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How to Stay Ahead of the Curve as a Designer

How to Stay Ahead of the Curve as a Designer With the lows of financial times, and bleak economic outlook lately it can be a bit unnerving for us as creatives. Will our jobs be in danger if there are budget cuts? Will our client/freelance work slow down as a result of small business having to cut expenses?

Is there enough work out there for all of us? These are all honest questions that have probably crossed our minds at some point over the last few months, and rightly so, but before we get all doom and gloom (which this article isn’t) I think we should look at things from another angle. The more people I talk to who are working in the creative field, the more I am realizing that our current economy is actually creating many opportunities for us.

People are going out on their own as a result of being let go, or new opportunities arising, companies are looking for new ways to gain revenue; this means new opportunities to work on websites, web apps, consulting, and collaboration. Web applications, and web interfaces are the future of advertising, marketing, communication, and interaction. The opportunities that will arise as a result of this shift will be many, and often.

I guess this leads us to the questions…

What do we want from this, and Why do we do it?”

By “this” I mean our jobs, careers, and creative pursuits. If you are just in it for a paycheck, then it might be time to start reading a different article… but then again maybe this article is just right… the opportunity is now here to use our passions and abilities to make something for ourselves, to achieve goals by staying ahead of the curve.

Why Bother?

So why bother? To be honest… if you don’t want it, then don’t bother, but I imagine that most of us do care about what we do, and have a passion for design, development, and creative endeavors.

The state of the web and the design community is in constant flux, new technologies, new solutions, and new trends are always emerging and if we want to stay current, we need to emerge with them. If we look at it just from the aspect of being able to provide top-level services to our clients, and make a living using creative skills, then we need to stay ahead of the curve simply to remain relevant in our market, and have a successful career as a designer. People are looking for what is “now” and as mobile technology, and web applications continue to grow more popular people are going to be wanting more of whatever is “now” as we design sites, apps, print collateral, and provide creative services.

If you are anything like me, you can’t just stop at being a career designer. I want more… I am going to get more. I want to influence the design community as much as possible, I want to learn, and I want to change things.

I want something more than just 9-5 until it is time to power down and retire. I have goals, I want to write, design, speak, help others get started, and I want to live fulfilled. So for those of us with drive, and passion staying ahead of the curve is very crucial to our success.

It is not going to be easy, it is not going to come without failure. So for us the “why bother?” question has been and is always answered because I want to, better yet I have to. I want to contribute, I want to remain relevant as our space changes, I want to embrace that change where it applies and make a name for myself and the community of designers I am apart of.

This may seem easier said than done, life happens we have jobs, families, and other things that can drain us or consume most of our time. So I have gathered five different things we can do to stay ahead of the curve!

Be Passionate

In his keynote at FOWA Miami 2009 Gary Vaynerchuck made the statement Passion is Undefeated. Passion is defined as “a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept” if we are going to succeed in anything, especially the ever changing design world, we are going to have to have a strong passion for what we do.

If we don’t have it then we need to devote time to discovering that passion and building it. More times than not we start with the passion, but work, life and lots of other things can crowd that passion out so that we lose sight of why we love doing what we do. Personally I have found that setting aside time each day to read blogs, visit some flickr groups, or gallery sites have really been helpful with maintaining passion and inspiration.

Interaction is also a huge helper, talking to other people hearing their passions about what they are working gets me really stoked to work projects. Our passion is going to be the driving force behind our motivation (even when we have none) to be the best, to make a contribution to the design community. It will provide the fuel to go the extra mile for clients and for ourselves.

Hit the Books

Plain and simple get out their and read, blogs, books, listen to podcasts, whatever is going to help us learn and get better at what we do.

If you specialize in design, go get some books on CSS, JavaScript, or PHP, start learning code, start expanding your knowledgebase. I am not saying to become a “jack of all trades master of none”, but what I am saying is that, as a designer, having a better understanding of code, and back end development will help provide better and more prepared designs. Learning and expanding your skill set also gives you a level of diversity, and can open up new opportunities.

I have always thought that the second I stop learning is the second I start regressing. As fast as the design world changes, it is in our best interest to be constantly seeking to develop an arsenal of skills, without sacrificing current abilities, but instead complimenting them. We just might miss opportunities if we are not prepared to adapt and expand with our market: ask the newspaper industry that is currently scrambling to find a way to make a mark online, and cash in on monetizing it’s traffic.


I mentioned Gary Vaynerchuck before, and not to be redundant, I have to mention him again.

He has definitely built a following and found success, especially in the area of developing a personal brand. One of his phrases is “Crush It” which has really stuck with me in that it really embodies the idea of getting out there and getting a piece of the pie for yourself. The thing is though… you can’t crush it if you don’t hustle.

Late nights, constant refining, going the extra mile, making sure that your work is just right, leaving no room for second best, these are the traits of someone who is going to rise to the top, no matter what the economy is like, or how many people are in the game. Even if we lack some of the skills we would think necessary, if we are hustling, we can overcome those hurdles. I know a lot of people with amazing skills but little drive, and discipline to stay the course, I also know a lot of people who are good (but not the best) who are out there owning it right now, because they have the desire to make it happen, they don’t stop at having the desire, they act on that desire.

Set time aside, for yourself, make sure you are refreshed, and when the time comes go after it! Whether it is for work, or personal projects focus your efforts, and see the results. You know your limits, don’t settle for second best, push yourself to improve your abilities, adapt new skills and make consistent progress.

Collaborate With Others

One of the best ways to keep the motivation and passion behind what you do is to surround yourself with a design community that will help you get better, and open up new opportunities.

As we look to improve our skills and stay ahead of the curve interacting with other designers can be a huge benefit. Sharing project ideas, gaining feedback and collaborating on projects helps you refine your skill set, open up doors to new opportunities, and find other people to work on projects with. It is great to find people that have skill in an area where you lack, and create something awesome as you each bring a unique talent to the table, whether it be coding, design, engineering, the more resources that we have to collaborate with the better opportunity we have to work on and deliver well rounded, apps, websites, and media.

Take No Prisoners

By no means does this mean to take a self-centered approach to design, nor does it mean to step on others to get where you need to go.

Instead this is a no holds bared approach to determination, overcoming obstacles, and persevering through frustration. Don’t let people discourage you. Welcome criticism (constructive or not) evaluate it’s value to you and your goals, then apply where necessary.

There will always be haters and those who feel the need to rain on other people’s parade.  The ability to sift through the comments and apply what can make you better as a designer is a huge step in progression and is crucial to staying ahead of the curve. We have to keep moving. We can’t wait for other people, we have get out there and lead, if not someone else will come along and do it first, and probably do it better.

Again it may not be the person who does something first… but the person who does it right that wins. Follow your passion full force… if doors close look for other openings, be willing to adapt, you may just find a passion and career path that you didn’t have any idea was for you, and nothing is better than doing what you love and doing it well.

Wrapping Up

I am sure this sounded like on big cheerleading session, but sometimes it is necessary… it isn’t easy, we get tired of dealing with jobs, clients, and everything else that comes our way. Each of these points has it’s dependencies on your situation, but I would venture out on a limb and say that if you move forward perfecting your skills learning new ones, putting in the blood sweat and tears, you will find success, maybe not right away, but there is something fulfilling about putting your efforts into something you love.

Success isn’t truly seen in money or job titles, success is developing yourself, your talents, and making your mark on your industry and design community. I am committing to extra effort, late hours, and the right kind of sacrifices to get out ahead of the game, to make a mark; I don’t want to be left looking around when everyone else has progressed. I don’t want to think of what could have been I want to be what is!

These are just a few concepts for consideration, some food for thought. I would love to hear your thoughts on progression, the coming changes in design trends and how we can adapt and make our mark.

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About the Author

aaron irizarry smallAaron Irizarry is a user experience/interaction designer for IGN Entertainment in Costa Mesa, California (where it’s always right around 70 degrees and sunny). He has a background in visual design and has been handcrafting pixels since 1998. He shares his thoughts and experiences on his blog Follow Aaron on Twitter @aaroni268.

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