25 Tips for Young Creative Professionals

Looking to advance your creative skills and profession? These are the tips I give to everyone I meet.

Design your life for constant learning.

1. Build an interdisciplinary readling list of blogs, and schedule time each day for reading them. 

  • My favorite part of creativity is borrowing a concept from one discipline in order to solve a problem in a different discipline. I regularly borrow from psychology, educational theory, and poetry to solve experience design challenges for my clients.
  • The Key: Setup a free blog reader (i.e. Zite, Pulse) and try to read as much as you can during morning commutes or breaks. Add a calendar event to protect this time regularly. Read from at least one discipline that you feel is extremely different from your core discipline. You will naturally start to see connections that didn't exist before.

2. Read textbooks on Educational Psychology

  • Knowing how human beings learn is immensely important for designing experiences, products and services that they can enjoy. Having a basic understanding of how people learn will be critical for understanding how people adopt products.  
  • The Secret: Reading a university-level textbook (i.e. an introduction to education psychology) would take you less than 20 hours and would provide a general understanding of the field. 

3. Take at least one Rhetoric or Storytelling Class

  • The end result of most design projects often requires the designer to tell a story, and that story is typically a vision of how design has solved a human problem. An introduction to rhetoric and storytelling enables you to infuse systematic logic and inspiration into your presentations. At least once every two weeks, watch a movie, play, and or series of Ted Talks
  • The Secret: When developing your personal style, start by imitating someone else. Identify which traits you like the most about their style, and make a plan for how you would like to infuse them into your future presentations.

4. Read the book Naked Economics.

  • The products, services and experiences you design exist within a national and global economy. You don't have to be a economist to be a successful designer, but I encourage designers to responsibly understand how products and services economically affect our society. I recommend reading the Naked Economics.
  • The Secret: Put a stickie note at the end of each chapter with key points, and re-visit these notes before giving client presentations-- you will be surprised how helpful some of the annecdotes can be. 

5. Become proficient in at least one other discipline that is not design. 

  • A former colleague once told me "You can measure the designer by his extra-curricular activities." Having hobbies is important for nurturing our lateral thinking skills. For example, I fell in love with mental health/wellness, so I studied the methods of psychotherapy at NYU. I know interaction designers who are accomplished activists, industrial designers who award-winning guitar makers, and visual designers who are master cooks. The teachings from those disciplines often allow you to challenge your assumptions about how people interact with objects and systems. Choose a field that you feel passionate about outside of design, and fall in love with it.
  • The Secret: Maintain your studies of this area after your introduction to the topic, such as regularly reading a professional journal in the field.  

Nuture and respect your professional community – they will increasingly become your support system.

6. Start connecting in your professional communities as early as possible. 

  • Networking is a soft-skill that has a dramatic impact over time. Having an accurate, up-to-date LinkedIn account is helpful for staying in touch with the professionals you will know for the rest of your life. Finding and attending meetings with local design associations can be very helpful.  
  • The Key: Find 2-3 associations that most align with the breadth of your skills and volunteer with them regularly.

7. Make Skype and FaceTime your new best friend.

  • Some of my best mentors and friends live in other time zones. Maintaining these relationships helps you keep your fingers on the pulse of the design community. While many video communication services exist, I'm preferential to Skype for its high level of adoption in my community. 
  • The Key: Try to speak with each member in your community at least once every six weeks. You'd be amazed what you can accomplish in 20 minutes. Most importantly, have genuine conversations. If you can't find a meaningful topic to discuss, you shouldn't be talking.

8. Treat every interview like an opportunity to meet a new work culture.

  • You may not always want every job for which you interview. However, every time you interview, you are introducing your story and personality to one more person, and you are learning the values and culture of one more company.
  • The Key: Always be honest, humble and passionate at every interview.

9. Coffee meetings are critical

  • Regularly taking peers, managers and leaders out for coffee is an easy, and it keeps your relationship relevant. Honest, genuine interest in your colleagues, peers or community members is critical for building a bond of trust. 
  • The Key: Connect with team mates who have been at the company for 1-2 years. Remember that they have worked hard, and honor their time by being accommodating to their schedule.

10. Avoid being inadvertently disrespectful (it is a sign of weakness and a lack of leadership).

  • In 2011, I was reviewing portoflios at a prominent design university. My team was looking to hire an intern for a position in design strategy. The chosen intern would have first-hand experience with clients and strategy deliverables: it was an exciting opportunity for anyone entering the field. From a larger list of candidates, a short list of ~15 students were interviewed. The first student who presented spent part of his 15 minutes explaining how much more talented he was that his peers. He went on to mention professors by name who weren't as smart as him. That individual did not get the position. Alternatively, during the last student presentation, another designer honestly explained how she utilized her strengths to support her colleagues during challenging projects. She went on to explain her growth plan for addressing her weaknesses. The last presenter got the internship, a letter of recommendation, and a promise from me that I will always be a job reference. In short, It's tempting to back-handedly insult a former colleague or peer. Don't do it – disrespect only breeds more disrespect.
  • The Key: If you need to address how colleagues or peers provided obstacles in your past, explain the situation in terms of (a) what you learned from an interaction, (b) how you tried to improve the situation, and (c) what you will do differently in the future if you encounter a similar situation.

Finding the right job is about demonstrating your strengths and weaknesses very quickly and effectively.

11. Remember that your "perfect job" may not exist. . . yet.

  • Most job descriptions at companies (consultancies, agencies, R&D groups, etc.) are written to include tasks and responsibilities the company feels are necessary for success. These positions are based on a gap in the company at that time and therefore may not perfectly reflect any one person's exact skill set. As a result, you may only connect with %60 of a "Visual Designer II" job description. I've never met a person who is %100 in alignment with their current job, but I have met many satisfied designers who re-shaped their current job responsibilities. I find that successful, satisfied professionals often do two things consistently from day one at any job:
    • (1) they understand the expectations their employeer has of them, and
    • (2) they communicate how they can utilize their skills in various ways to advance the company.   

12. Practice interviewing with people you respect.

  • Ask friends to interview you, and treat this as a legitimate exercise. Challenge yourself as an extemporaneous speaker by asking your friends to ask tough questions.

13. Always have your elevator pitch ready.

  • An elevator pitch is a critical part of any chance encounter. Harvard's Business School has created an Elevator Pitch Creation tool.
    • I help ____________ accomplish ____________ by using my skills in ____________, ____________ and ____________.  

14. Your portoflio is a story, not a slide show.

15. Be able to talk about you "3 futures."

  • Know what you want in
    • the next 6 months (future 1),
    • the next year (future 2), and
    • the far future (future 3).
  • The Key: Perform this exercise at least once every 3 months to make sure you are being authentic to your desires. Spend 30 focused minutes thinking about what you want.
    • (i.e. "I want to be doing ________ work so that I can feel a sense of ________  in ________ months). 

16. Tend to your social media profiles

  • I don't believe there is such a thing as privacy on any social network whatsoever. Be careful and responsible with what you post online, and assume there is a distinct possibility that a future employeer will see it.
  • The Key: Review all of the content on your social media profiles, and remove all content that you wouldn't want HR to see.

17. Think 3 jobs ahead.

  • Nathan Shedroff (program director of the CCA Design MBA program) tells his CCA students to "plan for the third job." In other words, you may want to be a creative director, but you have absolutely no experience. The likelihood of you being a creative director at this point is understandably low. You may not always be able to get the job you want now, but you can actively build a staircase that will elevate you to the job you want. 
  • The Key: Try using the "aspiration mapper" tool to plot a path to growing into your ideal position.

18. Build a stronger relationship with your manager.

  • If you are currently employeed, nuture your relationship with your manager. Treat it as a relationship that can be mutually beneficial. While this is easier said than done, try using the tool in my presentation "The Dirty Word of Design: Management" to make the conversations a little easier.

Sharpen your soft skills and understanding of the industry.


19. Conduct "Service Audits" regularly

  • Keep a "service journal." In other words, use a variety of service design tools to record your observations about services you see in the wild. A great collection of tools to review can be found here.
  • The Key: Build a blog of your service observations. Use this blog to start conversations with firms about your thinking style.

20. Read everything by Indi Young.

Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior

Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior

  • Seriously, read everything she writes. 


21. Read everything by David Sherwin.

The importance of balance becomes very clear once you've lost it.

22. Remember to breath when things get difficult.

  • It's easy to let yourself become burnt out. Remember to adopt healthy patterns of living (no matter what stage of life you are in).
  • The Key: Build a ritual during the week for self-soothing and fitness. You may not realize it, but your body chemistry has an immediate impact on your creative capacity.


23. Walk away from technology

  • Do it. Once a day, for at least 20 minutes. 

24. Be a flanuer (because lingering is good for you).

  • At the University of Georgia, my academic mentor (a brilliant compartive literature teacher who had a skill for bringing the most skeptical student to a existential awakening) introduced me to the term "flanuer." The short, non-academic explanation of a "flanuer" is someone who strolls and lingers through streets. For Charles Baudelaire, the poet who originally popularized the term, he derived inspiration from being a flanuer in the city streets of Paris. When my mentor noticed I was experiencing a creative block, she encouraged me to look for a place in the city where I've never visited. She encouraged me not to focus on any one item or object – instead, she encouraged me to just walk around, and let the environment introduce itself to me. The first 10 minutes of this exercise is agony for any type A person. I experienced thoughts such as "I could be doing something productive," "I've got work to do," and others frustrating sensations. But those thoughts quieted over time, and I felt my creativity return to me. Every creative decision came effortlessly and smoothly. I've been a flanuer for 12 years. 
  • Wether you take long walks through new areas or sit for hours in a cafe you've never visited, this act of casual observation is the most effective way to absorb the cultural nuances of an experience. Most importantly, it unlocks creativity in you because it breaks your cognitive rhythm.
  • The Secret: Be ok with not knowing what to do at first. 


25. Find really good human beings to be your mentors, and consider a yearly meeting

  • I'm lucky enough to have 3 great friends who have unconditionally supported me. Two are award-winning poets, and one is a fashion design expert. Each of them have a unique view on human values and the purpose of creativity. Each of them have taught me more about leadership and inspiration than any book or any designer. We meet once a year in a cabin in Georgia. During the visit, we look at each other's growth and goals, and we constructively critique and inspire each other. We trust each other, and we leave feeling rejuvenated.
  • The Secret: Not all mentors are friends, and not all friends are mentors. Mentors allow us to more scrutinize our decisions so that we make future decisions that better align with our beliefs and values. Don't mistake a smart friend for a mentor.