A few months ago, my yoga teacher Jennifer made some bold statements that I couldn't help but write down and think about in the context of design business...
1. Gain is an illusion.
We need to get paid for what we do (unless you've got one of those trust funds that we're all clamoring for). However, we can't get too caught up in the illusion that doing good work for a fair price earns you some thing in return. Design is one of the most selfless professions, in the sense that what we reap from our actions are artifacts that usually create value for other people (read: clients).
Gain is an illusion in this profession, as shown in our portfolios, which are a record of our activity. Our portfolios are not us. The humanity of our design activity is evident in the work. I find that mature designers learn this, just as professional writers, painters, and musicians achieve a level of success when they are able to see their work with a clear eye, divorced from any personal context.
Gain can be reflected in what we are paid, both in personal satisfaction, in the realization of our talent as artists, and in compensation, but money alone is an indicator of value more than a token of actual progress and change. At least, to clients and tax advisors.
It's my belief that true gain -- personal gain -- happens out of the corner of our eyes, when we're not focused on the work at hand, when we aren't aware of any sort of boundary around our talent and experience. It sneaks up on you and pounces when you least expect it, which is when it's most welcome and appreciated.
The word gain isn't even the right word to describe it. Maybe we should just call it fulfillment of potential.
2. Don't lean too far into the future... or the past.
Designers are extraordinarily intelligent, soulful, yet pragmatic individuals, often possessing whole brains that can cartwheel between fanciful dreamscape and logical Web site user flow.
It's fairly easy to short-circuit a designer: make them focus on their past work, where they begin to drill into the compromises that they made on each client project, or try to plot out the future, with its bevy of unknowns and fear of unfulfilled ambition. (I know I've been wanting to design book covers since I got out of college, due to my deep love of books as designed artifacts and my voracious reading habit. Definitely hasn't happened yet.)
I started doing yoga about a year ago, and realized how many mental cycles I was spinning in worrying about the progress of my work and my life. Progress and change are constant as a designer, even as we strive to create a design that's finished. (Have you figured out what a finished design is yet?) If you're spending a good deal of your time in the moment, communing with your design work, you may discover that you're going to be a lot more happy in the creative process, and surprise yourself with the results.
3. If you're feeling pain, you should back out of it.
If you try too hard to reach for a goal, you pay for it with a measure of your humanity. This is the kind of lesson that's always learned through pain.
Until the age of 31, I was a design masochist. I would always complete any job or task, at agency large or small, no matter what the personal cost. Isn't that what's supposed to be expected from a top-of-their-game creative workhorse? Uh, wrong.
If you don't have boundaries and protect your humanity, you don't have room to grow. Think of it like this: you decide that you're going to run a marathon, then only train by doing 800-meter sprints. There's no way you'll survive a career as a creative if you don't pace yourself and respect your limits. This is especially bad in the big creative agencies, where your tolerance for pain is often subverted due to undue expectations.
I've watched designers burn up in a ball of flame because they put every bit of themselves into their work, to the detriment of themselves, their work, and their employers. Personal investment is important, but you need the space to keep your creative self whole. Avoid that by training like a good athlete: build yourself up for the big races through cross-training and fostering a support network, get the right amount of rest, eat right, and make sure to keep a copy of The Elements of Typographic Style by your bedside if you want to keep your A-game going.
If your work is always too painful to accomplish, rethink what you're doing. Question everything: your clients, your talents, your process, your fees. Chances are, there's an imbalance in one of those four areas that needs to be rectified.
4. It's a lifelong practice, even if you don't do it every day.
You don't stop being a designer if you aren't designing 8 hours a day, or even 2 hours. Be secure in your talent. When you aren't thinking about a design problem, talent continues to exist in full measure.
5. Be sure to use both your mind and your body.
Something that surprised me about beginning yoga practice is that focusing on the body and forming discrete poses creates space in the mind for the self to well up. The same approach applies to great design work, which requires space for emotion to emerge in the design itself.
Often, we need to feel our way through the design, capture what emotion arises there in the material, and craft that raw artwork into what the job at hand requires. If you analyze things too deeply, they often fall apart or fail to contain that essential human element that resonates with people beyond ink on a page or pixels on a monitor.
Any other thoughts?