"Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."
Aristotle was not to the best of my knowledge, a designer, but he understood what it takes to achieve excellence. Good habits are at the core of any success and the design geniuses know this as well as anyone. They work hard at their craft, but underpinning their excellence are actions and activities that have become part of them and led to their brilliant designs and achievements.
Figuring out what habits will result in excellence can be challenging, so we’ll look to the design greats for inspiration. Seven greats, seven quotes, seven habits.
1. Be passionate
“I don’t think of design as a job. I think of it – and hate to use this term for it – more like a calling”
Interview The Great Discontent
While we might not be comfortable with the idea of our work being a calling (Scher wasn’t either), hopefully we can say that we love what we do. Passion is being in love with our work and it is the source of excellence. It’s in everything we do and because of that we can make a habit of sustaining it.
Here’s the short list of things that I do to keep myself fired up.
- Get inspired! Remind yourself what is possible by looking at the work of people you admire, designers who have raised the bar.
- Challenge yourself. New endeavours that stretch our abilities and knowledge can reignite our interest in creating great designs.
- Give it your best. Passion leads to excellence and excellence sustains passion.
- Be grateful and pay it forward. If you’re among the few who most days want to go to work, you have a reason to be thankful. Offering your services to a not-for-profit or a charity will remind you of the reasons you do what you do.
2. Learn. And then learn some more.
"I think this desire to pay attention to related industries is one of the reasons why I’m a figure in the design industry. It’s by learning about many things that you’re able to understand specialization."
Interview with Method and Craft 2011
The designer who stops learning stagnates and allows their creative world to shrink. Making a habit of taking in new ideas keeps me engaged and ensures my work stays fresh and interesting. Jessica Hische is right that broad based learning can help us understand specifics, but it can also lead it can also open up new horizons. These ideas can help you to start or reinforce your learning habit.
- Take advantage of all of the learning mediums. Online education has proliferated and is a great way to learn, but I find that it’s a good idea to mix it up and attend classes or workshops as well. Discussion and exchange of ideas seems to happen easier in these settings.
- Don’t forget to read. Online and print magazines offer a wide range of information.
- When you have a question, ask it. No further explanation required.
- Find a mentor. Look for someone who is an expert and develop a mentoring relationship with them.
3. Take risks
"Many designers will probably take more risks in how they drive than in how they design. Anything new in life has to be created and any new creation involves risk."
Interview with Spiked 2009
If your driving is riskier than your designs, it might be time to think about what you want to create and where you want to go in your design journey. Wolff took many gambles in his career, but each one led him into new opportunities.
So, how do you develop a habit of taking risks? As a friend of mine used to say, “Drive fast, take chances”!
- Be brave enough to break the rules. At the right time. It’s always good to build on the foundation that other designers or you have laid, but if what’s being built is solid, look for ways to create something new.
- Free your creativity. Allow yourself to be an original, to get creative, playful and imaginative. Like Picasso.
- Be OK with failure. I don’t actually like the word “failure” because of it’s negative connotations. To me, designers who take risks are far from failures; they are trailblazers. Mistakes will happen but they are great opportunities to learn new ways of doing tings.
- Own up to mistakes. Transparency leads to trust and that is the core of all good relationships with clients and our peers. Owning what we do also gives us the chance to make amends and improvements.
4. Be your best critic
"I’m very suspicious of people who are self satisfied because what tends to happen is the creative stuff starts to go downhill."
YouTube video: Design Methodology 2012
We know how easy it is to be our own worst critic, but we could all benefit from learning the habit of being our own best critic. Self-assessment can prevent us from becoming self-satisfied if it’s done in the right way. Without going overboard and keeping in mind the following thoughts, the habit of self-criticism can lead to self- improvement and better design work.
- Be honest with yourself. Commit to telling yourself the truth or there is no point to self-review of a design or project. Remember we are all masters of self-deception and denial.
- Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal. Be as patient and respectful of yourself as you would be with someone who asked you for a critique.
- Critique your work, not yourself. Take note of whether an attitude or action impacted negatively on the work so you can address that later, but keep your eye on the work.
5. Be your brand
"I have a very strong kind of look and style, and what people are buying is essentially a piece of me, my own personality."
A personal brand is simply the way in which we are perceived by designers and by clients, both those we have and those we want to attract. Since people are always going to size us up, it’s best to be sure that we have cultivated the brand we want, one that matches our self-perception with how we are seen. Marian Brantjes summed up the importance and purpose of branding; people want to know who and what they are buying.
Creating a brand is always a work in progress because you and your work are always evolving. That’s why you have to make a habit of brand-maintenance.
- Figure out what you what you believe in and where you are going. Write a vision and mission statement and then distil that down to a few sentences. If you know who you are, you can communicate that clearly.
- Know your niche, your area of expertise. This allows you to tailor elements of your branding to that audience.
- Be consistent. Although you and what you do will change, keep your core values and approach the same.
6. Become a great communicator
"And the problem is they miss the one overarching fear that clients tend to have, that you’re not going to listen to them.”
Interview with The Sherwood Group
Designers are very good at communicating with an audience via their medium, but often we’re not as good at communicating with clients or other design professionals. Michael Bierut identified listening as an essential communication skill and given his success we should all take note.
To become an effective communicator we need to be a good listener, but we also have to commit to making a habit of using all the related skills. Here are some suggestions:
- Be honest. Most people can tell when you’re not sincere or you’re holding something back. Get caught stretching the truth once and you will lose trust.
- Ask questions. Get clarity. Knowing what someone is actually looking for allows you to meet their needs, or to let them know you can’t.
- Let them know that they matter. Show your clients appreciation by caring about what they want.
- Keep it simple. Big words and long sentences may seem impressive, but can actually get in the way of communication and you can lose the chance for a useful exchange.
- Learn “people skills”. Read books, take courses, attend workshops. You can learn to be a better communicator. Smile! Smiling makes you sound happier. And be polite; manners do matter.
7. Know when to say no
"I worked 16 hours a day ... if I continued that way I would not continue to be a designer: I’d be burned out by 35."
Interview with Tina Essmaker in The Great Discontent
Many of us can relate to working long days and nights, but driven by our passion, the need to establish ourselves and to achieve success we have taken this in our stride. Sagmeister’s comment makes good sense though and implies that we learn what our limits are. Getting in the habit of reviewing both our long and short term schedules and plans is necessary for not only survival, but success as a designer. Building this habit can be achieved by making a practice of some of these ideas:
- Set realistic goals and allow enough time for each project. Rushing can lead to cutting corners and designs that are less than your best, which will likely you and your client dissatisfied.
- Know your limits. Recognize when you’re getting tired and stressed and the creative juices are drying up. Pushing past that point is not helping you or your work.
- Establish your exceptions. Sometimes you have to go the extra mile even if it means you have to drag your butt to the finish line. But, understand the difference between important and urgent and make your decisions based on the actual priorities.
- Take a break. Stretch, walk around the office and get a drink and have lunch somewhere other than at your desk. Have fun on the weekends and take vacations.
8. Make a habit of making habits
I know, I know...I said seven habits and seven quotes. Now it’s your turn though to create your own habits and keep the list going. Take some time to think about what behaviours are working for you and make a decision to practice them until you don’t have to think about them anymore.
Feel free to make a habit of keeping in touch with us. What did you learn from the design masters? What old or new habits help keep you on track and support your successes?
About the Author
Marshall Taylor works and lives in London Ontario, designing Websites and Logos. He has a serious interest in hand lettering and tries to always find time among the chaos to sit down and draw some words. You can follow Marshall on Twitter, Dribbble, and Instagram.