at the start of your job search – this will help you to know when to really pursue an opportunity or pass on one that’s not beneficial to you.

5. Be realistic. Fear turns into your biggest motivator when you’re unemployed and searching for a job. It will make you do some crazy things like spend money on services that promise to help you when they don’t or will have you thinking you need to go to school because you’re useless otherwise. Sit down and look at your situation, both financially and in terms of what you want out of your work. You don’t always need to go back to school full-time; look into taking an online course in something related to your field. You can’t always afford to move so don’t waste time looking at jobs in another state. Maybe you’ve just been laid off and you hated the job you’ve been doing … so why look for a job that’ll be so similar? Sit down and sketch out your situation and use that as a map for your job searching.

6. Work on your resume and portfolio. This is a given, which is why it comes so late in the list. Your resume and portfolio are probably outdated. Ideally you should constantly be updating it and keeping it fresh, even if you are happily employed and have no plans to look for a job anytime soon. That rarely happens, however. Before you go around submitting your resume to potential employers, spend a few days really working on what you have. Do you list your responsibilities on your resume? Then you need to re-write it when action verbs and instead of listing your responsibilities, describe in an exciting manner your biggest accomplishments in each job. Think of it as writing an action movie rather than a boring resume. You want people to stay interested and your resume to be short and to the point so that you’ll have somewhere to go during an interview. Oh, and are you a designer? Then figure out a way to make your resume, even in word format, look professional and clean but not like the standard resume. I’ll do a blog post about resume tips in the near future.

As for the portfolio, it should be clean and have elements of your website. Yes, you should have a website and web presence. A lot of the time an employer will ask for a link to your online portfolio. Your website should basically be an easy-to-use interactive version of your print portfolio. Have a lot of the same pieces that will be in your print version but toss in some new ones that will be exclusively online only. Why? Most will be reviewing your portfolio and work more so than your resume and credentials if you’re a designer or creative type. If you get an interview, you’ll want to be able to show everyone in the interview something unexpected and that they haven’t already seen online. It’s a nice, subtle thing that sets you apart and makes your presentations memorable. Oh, and limit your portfolio pieces to 9 or 10 pieces. Think of this as your greatest hits – not as “this is your life.”

7. Blog! This is a tip I haven’t heard much at all but one that I found was truly helpful in my job search. Even before being unemployed I was blogging. I like blogging because it gives you a way to network and reach out to new clients, designers and creative types in general from the comfort of your own home. When I was searching for a job, I used the blog as a means of distraction and way of reminding people that I was still around and relevant though I was holed up in my apartment most days searching for work. During, and after, interviews, one of the things that seemed to make a great impression was this blog and my tutorials, advice and things that went outside and beyond myself. Blogging, when done right, could help sell you and show your personality before you even walk into the room to interview. Show off your skills through writing tutorials and it can also prove that you’re indeed an expert in your field without leaving them wondering what you’re capable of.

These are just a few tips that I hope those looking for work will find helpful. Overall, take comfort in knowing that nothing last forever. Your job may have been cut or you have just graduated from college which proves that statement to be true. You also will find that though it’s hard to believe, being unemployed doesn’t last forever either.

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Why “One Size Fits All” Design and Marketing Fails

Like many creative types, I have to rely on freelancing to supplement or at times support me financially. That means I have to market myself. I’ve become more comfortable with marketing and promoting myself over the years. Each year I learn a bit more and feel I’m making great headway. However, I’m young and I’m bound to make mistakes and was reminded of so over the weekend.

I attended an event at a local university. It was definitely an event that was outside my profession but I had the bright idea that perhaps this was a great opportunity to network. I knew I’d possibly find myself in a situation where I’d be ask what I do and felt comfortable talking about how I am a designer and how I blog, sort of the best of both worlds when it comes to my degree which happens to be in journalism. I planned on passing my business card on to those that I spoke to and that I felt I’d connected with on some degree. There was an older woman, very eccentric, who responded well to finding out that not only was I a graphic designer but a journalist (of sorts). “Oh, you could help me make PowerPoint presentations look good!” she exclaimed in her Southern accent that’d remind you of Blanche from ‘The Golden Girls’. Sweet, I’d potentially made a connection! Then came ‘the moment’. I handed her my business card and she gladly took it and examined it.

And she frowned.

I have to admit, in a way, I was devastated. It’s taken me years to settle on a business card that I feel properly promotes and shows off my style as a graphic designer. I’m really into illustration – I know what sets me apart from other designers is my illustration style, my use of vibrant colors and my edgy, no-holds barge attitude. I designed my business card to be pop-ish, bright and packed with attitude. Do you know what I forgot to do? Consider all of my audience. The card goes well with a younger crowd – younger people tend to want to work with designers and other creative types who aren’t dull, boring and stiff. They want someone they can relate to, someone who’s going to give them a product that stands out and looks unique – you know, design and creativity that goes with being young and wanting to show off your own style. My business card and the illustration on it landed me a freelance gig that was a couple hundred dollars – that right there tells me that it’s an effective design and that it works. It’s an illustration and style that I carried over into my website and whenever I’m approached by someone via my website, they usually remark that I’m obviously very creative and they want me to make them stand out like my work.

But, there’s a flip side. Older people really aren’t interested in bright colors, attitude, standing out and being unique. Often times they want design and creative workers who can work within a very confined, limited, familiar style. Yes, it’s a tad bit boring but it’s just how it goes. I’ve found that when designing for an older audience you have to rein in all that pent up energy, attitude and ambition to create something totally new and outlandish or else they equate all of these things as being a bit unrefined, unprofessional and not worth spending money on. My business card, as witnessed first hand and told by older people (like my usually inebriated uncle or very frank grandmother and the older Southern belle at this event over the weekend) doesn’t work for them. It’s plain and simple. They expected professionalism, sleek design, almost no real presence or personal touch. Which brings me to the whole topic of this post:

“One Size Fits All” design (or marketing) doesn’t work. Here’s why –

Too often as designers we approach a problem and come up with a solution (our design, photo, written piece, etc.) and call it a day. Do we take into consideration the entire audience who’ll consume our work? Probably not. I’ve been on both sides of this issue. When designing a publication, it’s usually thought that you should design it to always imitate what’s expected by your average reader. Here’s the problem – what if your average reader is, say, in his or her 50s? Or 60s or older? There’s nothing wrong with being these ages but this group isn’t going to be interested in the same design or creative elements as, say, someone in their 20s or 30s. And why should you “preach to the choir” when you’re leaving an entire group of people out? If you’re a publication and your average reader is near or over 60, isn’t there value in trying to appeal to a younger base who’ll potentially stick around with you for decades to come?

As designers and marketers, how do we get around this issue? Here are a few of my ideas:

1. Two-Pronged Attack: For a freelancer or someone marketing their business, I think the best method of getting around the “one size fits all” mentality is to actually market to both young and old, women and men, gay and straight, etc. You see, our society is very diverse. Old school marketing has always been very one-sided: we targeted the group with the most money or the group with the most dominance. A lot of the times, we’re leaving someone out. And that someone could very easily turn into a loyal client and associate. With this digital age, it’s not really hard to market to many groups at once. Sure, it’ll take a bit more time but I think it’d be worth it. I haven’t ditched or chucked my business cards. I have seen they are effective – just not with older people. So I’ve developed an entirely different design geared toward the older crowd. It’s polished, refined, reserved but still very stylish. I think Grandma would approve.

2. Design for the ‘little people’: There’s always a group that ends up being left out. If you’re into marketing and want a diverse client base, then instead of thinking about the audience you already have, look at the audience you don’t have. For example, take men’s fitness magazines. There are tons on the market – Men’s HealthMen’s FitnessMuscle & FitnessFlex, so on and so forth. What do all of these magazines do? They target men – often straight men, with articles that go beyond fitness – they talk about sex, relationships, marriage. The problem? They never ever ever mention gay males, who we all know both exist and love health & fitness. What gives? The point is not to ignore untapped sources of profit. Whether you’re a designer, writer or photographer, look outside your comfort zone or usual suspects and start hitting those that aren’t usually on your radar. They’re out there and they’re more than willing to spend a little money on great service and creativity – if you’re willing to spend the time to market to them and include them in your business.

3. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done, but guess what – your job is really never done. Too often when it comes to marketing or self-promotion, we all tend to spend very little time doing it. For some it’s a once a year occasion. Others do it once a season and center things around holiday themes or big events. You should be marketing and reaching out to new and old clients every week, month, all year and every year. Just because you’ve actually done a marketing or self-promotion campaign doesn’t mean you’re done and should be congratulated and take time off. Start looking at the feedback and measurable results. Did you get new clients? Did your website get more hits than usual? Are you making more in profit? If you can’t tell a difference in how your promotion efforts have helped you then it probably means it didn’t work. That’s ok, it’s all trial and error. Keep trying until you find something that does work and then work hard to perfect it.

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