#50: Twelve Habits of a Happy Designer

I talked a few weeks ago about ways you can be sure to kill your design soul. It’s hard work being a designer these days so it’s really easy to focus on the negatives of what we do. But how can we be more content designers?
There’s literally close to 100 things I could suggest to you to make you a happier designer if you put them into practice. But no one wants to read a post that long, So instead I’m going to give you 12 habits that aren’t to difficult to implement if you do them with intentionality. Happiness isn’t everything, and only we can choose our attitudes towards what we do and who we do it for but we all get discouraged and down on ourselves and these twelve things can refresh you and make you better.


1. Read…stuff

I’ve spoken about this in other posts about design books specifically. But this time when I say read I want to remind you that I don’t just mean design books.
I mean read everything. Read poetry, history, fiction, non fiction, mysteries, magazines, blogs and newsletters, graphic novels and coffee table books.
Some of my most inspired ideas have come while reading my children’s books to them at bedtime or nap time. Being well-read gives you a wider views of the world. Having all these things to pull from in your head will make you happier because you will always have some idea just lurking around the corner.

2. Use physical tools (pencil, paper, etc.)

Again, I’ve talked about the importance of sketching and using paper, because I know from personal experience that this makes me happy. You’d think that this particular step would be uncomfortable if you’re used to doing everything digitally. And if it’s not comfortable how could that make you a happier designer? Well, would you be happier if you had more ideas? How about if you had better and more creative ideas?
When you use physical tools like a pencil and paper to come up with ideas you will actually come up with MORE ideas and more ideas equals better ideas.
When sketching, believe ignore not, you can actually come up with sometimes 100% more ideas on paper than you would if you ideated on the computer directly. Better ideas make everyone happy.

3. Learn to say no 

For some of us, it’s hard to say no. But when we always say yes, we usually end up regretting each and every one. This is something I struggle with for various reasons. Sometimes I say yes because I feel obligated to a project for whatever reason, whether it be because it’s for a friend or family member, or even for a pro bono client. Or I say yes to too many things because they all sound like fun and awesome projects to work on.
When all you do is say yes, you have to say no to some level of your quality.

Eventually will spread yourself and ultimately your creativity thin. You become like Bilbo in Lord of the Rings: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”(J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring) When you can learn to say no you will be happier by not being over-committed and as a result, under-creative.

4. Diversify your creative inspiration 

Take a look at your work and think about where your inspiration comes from. If it is all coming from inside of your own head or maybe one other source then you’ve found your problem. You only have so many new and original ideas inside of your head. Once those have been used or you’ve emptied your brain of all it has to offer, then what?
Much like you need to continuously drink water every day to keep your body hydrated, you need to constantly be refreshing your mind with new and interesting things that you can pull from.
Like a well, you’ll be able to go back to it again and again; except the idea well can run dry and it’s your job to keep it filled. This is when you collect inspiration from diverse things. Much like the reading thing a few steps above, collect inspiration from everywhere! Collect from nature, movies, fine art, street art, photography, lettering, architecture even. There’s literally no limits on where your ideas can manifest. Use your inspirations individually and combine them. Although there is technically nothing new under the sun (original), the possibilities of what you can do are literally endless (as they say). Possibility for me is a happy thought.

5. Have a personal project

There’s something special that happens when you have a project to work on that your not being paid to do-everything changes. Most people have “brilliant ideas” that just pop into their heads from time to time. It could be something related to or seemingly out of left field for what you already do. For me those ideas come in forms of things I am already interested in or care about.

The passion project is all about doing something that just makes YOU happy. You do it for you and pour out your soul into it so you can just enjoy being creative.
I have a running list of ideas of things that I want to do or techniques I want to try. The majority of my ideas all revolve around either writing books, doing some kind of typography or lettering, photography experiments, screen printing and poster designs. All of which I love to do.
Personal projects satiate those cravings for something truly exciting in our work that sometimes paid clients don’t give us the freedom to do.

You don’t have to think so much about all the “things” (rules), you just make stuff. You will feel good and be better at all of your other work when you give yourself the opportunity to just do what you want for a change. Doing something for ourselves is a little bit of happy.

6. Find beauty  

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as thy say. It is all around us. Why should we try to find beauty? Because beauty awakens something in all of us-beauty requires a response. That response is often our creations.
There’s a reason artists throughout history have had a “muse”. Because beauty ignites our desires; desires for love and for some a desire to create.
Beauty is literally everywhere if we are conscious of it. Beauty can be found in the obvious and the minuscule. Beauty is found in the wonder of the starry sky, fluffy clouds or a sunset. Beauty can be found in your favorite song. I’ve found so much beauty in reading poetry or well written fiction.
It doesn’t have to be the obvious things though, beauty is whatever inspires YOU. Maybe it’s a Wes Anderson film or the sounds of a coffee shop.
I also find I find beauty (when I have the opportunity) in a busy city. I love to just take in all the hustle and bustle; the smells and movement all around me. I draw energy from being around people-people inspire me-because everyone is beautiful. Our genius often comes from places and things we least expect. Just be aware of the unusual and beautiful things around you. Find your own muses or you will eventually realize that your work is missing something-beauty. Beauty, true beauty makes us feel satisfied, and often happy.

7. Write things down

As creatives, many of us struggle with focus. We are definitely working on ten different things at once and jump around all the time. There nothing wrong with this but what tends to happen is our ideas and flow can get jumbled. When we come up with ideas or need to remember things, we often don’t have a cohesive system to keep track of it all. For all our crazy scattered creative minds to focus, I suggest you write things down. Use a pen and paper, chalkboard, or an app like Evernote (my personal fave). I do both. I am very visual so I respond well to things like a bright blue Post-it on the front of my iMac. As you’re working you will remember something or think of a new idea that is completely unrelated to the track you are currently on.
Stopping for five seconds to write your distractions down will take them off your plate for the immediate future, give you relief that you won’t forget about it if you don’t address it now.
This is a great habit to have because it gives you something to look back at when you are done with what your focus needed to be on. Knowing you won’t forget something and at the same time maintaining focus makes you happier because there’s less pressure to do it all and do it all now.

8. Surround yourself with honest and encouraging people.
We’ve all known people who like to blow smoke. They tell us everything we want to hear and even if we ask them their opinion about our work they either give vague comments like, “it’s cool”, or they don’t have anything good to say.
It’s important to find people you can go to who will give you honest feedback. Not just people who will be jerks about it but give you constructive criticism and will encourage you.
I tend to lean towards being sarcastic and critical when I surround myself with negative people. But you don’t want the people who will only tell you everything you do is amazing either. Because no way do I believe that every single thing I create  is the best thing ever. I do great work, I love what I do, but even with this blog I often ask a handful of reliable friends and colleagues to give me honest feedback, because without it how will I ever improve?
Get into the habit of asking for feedback from positive and honest people who know what they are talking about. There’s nothing worse than only having a bunch of friends like your mom, who would hang a stick drawing up on your fridge just cause you did it. Not everything you’ll do will be amazing, but you’ll be a happier designer if you can get better by listening to people around you who genuinely care.

9. Do something new

We all know the feeling of feeling stuck right? We sit staring at a blank page, wondering and hoping for some idea to come to us. But an idea doesn’t come. There’s something exciting about newness. Whether it’s a relationship or a new car or a new set of Pantone books (yep).. Excitement equals stimulation; of the mind and of our senses and it can be extremely motivating.
What do I mean by do something new? I mean, step out of your norm when it comes to your idea seeking process or even your creative process.
If you always sketch with a pencil and then go to the computer, maybe try sketching out some fun lettering with a sharpie. Or maybe you always work at your desk, in the same place every day; what if you tried working outside or in a coffee shop or even an art gallery where you could just sit and be inspired?
Trying new things brings a sense of wonder to your life and in turn, to your work.
This is something I have to take my own advice on because I tend to be a creature of habit and although I love new things, it’s really easy to get comfortable where I am. But everyone loves a new car smell, and a new idea [smell] makes for a happy designer.

10. Create an awesome workspace

I know that many of us work on laptops while sitting on the couch or at our kitchen table. Oftentimes this is out of necessity and not because we necessarily find those spaces inspiring. Other times we work from a coffee shop or a park. And while there’s nothing wrong with these things , I can speak from experience that even the smallest space that you can make your very own can really help you be happier. I don’t have room for an office in the house I currently live in. So I have created a space in a corner of my living room.
The environment in which we live has the potential to inspire us or distract and discourage our creativity. 
In my space I have things that I love to look at, my books, inspiring sayings, and colors I love. When I’m working there with my headphones on, I feel like I can be me and create. Making a space to work in that is beautiful, and can calm and relax you will feed your creativity.
Make it yours, however small the space.
When you feel like it is all yours and made for you, sitting down to work can actually be a time where you can take a deep breath and think, “this is where I belong.” That feeling of belonging helps you lose the feeling we all get about being an imposter. Make your space a beautiful, calm and happy place and feed your creativity.

11. Know your own process

I’ve talked at length on design matters about the importance of having a creative process. But I’m not sure if I’ve ever really stressed that having a process can actually make you a happier designer. So does it? And why?
Having a process creates a place of reference, security, and stability for how you work.
 Your process is critical to keeping you on track and making sure that steps aren’t skipped. My process is seven pretty simple steps. I have found that having a process that I have practiced over and over and shared with others has become one of the things that makes me stand out from many of my peers. Especially because I actually have a short one page document that explains briefly what my process is, so I can hopefully get clients on board with what I do and the steps that I take from the moment they contact me until the finished project.
Knowing your process contributes greatly to your happiness.I would say is one of the most important factors because it eliminates the stress and anxiety of losing your concentration or losing your way, not knowing why an idea didn’t work and having to go back to the drawing board.
Since there is a large part of any good process that requires discovery (of client, target, concept, etc.), by the time you get to your design it should all be the pleasure of creating instead of troubleshooting your design. Knowing what you’re doing and where you’re going with your design will put you at ease and make you feel better about what you do and you will feel much happier.

12. Don’t do spec work 

Spec work is anytime you are expected to do work for free. I have also talked at somewhat length about this topic but I feel like it’s important to stress when it comes to habits of a happy designer.I’ve yet to meet a designer who is thrilled about what they do every day creating spec work or getting taken advantage of. No one likes that and it makes us feel undervalued.We are happy when we know that people value what we do, what we have worked so hard to learn and we get paid fairly for it. Not when we compete for our business.
Don’t do spec work, it will just make you want to gouge out your own eye  and no one wants to work with a one-eyed, cranky designer. A happy designer is a valued designer.

There’s so many other things that I could write about that will contribute to you being a satisfied and happy designer. But if you follow my blog long enough I think you will discover more of them as time goes on.
Until then, I strongly encourage you to take to heart each of these and consider where you might be lacking if you are not happy doing what you do. Even though doing all these things isn’t a guarantee, I do know that they work to an extent. If you want to have a change of heart and be happy doing what you do, a good start is to choose it and try these 12 things out. I would love to hear what you think. Design is a wonderful world. Thanks for joining me here, because design matters.

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