Profanity warning: I don't normally swear this much. Fuck convention.
Young designers and those new to the game; I'm going to let you in on a secret. Maybe a few secrets. The sort of things that you find out by yourself through long and painful processes, and endless, horrible clients.
Let me begin by telling you the single most important thing you can do for yourself - recognise your fucking self worth. If you can't value your own work, then who the hell will? Tell me you'd hire the "talented but modest" guy over the "talented and knows he'll do a damn good job" guy. Maybe you would. But confidence is half the battle. You need a backbone for this industry. Not because you'll have to take a lot of shit (which you will. I promise.) but because you need to know when and how to fight back against it. Know your work. Know the choices you made and own them. They're your weapons.
Feeling pumped? Confident? Angry? Good. Let's get started.
They Need You.
One common misconception of the modern freelance designer - especially in the world of the web - is the idea of some kid sitting in their pyjamas, playing in Photoshop and bending over for clients. Forget about that. This is a business. The best business in the world. We, as designers, are shaping the world for each other and for our children. We get to leave something amazing in the world. Strap on a suit. Or at least fill those pyjamas with confidence.
Repeat after me: my clients need me. My clients need me. My clients need me. They don't know it until they're left without you. And it's your job to earn their trust that you're going to do the job well. If you think something is a bad idea, say it to them. Tell them why. Don't just treat it like another paycheck. You're responsible for putting something good into the world; and we will hound you for every flash banner and dark pattern you leave in your path.
This isn't to say you don't owe the client your respect. They came to you. They (hopefully) know your worth, and if anything you don't want to leave their side with a bad reputation. Mutual respect is the key to a successful relationship with your clients. Or romantic interests.
Design Is Hard.
No one is denying that. Except for one bunch. The shitty clients you have to win over first. Their problem is that they're picturing that pyjama-clad teenager at a computer. Chances are, they know one of those teenagers. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of you have had clients who said something like "My nephew could do this for me for X dollars." Then why aren't you sitting down with your nephew?
Make the client understand your work. Break things down by cost. Design isn't just clicking a mouse until something good appears. Let them know that. Actually have them sit with you while you do small stages. If anything, they'll be better armed with knowledge when they get design quotes from agencies or "that nephew." The best thing we can do (other than great work) is to open their eyes to the idea that design matters, and it matters a lot more than they had previously thought.
Stop Thinking. Start Making.
There was a time when you’d need a degree to earn any kind of recognition in a certain industry. In many industries, that may still (sadly) be the case. But design is different. At least on the web. You don’t need any kind of qualification or validation to start building a portfolio. If you’re sitting there thinking you need to learn X, Y, and Z before you can make a website or a poster, you’re thinking way too hard. Make something. Learn while you make it. Look back on your work and pinpoint the things you’d have done differently. Rinse and repeat. It’s how everyone in this industry has learned what they know so far, and it’s how they’ll continue to learn.
If you haven’t got any work to do, make some for yourself. If progression and honing your skill set is the goal, an empty objective list is the enemy. Rather than say “I wish I could do this,” put yourself in a position where you have to learn how to do it. I created my first website after telling the client I knew web design, knowing full well that I’d never even heard of HTML. I jumped on Google and researched how websites are made, opened up FrontPage and learnt on the job. And then I started my next client project, and learned from the mistakes I’d made the first time round. And I do the exact same thing with each new project I start.
No One Is An Expert.
Not one person. Even the people who say they’re experts are full of it. We’re all guessing our way through the world of design and development, and we all start the same way; feeling like shit because your work isn’t as good as this guys, or you don’t have as many followers as this girl on Twitter.
That guy is thinking the same thing about his own work compared to his idols. That girl is waiting for her next follower milestone. Stop wishing you could impress them, and work hard so that you do it without even trying. Shout so loud you can’t be ignored. Let your work grab them rather than waiting for them to pay attention. Make them listen. Leave them weeping.
No matter how long you’ve been in the design game, you have so much worth to bring to the table. Each and every one of us is born with the desire to improve the world around us. It’s your job to have the courage to work on that impulse. The years of practice you’ve had by evaluating your surroundings, the objects you interact with, the websites you use, and the things you read and hear will be invaluable throughout the rest of your life and your career. Value your instinct above any kind of theoretical or practical knowledge you might accrue. Value the instincts and opinions of your peers and clients, but don’t be afraid to back up your process if you know you made the right choice somewhere.
Most importantly, don’t stop improving. You’re good. And you’re only going to get better.
I don’t know what I’m talking about and neither does anyone else. But I sure as hell know that this is the summary of everything I tell myself every damn day to make sure I do the work I love and I do a good job of it, too. This might be a bit rough around the edges for you. You might think I’m just some kid in my pyjamas clicking a mouse and writing angry words on the Internet. That’s fine. I’ve still got plenty of time to convince you otherwise.
Until then, go out there and leave something good behind you. The world is not yet done.