How to Grow as a Designer

Excerpt from How to Grow As A Graphic Designer by Cathy Fishel

When he opened his office, AdamsMorioka, designer Sean Adams was like many young designers: He had a mission.

“My goal was to clean up the world. I had very specific ideas about what design should do, and that was the engine that drove us for a long time,” says Adams about that start in 1994.

Then one day, he looked around and found out that the portion of the world they had control over had been cleaned up. It was time to set some new goals.

Adams sat down and conducted a very basic assessment of what they wanted, in the form of a chart.

“I had been saying for a while that it would be great if we had more office space or could hire more designers-these were just abstract thoughts. So I wrote down everything we were at the time: 1,000 square feet, four designers, our client base. Then I wrote down what we wanted to be: 2,800 square feet, eight designers, a more global client base. I even wrote down things like buy that Eames sofa for the office that we always wanted,” Adams says.

Then he began to connect the dots. To reach the sofa goal, he needed to bill an additional $1,000. That seemed quite possible. To get a bigger space, though, would require additional revenues of $50,000 per year-that was bit further out. Hiring more designers would cost even more. To partner with different clients would mean a substantial investment of time and making cold calls, something the partners had never had to do. That was even more out there.

Over time, though, things began to fall into place, and soon they found themselves sitting on their new sofa in a new space discussing new clients. “It could be that we were more open to possibilities or that we were more cognizant to opportunities that led us in directions we wanted to go,” Adams recalls.

But writing down their goals also made them seem less daunting. If the had just considered everything he wanted to do as a mass, the end goal would have felt overwhelming and out of reach. “It would have felt as though we couldn’t have the sofa until we had the space, and we couldn’t have the space until we had the clients. But not all steps have to be grandiose and huge. We realized that we needed to take baby steps,” the designer says.

Designers, perhaps because they are big dreamers, can scare themselves out of reaching goals because the overall plan seems much too huge. But strategic moves or changes in direction do not have to be large. Adams recalls something that Saul Bass said. “You don’t need one splashy success after another. A long career is made up of consistently good decisions. It takes longer, but it lasts longer. You have to be able to sustain the effort.”

Another factor to overcome is self-defeating arguments. Adams uses the example of a friend whose life seems to be one problem after another. Her boyfriend isn’t working out, her car always needs to be fixed, and so on. But when Adams asks her, for instance, why not just replace the car, she has 10 valid reasons why she can’t do that.

“I can give you 12 reasons right now why you shouldn’t cross the street, but that doesn’t mean you should never do it,” Adams says. “You have to make the leap of faith-not be reckless or wild, but you do have to throw yourself out there and just do it. It is scary, and you might fail, but that is all the more reason to do it. That’s what makes life exciting. That’s what let’s you know you are really pushing.”

Of course, not every goal is achieved. Even worse, sometimes a goal, once in hand, is not as great as it looked when it was still far away. When Adams had been in business for about three years, he was asked to merge with another company. It seemed like a fantastic idea at the time: The partners and their existing accounting systems were overwhelmed with the amount of work coming in. The partnering company would provide AdamsMorioka with the infrastructure it needed to keep up with billing, cash flow, and other operations the two young designers did not necessarily enjoy monitoring.

“This was our goal: to become the design moguls of the West Coast and to have 40 employees on staff,” Adams remembers.

The partnership lasted about six months. Bigger was not better. Adams felt that the quality of the client base dropped dramatically, as did the quality of their work. He was turned into a manager and did not enjoy the process of design anymore.

Luckily, he had held on to the lease and phone number of their old space. The partners and a couple of designers found themselves a little stunned and wondered what in the world they were going to do. Their old clients were gone: Everything that they had worked so hard for for three years was gone.

“I remember sitting in a restaurant over lunch and Noreen would not stop crying. I tried to comfort her, and even the waitress came over to see if she was OK,” Adams says. “I went home every night despairing and wondering if anything would every work again.”

In the midst of this turmoil, the young partners were still being invited to address art and design groups on what the audience still believed to be their happy careers. Adams would leave the office exhausted and overwrought, then put on a happy face for his speeches. It felt fraudulent and schizophrenic at the time, but being forced to put up a good front had a curious effect. First, clients started to come back once they could see that everything was still OK at AdamsMorioka.

Second, he was able to convince himself that everything would be OK. “Staying positive helped me to believe in myself again,” Adams says.

What he realized later was that the goal of “bigger is better” had divorced him from what he truly wanted. The solution to fixing the overwhelmed accounting system was to get a new accountant, one who could handle the level of work coming in. Bigger might have meant more power or money, but he did not go into design to be a politician or get rich.

What he truly wanted was to do good work with like-minded people. Quantity was not better than quality.

There is a necessary sacrifice of dreams when a goal is abandoned, not to mention a very personal sense of failure. “You begin to think that someone else out there has the secret to success that you don’t have. You start to think that everyone knows but you, and you are forced to just guess your way through,” Adams says.

The secret, he discovered, is that there is no secret. Everyone makes mistakes-sometimes big ones. But instead of trying to battle it out and make things right, sometimes it’s best to simply let that dream go. When a situation starts to affect the quality of your life and creativity, it’s time to change plans.

Evolution happens-personally and globally. You and your goals are going to change, Question yourself all of the time, even weekly, Adams advises, to make sure what you are doing makes you happy.

“I question client’s motives all of the time. Why won’t we do that for ourselves?” he asks. “Life is too short. I don’t want to think I spent what could be the last week of my life working on something I hated, or working with someone who is disrespectful of what we do.”