How I Once Commuted Six Hours to Work on a Saturday and Loved It

Throughout my career, I’ve found that when I have the right environment around me, putting that extra 10 percent into my projects is much easier. So for this weeks lesson I thought I would share with you what creates the ideal environment for designers to strive in. If you’re reading this as a project manager, creative director, freelancer or student I hope you are able to pull something out of it that will benefit you or your team.

My Experience:

My first job out of college was amazing. It was full of creativity. We had large clients, big budgets, strategists, copywriters and even our own librarian to help us research our projects. Other perks included breakfasts and half-day Fridays. My team consisted of a group of award-winning designers who were experienced and overall great to be around. Everyone in the company was dedicated to creating great projects, even the team in the binding and printing department that was on staff and on call who would have no issues coming in to help us wrap up a presentation in the wee hours of the night.

This agency was not located in downtown Columbus, but instead it was tucked away in the hills off an outlying city. My commute always consisted of the fresh smell of flowers, grass and trees combined with the crisp morning air of the country side. We had ample parking right up to the door. It was a great way to start your day. The campus was vast and all of the buildings felt like tree houses tucked away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We had rooftop access and secret rooms that allowed us to have massive brainstorms without any interruption. You literally could get lost in this place and often times I would. Getting lost was often fun, because it was then when I’d stumble across a War Room and be able to see the vast amount of creativity I was surrounded by daily.

Yes, we had fun with remote helicopters and harmless pranks, but we also worked hard. I remember spending many nights at my desk till three or four in the morning working on projects with my creative director. I also remember a summer where it was mandatory saturdays. I even remember one weekend driving from Knoxville (after visiting Julie’s family) straight into work so I could wrap up a presentation for a beginning of the week deadline.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me I never felt like I was ever really working. I was simply creating and learning from everyone around me. As an agency we were asked to create great solutions together and I was happy playing my role in that. Working hard was always rewarded and recognized by either upper management or those you worked with directly.

Nothing is perfect and all great things must come to an end. In 2008 on the brink of the economy collapsing, I witnessed (like many others in the design industry) my first ever lay off. It was not easy to accept, but shortly after I decided that perhaps it was time for me to venture into the world of web design.

After leaving, I stayed in close contact with those I’d worked with. During those hard times and even without the great perks, I still found myself amazed at the quality and dedication of those who remained. It was then when I learned that in an environment where design is the core focus and processes are in place, and perhaps most importantly designers have ownership in their projects, it will bring the best out in everyone and a team will pull together for the greater good.

What I’ve Learned about the Optimal Environment for Designers:

  • Surround yourself with greatness: The best work that we create is when we are surrounded by other great designers that can inspire us and help us grow. It’s that collaboration and connection with other designers that gives us a clear purpose. We want to reach our goals while reaching those of companies and clients at the same time. If you’re working as a freelancer and don’t have a direct team, try building in weekly feedback sessions with your design friends. It will help you share your ideas, get feedback and share insight with each other.
  • Focus on the right tools: Designers don’t really need a ton of tools to do our best work. We do have some basic needs and those needs generally fall in the realm of equipment. It’s hard for us to feel inspired if we are designing on inferior equipment, workstations or with programs. From time-to-time do an assessment of your workstation. Are you working on an old chair? Are you working with programs that are a few versions behind? Could it be time to maybe make an upgrade from that old Apple from college? When you invest in the right equipment the ROI in production and creativity can be huge.
  • Strive for ownership: Designers need ownership with our projects. Why do you think many of us strive to become freelancers? In order to do your best work you need to know you have the authority to make some key decisions around your designs. I’m not saying that you have to have full authority, because you have to work as a team and sometimes there’s more at stake to consider than just the design. But you need to know your team fully trusts you. Words are one thing, but actions are another. I’ve found that if trust is not there, and ownership is not granted, you simply just can’t do your job effectively.
  • Focus on your own space: Being able to do your best work starts with you own space. If you haven’t already, you need to create a space that is your own creative oasis that’s not shared with others. No two designers are the same. Some work best with a clean desk and others work best when they are surrounded by inspiration and their own ideas. Depending on what I’m working on, I can go either way. If you want some inspiration, here’s a photo of my current workspace (complete with a standing desk) that I shared on Twitter the other day.
  • Pay attention to your emotions: Designers tend to be emotionally driven. We work best when we feel like we can see the end goal and can participate in the final solution. Brainstorming helps propel us forward with enthusiasm. If we can’t see the outcome, we simply lose context to what we are trying to create. I love getting involved with brainstorming and tossing out ideas, even if those ideas are not entirely meant for me. I think it’s the idea of envisioning an outcome combined with helping other designers that excites me.
  • Push for questions: To create a great solution, you need to solve a problem and be aware of the big picture. If you don’t have a direct grasp on the problem(s) that are trying to be solved, you’ll quickly fall into reactionary mode. Push your team, clients or others to share their goals and problems with you. It’s only then when you can start solving the real problem vs. masking bad solutions with a quick coat of paint or a band-aid.
  • Appreciate all aspects of design: The best designers in the world appreciate all aspects of design. It’s in those designs that you can find inspiration for your work. It’s in those other designers that you can find a connection. The difference between someone who knows a program or tool and a designer that can actually create a solution that solves a problem is the true love and appreciation for design. Some appreciate it more than others and you don’t have to be a history buff by all means, but you should respect it.
  • It’s in the culture of a company: Design needs to be at the core of a company. If not, you’ll struggle with creating solutions that you’re proud of and actually enjoy working on. You’ll also feel like you don’t fit in and worse that you have a job vs. an inspiring and exhilarating career. It’s not easy to always find these companies, but you can. To do so, sometimes it means looking at opportunities with your heart and goals as a priority and not your wallet.  
  • Invest in your education: One of the best ways to continue to push yourself and inspire yourself is to focus on your education. I’ve talked about this in the past, but it’s true: when  you’re aware of what is happening around you, you make it easier to evaluate where you are today vs. where you want to be tomorrow.

My Takeaway:

The optimal environment for a designer is not the same for everyone. It depends on your goals. The ideas above are a small sample of things to consider when thinking about the ideal environment to strive in, and I hope it at least helps give you a starting point to evaluate your situation. Finding all of these characteristics in every job, project or client is not always easy, but you should at least try if you want to ensure you’re working in the best environment for yourself as a designer.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that your best work doesn’t come from fancy perks and office buildings. It comes from being empowered and trusted to do great work from the very beginning. Many companies will say they view design as an important piece to their process, but you have to ensure it goes deeper than just making ideas look pretty. Yes, every company wants pretty, but does every company want a designer to help them reach their goals by problem-solving and asking them the hard questions? Do they want to give up control and trust you so that you can create beautiful graphics and solutions, that not only contribute to their company’s goals, but also their bottom line?

In the end, you have to decide what is the best environment for you. Your needs and goals don’t have to be complicated or shared by anyone else. When you find the right environment for you, you’ll help move mountains, not because you’ve been asked to, but because you are empowered and truly want to.

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