Categories
design business self care

Feast or Famine

Contract work can be feast or famine. My workload is usually a small snack peppered by a random all-you-can-eat buffet. As of 2020, I’m a mom first, but love graphic design and have a lot of experience doing it, so I enjoy the challenges that sporadically come my way. I like to work. But, I don’t like feeling overwhelmed or stretched too thin. I also hate letting people down. So, saying “no” has never been a strength of mine. All of this can lead to a lot of stress and hard choices (not to mention many grey hairs) if not managed well. Over the years, I have learned how best to evaluate which project mix is best, and what I need to kindly decline. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not always the projects with the highest payday that make the A list. Here’s why:

1 A Thanksgiving turkey would be nothing without the sides.

What designer doesn’t want to design a big glossy magazine, multi-tear website, an entire branding system, or fun series of packaging? All at the same time? Not fun. I like to remember advice that my sister-in-law gave me when she was teaching me how to knit: Always have a couple of projects on the needles. That way, you won’t get bored. I also like to remember that design is only a part of my life. There are other demands on my time that are equally, if not more, important than whatever project comes my way.

So my advice: remember the sides. If you have a few projects to choose from, take a big juicy one, but throw some fries on that plate as well. Now, this could be a bigger project too, but maybe it has a looser timeline, so you won’t be working full throttle on both at the same time. Maybe, it’s updating a website you did a while back in addition to that 24-page catalogue. It could also mean working with a familiar client while working with a new one. You know what you can give and take from the known, but a new one may need a little more active attention.

2 Saying “no” doesn’t have to mean “goodbye.”

Trust me. Business people are used to hearing “no” a lot. If you handle it well, they’ll return to you with the hopes that the timing will be better next time. How do you do this? Flattery, and then, what I like to call, “explanation light.” Don’t overwhelm them with details about why you can’t help them out. Just thank them for thinking of you and tell them you’d really welcome the opportunity to work with them in the future, but your docket is already full. That’s all. Further explanation will just waste their time and doesn’t change the end result. They may even leave the conversation a little impressed that you are so in demand—they have good taste!

Additionally, give them a time when they can return to you and then reach out to them at that time instead of waiting for them to make the first move. This shows them that you really do want to work with them, and you were counting down the days as to when you could see their lovely address in your inbox again.

3 Play favorites (with projects, not people).

How you mix up your workload should depend on a longer-term way of thinking. If you start to get busier, take a breath and look at what’s on your plate. Are the projects helping to serve your portfolio or develop the skills you would like to see improve? Is the client pleasant and easy to work with, appreciative of your skill as a professional, respectful of your opinion? If you are successfully growing your business, you’ll have the luxury of being a little pickier. Think of your portfolio like a vision board. If the only things pinned on your wall are projects that just pay the bills or take forever to finish, then maybe you should rethink the mix. What do you want that wall to look like and then take the projects that help you reach that goal.

I realize none of this is rocket science, but it helps to have someone remind you that it’s OK to say “no”—especially for us people-pleasers. As long as the reason you’re turning work down (or taking work on) helps you to feel satisfied in where your business, time and energy are being directed.

Categories
collaboration creativity self care

Points of View

Three tips on how to keep your perspective part of the conversation and when to take a look at things from someone else’s.

Speaking from my experience, when I was starting out in the business world as a design intern, then a junior designer, then a full-time legit designer, and so on, my ability to contribute to discussions and listen to feedback evolved over the years in a meaningful way. If I could go back and have a chat with intern-me, I would give her this advice:

You’re not always right.

This one is the hardest to learn. You may feel with your heart and soul that there is no way on this planet, in any state of consciousness, that you could be wrong or misguided in a particular instance, but I’m here to tell you, it’s bound to happen. That’s part of design. It’s a subjective industry. So if someone is disagreeing with your choice of PMS color, your font size, or patterned background, listen to them. A lot of the times, they may have a point. It is worth taking a moment, a breath, and learning from the perspective being presented to you as that person’s experience is just as valid as yours.

Remember: experience doesn’t always equal expertise.

This one goes both ways. Sometimes you will receive feedback from a superior, someone with more experience. But that doesn’t mean they are the end-all-be-all in opinions. In a good working relationship, you should be able to push back without losing respect or stepping on someone’s toes. Be confident and reasoned in your choices, and when someone with more experience questions them, be prepared to fight the good fight. But always remember my first tip. It’s a tango of wills. If you’re a pushover every time someone leans on you, then they aren’t going to see who you really are, what you have to bring to the table. They may even start believing you are undertrained. On the other hand, if you are the one who is always holding on to your ideas with a death grip and with whom no one wants to speak for fear they may lose a finger, your potential as a team player will greatly diminish—which could hurt you more in the long run, no matter how good your ideas are. It’s corny, but there really is no “i” in “team.”

At the end of the day, what you do for your job is important but not that important.

I probably should whisper this one. It’s like I’m revealing the recipe to the secret sauce. There’s a fine line between being passionate about what you do, and letting that drive rule your life. I am not saying that you shouldn’t put your all into what you do, every time you do it. What I am saying is that when you are young, perhaps unattached, it is easy to invest your passion in your job, completely, without any of the negative consequences that come along as you get older. I have a friend who joined a gym close to her work—not for exercise—just so she would have a place to shower the next morning when she ended up sleeping at the office. Some people (especially women and minorities, who are sadly still having to justify their positions of power) will keep this level of commitment even after their lives are further complicated, nay, enriched, by partners and kids and hobbies as they get older. Awesome. Do it if you can and your family supports it, but also know that you are allowed to afford yourself a break. Candles don’t last long when burned from both ends.

If you are a go-getter who wants to put 1,000 percent into your job and live your dream, you will most likely be successful and rise up that corporate ladder. Just be prepared for all of the services you’ll most likely have to purchase in order to keep the rest of your life afloat. Doing so, in no means, connotes a personal failure. It’s the cost of doing business in a society that isn’t well set up for family-minded people who would like to present their project to the client, but also be out on time to catch their daughter’s little league game. At the end of the day, just ask yourself before you turn out the lights, “is the person I am today who I want to be?” And, be honest in your answer. If the answer is No, look at ways to introduce some balance, even if it means supporting your local food delivery drivers a little more often, or creating an online group of neighborhood working families to exchange ideas, frustrations, and carpools. Chances are, these days, that the client you are preparing that presentation for also has a little league game she needs to get to.

It may be a little hard to see how that last tip has anything to do with how to keep your perspective part of the conversation, but it whole heartedly does. If you don’t let the other parts of your life start to inform how you behave or contribute at work, you are setting up a dual personality that will be hard to sustain. If memory serves, Dr. Jekyl didn’t turn out so well. Realize and relish in the fact that our walls between work and home are blurring. At first, that was scary. We always wanted to keep work and home separate, but when, for many of us, working from home became a health requirement, the world began to realize that we’re not all that different. Even CEOs have cats who photobomb a Zoom call. Treating others the way you want to be treated, including giving others the break you would like afforded to you next time your child’s science experiment permanently alters your home’s floor plan will only help us all keep in mind the humanity behind the creativity we bring forward. The messy, flammable humanity.

Categories
creativity self care

What lies beneath

Seriously. What’s under there? You go first. The fear of starting a new project or putting pen to paper is fueled by the unknown and mistrust of one’s own abilities. Here’s how I conquer the beast.

Image is from the TurboTax monster-under-the-bed Super Bowl ad. Fitting, I think.

There are monsters everywhere in our psyches. The ones who tell us not to wear that, not to say that, and not to eat that. And, if we ignore them, they have all sorts of punishments: doubt, anxiety, shame, to name a few. These hindrances are at best an annoyance that we all fend off every day, but to a creative who has to silence these voices of self doubt each and every time they begin to work, these meddling menaces can be relentless and drive you right to Procrastination Town (not that putting things off is always a bad thing). Sometimes our deadlines and clients don’t sympathize with our inner struggles, so we have to put our big girl pants on and whip out that project. How does one do this over and over again without losing faith? Here’s how:

1: Remember: You’ve done this before.

You’ve had projects. You’ve delivered them. The client was happy. But how did you start them again exactly? Sometimes, just remembering the ways I’ve started other projects helps me to kick myself in the pants to begin another one. I always go to a sketchbook first, not the computer. Or, I do research on like businesses, just to see what’s out there. I might go for a run to clear my head and allow my thoughts to organize themselves while my body is otherwise engaged. Long story short: remember your bag of tricks.

2. It’s (not) the end of the world as we know it.

Yes, it matters that you do your best every day. And, no, you should not half-ass something because you’re just not feeling it that day. That said, not every project is going to be the award-winning, golden nugget you hoped for. Sometimes, your very best is simply going to get the job done. That may sound like a copout, but really what it is is realistic. Any designer who has presented options to a client, let’s say, for a logo, knows that the client is going to pick the one you like the least. It’s Murphy’s Law. What I mean is, some of what we do is subjective. You need to trust your work ethic, your experience, and your gut, and hope that the client will be grateful and ecstatic for what you present. Chances are, however, you are putting way more into this basket of eggs than they are. They’ve come to this meeting with a long to-do list of their own, their own monsters to contend with, and your little logo is just something to check off the list. A fun break in the middle of a day of emails. They’re most likely going to be grateful for the opportunity to flex their creative muscle and respond to your work. They may not love it the way you do. They may even ask you to go back and try something else. The point is: they see this as a conversation, not a firing squad.

3. Start with your worst idea.

Sometimes, just getting started is the hardest part. So give yourself a break and brainstorm your way out of it. Put that bad idea down on paper or on screen and get it out of the way (probably involves a swoosh of some sort). Who knows? Maybe what comes next is the best one! Maybe there are fifty other bad ideas before you get to the good one. Remember that creativity is a process, not an equation. That’s what you love about it. Which leads me to my final cue:

4. Remind yourself why you do this to yourself.

The best way to conquer the monster is to turn away from it and look at the parts of the process you love. You chose this profession. You are grateful you get to do something that is completely based in creativity and get paid for it! The people who hire you are hiring you because they “could never do what you do.” You’re special. It’s always a good idea to give yourself a pep talk. No one will tell on you if you sift through your old projects, the ones you’re really proud of, to remind yourself of the creations that await the world because of what you do.

I hope this helps you. Truth be told, I’m writing this because I have a big project I need to get started on and this post is basically a pep talk for myself. Now get to work.

jf

Categories
creativity fresh design self care

Luck of the draw

(photo credit: http://fanthefiremagazine.com/art/jared-lim-finds-amazing-patterns-from-life-in-the-city/)

We all have had a lot of time to think these days—myself in particular. Both my kids are [THANK GOD] in schools that support safe, in-person learning, and my husband is an essential employee, so I am left to my devices each day to do my job: be creative. One would think that with all this time on my hands and no distractions I would be whipping out Mona Lisa quality creations by the dozens. But, sadly, that is not the case. Which begs the question: Why is creativity harder now when I finally have time to focus?

I’ve been struggling with this conundrum since March when the great WFH experiment began. Recently, I read this article by Martin Bihl, executive creative director at LevLane Advertising and editor of the-agency-review.com, which gives some insight as to why this isolated version of creativity feels so different and, frankly, harder than before we stopped physically commuting to an office.

What’s missing? According to Bihl: randomness. Much like procrastination can lead to inspiration, chance encounters with our world and those within it help stimulate creativity by eliciting unexpected reactions which then can trigger new ideas and “happy little accidents,” to quote Bob Ross. When we remove those random moments—taking the stairs because the elevator is being serviced, or choosing a new sandwich when our favorite salad is sold out, or noticing a coworker’s plant for the first time—we take away the interruption that fuels new thinking. We’re creatures of habit, argues Bihl, and without a jump start every now and again our creative batteries can peter out.

So what’s the solve? Find ways to reintroduce the random. I picked up a pencil and drew a portrait of my daughter with our dog from a photo I had taken a few weeks prior (see bel0w). I hadn’t done this for years. I made myself look up new recipes on the New York Times Cooking app rather than settle for the familiar after the first rush of quarantine cooking energy died out. I am listening to more podcasts than I should admit to and reading a lot. Verdict: It helps. These changes give my brain just the detour it needs to see in a different way, taste something new, listen to inspiration.

As much as routine is important to keep us sane and put up necessary boundaries for our time and energy, bringing in the random and pushing oneself to branch out and be a different you, as hard as it is sometimes, reminds our brains that there are a lot of roads we haven’t tried yet. Bihl suggests this for those of us with coworkers who are probably suffering the same loss:

“Maybe it’s scheduling those Zoom calls for longer, so you have time to talk about stuff that has nothing to do with what the call is about. Maybe it’s getting into the habit of just arbitrarily reaching out to team members to pick their brains on stuff, like you might if you were in the office together—not only for big, scheduled things.”

Martin Bihl

So, take what you will from this. We all have our ways of seeing our decline and finding a way to right our ship. Without the personal interactions with team members we had perhaps taken for granted (and sometimes avoided) and with each conversation today requiring an intentional effort, the work of creativity can be daunting and lonely. Take a chance, find your space where you can invite the unexpected and see what comes of it.

Categories
creativity fresh design self care

3 ways to stay creative during monatony

When you have the same scenery and routine day in and day out, which has only been accentuated during this pandemic, it’s hard to embrace a creative mindset. Many turn to social media to see what other creatives are up to, but that can only stimulate those creative juices so much. I, myself, subscribe to Communication Arts Daily which is a quick digest of design topics both academic- and archive-based which helps me keep up with trends and creative ideas. But, beyond that, what else is there? Let me tell you what works for me.

1 Challenge yourself with a new skill.

Fear is a great motivator. Once the kids were back at school, which I know is a luxury many working parents do not have, I had the house to myself to regroup and think about what was next for me. I had recently ended a three-year stint as a marketing director, moved to a new city, and did so during a pandemic. Not the best social opportunity. It was me, myself and my pets. Now what? I decided to do something I had never done but that applied to what I do. I joined LinkedIn Learning and started to take some classes in WordPress essentials and CSS. These are all applicable to what I do (user experience design), but with which I am very unfamiliar. I am not looking to become an expert in these processes, but my rationale: if I am familiar with the application, I can speak more intelligently with those who know it well and I will be more keen to max its capabilities in how I design.

2 Take advantage of the free stuff online.

Case in point: Adobe Max. Adobe dominates the creative application space and does a great job with it. They have the connections and resources to create an amazing online conference next week that has a ton of free application tutorials, inspirational case studies and speakers to remind you why we do this in the first place. To me, it’s professional self care. Not quite as luxurious as a beach vacation, but allowing yourself the time to do something that may not be outwardly “productive” will pay off in the long run by interrupting that stodgy routine and giving your creativity a hard reset.

3 Don’t you … forget about you.

I don’t know about you, but I need to feel confident with myself to take on new projects. I feel confident when I feel good about who I am and that I’m in control of those choices. There is not a heck of a lot of control during a pandemic, but what I can control is how I take care of my own wellbeing. This prioritization not only makes me a better creative, but a better parent, wife, and friend as well. So, how do I do this? I exercise 6-7 times per week. Don’t be too impressed. I don’t run marathons every day, but I have a program that is balanced, that pushes me, and most important, that allows me an hour to myself to improve JUST me, no one else. In that space, it’s literally all about me, and everyone needs that every now and again. And, as I’ve said in a post prior to this, I also embrace procrastination. I don’t view it as delaying a task, I see it as giving myself the time I need to fully bake those creative cookies. Plus, the bathroom gets cleaned—it’s a win-win.