9 Key Lessons From Working for Design Agency Designers Must Know Pt2

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Working for design agency can be a great opportunity for designer to learn a lot about design and business. In this second part of this miniseries, we will discuss the last five lessons I learned from working for design agency. These lessons include topics such as focusing on moving fast and testing ideas, what to do when you get stuck, building a reputation and more. I hope that these lessons will make it easier for you to build a career or business in the design industry.

Lessons 1-4 are in part 1.

5. Move fast, prototype and iterate

There is this saying “speed kills”. And, I have to agree with this saying. If you move too slowly, you are going to die. Not what you expected? Focus on speed was one of the things I realized in the moment I started to work for design agency. And, this notion of speed was not caused by project deadlines that were omnipresent. It seemed that the whole life inside the design agency was moving in more rapid pace than the rest of the world.

It is true that I worked on-site only with one design agency so far. And, it is very hard, if not impossible, to estimate or guess the pace over Slack or hangouts. Messages and even video can give you only limited amount of information about the environment inside the agency. Also, you never know what is happening in the next room at the moment. So, I can’t say if this faster pace of work and living applies to other agencies as well. Who knows.

Anyway, when I worked for that design agency, the impression of moving fast was especially visible on the way people there worked. Everyone was used to working in small sprints, making less or more interactive prototypes and testing them soon and learning from those test. Yes, it was based on agile workflow. Thanks to this, people were able to move very fast from blank page to first results. These people didn’t wait for inspiration, they chased it.

Creativity is a result of hard work

This was another great lesson and almost an epiphany. The most creative people I met there was usually those who worked the most. When these people started working on new project, they jumped right into. They started researching the topic or sketching random ideas. What they never did was just sit down and wait for the inspiration to hit. At the time of writing this article, I am in the middle of book on creativity called How to Fly a Horse written by Kevin Ashton.

This book debunks many myths about creativity, such as the theory of idea incubation or sudden eureka moments. Instead of just one big leap, it shows creativity as a process of many small steps or iterations (or failures). And, with each of these steps, you are getting closer and closer to that mythical eureka moment. In this sense, creative process works more like a slow evolution, not a sudden revolution (or mythical eureka moment).

For example, there is a story about the great artist Vasilij Kandinskij. Kandinskij created somewhere around twenty variations of a single painting before he found the right combination of colors and elements. Then, there is a famous inventor James Dyson who went through thousands of iterations in order to create a better vacuum cleaner. Sounds like Edison and his light bulb right? This is how creativity works. It is a series of small iterations, failures and learning from each. It is hard work.

Don’t wait for inspiration

This brings to this important lesson I learned from both, that book and that design agency. Don’t wait for some mythical eureka moment or sudden hit of inspiration. Understand that all these moments of inspiration are result of hours of work and many small iterations. All great designs were built one iteration at the time. And, this is true about all things around us. From Mona Lisa or Sistine Chapel to your favorite book to iPhone. It’s also how nature works. One step after another.

Many of those people we admire today as geniuses were not more creative than others. These people were simply working harder and were more persistent. They focused on doing rather than waiting. I recommend that you start doing the same. When you start working on new project, follow the example of the people from the design agency. Jump right into it. Don’t wait for inspiration. Instead, do anything to get your ideas flowing.

You can start brainstorming interesting even crazy ideas you could use for the project. Personally, I love to use mind mapping to generate ideas for both, projects and my blog. Quick side note: make sure to not to judge your ideas if you want to be really creative. A good thing is building a mood board for the project. Look for interesting designs. It can help you define the style and design direction of the project. Or, read some magazine or book or watch a movie or even play a game.

The key here is to get momentum. If you want to get inspiration, you have to feed your mind with material. It is like cooking a meal. You can’t do it without any ingredients.

Start creating before you are ready

Next step, after you get momentum is start creating. It doesn’t matter whether you are “ready” or not. Sketch your first idea and then the second and third. Seriously. Don’t just think about it. Put it down on paper (use graphic editor if you prefer digital). Do you remember that agile workflow followed in that design agency? The goal was to always to get to the prototype as soon as possible. If you have some idea, sketch it. See how it looks on the paper. If it is good, go ahead and build it.

Some people suggest that it is better to sketch multiple ideas before going any further with just one. I think you should do whatever fits you the best. If you like some idea, don’t wait. Build interactive and testable prototype. Then, test it to see if it is feasible. If it is, maybe you have a solution for your project. If not, go back to the drawing board and come up and sketch new idea. Then, repeat these steps or loop until you find the best solution for your project.

You have to keep moving between these three steps–idea (sketch), prototype, test. You are always moving either forward–from an idea to prototype to test, or backwards–from test of the prototype to sketching new idea. In other words, you are never still, constantly iterating. When you find that one element works, great. Use it in your next idea. If nothing works, start from scratch again. Remember, you are looking for the right pieces you can put together, not the whole puzzle.

6. When something doesn’t work, move on

I know. This is all great. However, what if you get stuck on something? For example, imagine you are working on a layout for a home page. Everything looks great and you are steadily progressing from one section, or part of the layout, to another. Then, suddenly, you hit a wall. There is one section in the layout you just can’t figure out. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t make it work. What would those people in design agency do?

Great question! Fortunately, I was there a couple of times when situation like this happened. And, here is the answer. Move on. When you get stuck on something, it is usually a good idea to try to get through it a couple of times. However, if you still can’t solve it after a couple of days, it is better to move on. Working on another part of the project can help you release any tension and make progress on the project. Chances are, your brain will still work on the problem in the background.

This is how many of those moments of “sudden” inspiration came to live. Someone was thinking hard about certain problem for a long time. Then, she decided to switch her attention to something else. Even though her attention is elsewhere, part of her brain is still trying to find the solution to that problem. When you can’t make any progress with some part of the design, or project, move to another. It is better to make some progress in general than no progress at all.

Design agency I worked with applied this rule to every project it was working on. It never allowed any part to slow down the progress or other people in the team. The same was true about presenting the work to clients. It was always better to present something rather than get stuck and have nothing to show. Sometimes, we, the design agency, had to present our client those parts we had not even finished yet. However, even that was still better than coming with empty hands.

Skip, but not forget

The last thing I want to mention is to log everything you decide to skip. It is not a pleasant surprise when you realize, just before the deadline, that there is that “small” thing you decided to skip back then. So, when you decide to skip something, make sure to write it down. Then, put this note on a place where you will see it every day. This is good for two reasons. First, you will not forget it. Second, this reminder will nudge your brain to think about it, consciously or subconsciously.

As we discussed, when you redirect your attention from one problem to something else, part of your brain is still tackling that problem. However, this is only true if you remember that problem. If you forget it, well, it will not get magically solved. Post-it notes are a very good tool for this. You write the problem down and stick it on the wall right above your computer. Then, every time you sit down to work, you will see that note and recall the problem.

Move on, but not too often

Okay, there is one more thing I have to warn you before. It is okay to move on to another part of the project if you get stuck. However, that doesn’t mean you should make it a routine. Move on only when you are stuck on something for at least a few days, and you need to make a progress. For example because the deadline is approaching. Never skip something just because you can’t solve it in the first few minutes or hours.

Let your brain work really hard first. Try a number of different ideas. Try, test and iterate. If you skip every part that is a bit more difficult, you will soon end up with very long back, or wall full of notes. Then, it can be even harder to solve all these issues. As the deadline gets closer you will have less time to deal with all these issues. Then, this often leads to a lot of stress that will overwhelm you. Situation similar to trying to catch several rabbits in the same time. You will catch none.

So, before you move on and skip something, make sure to dedicate some time to it. Unless you have a really tight deadline, give it at least few days.

7. Clients hire you as a problem solver

When I worked for that design agency, I finally realized what is the real job of a designer. It is not creating a beautiful designs, but solving client’s problems. In this sense, the design you create is a solution to some problem your client has. Nothing more and nothing less. One advice I got from the CEO of that design agency was to always listen to the client, but never to blindly follow their suggestions or recommendations. Designer has to, first and foremost, think for himself.

As the saying goes, when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. When client asks you to solve his problem, she will usually also come up with some suggestions or ideas. Listen to those ideas. Don’t ignore them. Who knows, you may find some of those ideas useful. However, always think for yourself. Remember, your client is not a designer, that’s why she hired you. Therefore, design is your job, not hers. Don’t let her design the whole solution without you thinking about it.

Also, remember that your client has been dealing with her problem for a long time. Quite often, this is not beneficial, but detrimental. It is often true that the longer you work on the same problem, the less likely you are to come up with new and creative solutions. Remember, the connection between hammer and seeing nails everywhere. One of the reasons she hired you is that you are not attached to the problem or to specific solution. You are objective.

Focus on solving the right problem

During my work for the design agency, I also found that sometimes, client approached us with wrong problem. In other words, the problem she thought we should solve was not the right problem we should solve. This basically means that you should always start with questioning the problem itself. Think about the information you got from your client. Then, ask yourself if you are solving the right problem. Or, are there any other problems worth considering?

As I learned during my work for design agency, it can happen that the initial problem your client has is the one you should be solving in the end. So, listen to your client, but always think for yourself and question the problem itself. Otherwise, you may waste a lot of time trying to solve either a problem that doesn’t even exist or that is not the biggest one. Following this principle worked great for that design agency and for me as well. I will bet it will work for you too.

8. Fight for your work (with arguments)

As I mentioned, when you get hired by a client, you are hired as a design, a professional and expert. This means that one thing. It doesn’t matter how much your client pays for your services, you should never change your idea just because your client doesn’t like it. For every change there has to be rational and justified reason. For example, “I don’t like that color.” is not a reason to trash the idea. If some color is wrong, ask why? What exactly is wrong with that color?

I was fortunate to work for design agency whose people were not afraid to stand up against their clients if they had a good reason to do it. You should do the same. You should fight for your work if you have rational and justifiable reasons. If data or experience says that you should use that color, element, structure or whatever, be willing to fight for it. If you believe in your idea, try to convince your client to prototype and test it before you trash it and move to something else.

When you decide to defend your idea or decision, make sure to defend it with valid arguments. Never go against your client without any evidence. Always have some data that support your idea. And, remember that this evidence should be based on science, not just gut feeling. I have nothing against gut feeling. Sometimes, actually quite often, it works very well. However, since it is not based on hard data, it is easy for your client to reject it. And, you have nothing to use to defend it.

So, be willing to fight for your idea and decisions, but make sure you have a facts to support them. If you have valid arguments, do it. Part of being a professional is having the courage to defend your work. If you want to gain respect for your work, sooner or later, you will have to start defending it.

9. Reputation is built over time

The last thing (not really the last) I learned from my experience of working for design agency was that reputation is built over time. You can’t design one, two or ten websites and expect clients to stand in queue in front of your doors. This is not how it works. You have to do great work again and again, at least dozens of times, in order to show that it is a skill, not an accident. This applies to design agency as well as to freelancing. Reputation is built on work, not just empty words.

Remember that behind every overnight success are hours of hard work and delivering excellent results again and again. It is like in a sport. Winning one or two championships will not make you a legend. You have to win and then keep winning. This is how you build your reputation. So, whether you just started new career as a designer or you have pursued this career for a while, focus on two things. First, do great work. Second, be patient. It takes time to build reputation.

Closing thoughts on working for design agency

This the end of the second part of 9 Key Lessons From Working for Design Agency Designers Must Know miniseries. It was hard to pick only 9 lessons because every day introduced new interesting challenge. However, I wanted to make this miniseries short. Well, at least not too long or verbose. Anyway, I hope that these 9 lessons will be useful for you and help you make progress in your design career and maybe even create your own design agency. In the end, there are no limits.

Thank you very much for your time. And, until next time, have a great day!

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