Limitations can come in many forms. Maybe you’re a designer who doesn’t know how to code. Maybe you’re using a design program that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that another program has to offer. Perhaps you’re building an MVP that doesn’t have all of it’s features in place yet so your story isn’t entirely being told to the end users. Perhaps you feel limited by your experiences so you feel like you’re not able to offer as much value to your clients or team members. Whatever your limitations are, you can learn to leverage them. I hope this lesson and my experience below helps you understand how to do that.
It was in college when I first experienced the feeling of being limited by my tool set, but it was also then that I received perhaps the biggest design and career advice I’ve ever received. This lesson came during my freshman figure drawing class. My instructor who taught his class very traditionally, required that we keep our equipment very basic. Out of the thousands of different art supplies we could use, all he required was a large drawing pad and one drawing pencil. That was all. We weren’t allowed to bring an eraser to class at all. Not having an eraser was a pretty big limitation when you’re learning how to draw figures for the very first time and you’ve spent your whole life being taught that using a eraser was okay. His reasoning for this was that many of the master artists throughout history didn’t use erasers. He believed that if we wanted to be a master artist, we too were going to learn how to draw without them. I never fought the argument. I figured, I’m the student, he’s the teacher. Teacher knows best.
My lesson on leveraging strengths came one early morning when I was working on a figuring drawing. During this time, I was becoming really frustrated with how the feet and hands were coming along. Feet and hands were never my strength. I dreaded them the most. I was frustrated because the rest of the drawing looked pretty good. I had a skill for getting the gesture and essence of the figure just right, but I could not get the feet to look good and I didn’t have an eraser to help me fix my problem. However, as I frantically kept redrawing over the feet and hands in an attempt to make them look just right, my instructor stopped me. He took my drawing pad. Set it about ten feet away and asked me what I was doing? I explained in frustration that I was trying to draw feet and they were not looking good at all, and because I didn’t have an eraser to use, the whole drawing is falling apart. He chuckled a little, looked at me and asked, “Are you making a drawing of feet?” My response was, “No, I’m drawing a figure.” He said, “Then don’t draw the feet and hands. If you look at many of the figure drawings of the renaissance period, they provide an essence of a hand or foot, but they don’t draw the hand or the foot.” He then proceeded to say, “Because you’re trying so hard to draw the perfect foot, you’re placing more emphasis on your weakness.” He was right. When I looked at the drawing, it was evident that by trying so hard to make the ideal foot, it became the most dominant thing on the page. This is what made the rest of my drawing suck. I quickly tore off the bottom of the page and began to place my focus on the rest of my drawing. It is this lesson in downplaying my weakness and leveraging my strengths that I took with me through the rest of college as well as through my career.
During my career as a designer, I’ve honestly felt like I’ve been limited by my abilities more than not. For example, when I went off to college, I didn’t know how to use a Mac or a design program. I suffered through learning the programs while watching my peers create the most graphically rich solutions I’ve ever seen. Even though it was hard to watch, I knew how to conceptualize. And knowing that more often than not the concept will win out, I focused on leveraging my strength for concepts. Even when I took my first job in the industry, I didn’t know all of inner workings of a large global design firm, but I did know how to learn and be open minded towards opportunities. So I focused on being open for opportunities so I could learn from everyone in the company. I was a sponge and I loved it. To prove my point even further, I had no clue how to run a business or sell projects and make a living off of my design, but I knew I had a portfolio I was proud of and how to surround myself with people much smarter than myself. These are just the smallest of examples that showcase my ability to leverage my strengths and downplay my weaknesses. They by far are not the only examples and won’t be my last.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying you should forget about your weaknesses. These weaknesses are only weaknesses today because you haven’t focused on learning about them yet. Throughout my career, I’ve found that these weaknesses and limitations are only temporary. My goal is to never let these weakness or limitations prevent me from moving forward with my project. I like to view my weaknesses as a challenge and with every challenge there’s an opportunity to come out on the other end learning something completely new about yourself.
During my career I’ve gone through many milestones where I‘ve felt like I had to completely retrain myself because I’ve either pushed myself outside of my comfort zone or forced myself to take on a new opportunity. It’s in those moments where I’ve felt like I’ve learned the most. It’s also in those moments where I’ve been the most scared and limited in my knowledge. It’s easy for other designers to assume that nobody else struggles or has limitations in their career. However, it’s not true. We all have limitations or weaknesses. It’s important to learn how to best manage them and not be afraid to understand them so that you don’t halt your growth and development.
Design as well as many other positions in the industry can be taught. We’re one of a very few industries where we don’t have to wait on clearances or get special training in order to advance forward in our career. It’s great knowing that. It’s the designers who feel like they can stop learning, who will fall behind to the ones who keep learning and pushing themselves past their weaknesses. Your limitations today have nothing to do with your outcome tomorrow. Your limitations are actually what will help you develop into who are are tomorrow. It will introduce you to a whole new network of people. It may even force you to pivot into a direction you probably would’ve never taken by playing it safe. The key to downplaying your weaknesses and leveraging your strengths is to constantly deliver value to your clients or team members based on your strengths so that they never get to really see your weakness.
I hope you found this lesson valuable. Next week, if all goes well, I’m going to give you all a quick peek at The Designer’s Handbook.
I’d love to continue the conversation with you all in the comments below. How have you overcome your weaknesses and managed your strengths?