Danni Kane has worked as a graphic designer since 2012. Kane is a Senior Designer for High Alpha. A graduate of IUPUI/Herron’s Viscom department, Kane has been a member of the Indy creative community since the start of her career. She also currently serves on the board for Indy Design Week. Kane is celebrating her first decade in the field this year.
Looking back at some of the most pivotal lessons I’ve learned over the last 10 years of my design career, it occurred to me how nice it was to take a moment and appreciate all I’ve gained. Through this self-reflection, I have found three absolute truths I’ve learned and continue to hone in on as a designer. Though there are plenty of articles out there advising new faces in the field, I did not see much written about these truths (or at least, not written about in the way I wanted to see them written – hence, this article!). Centering my professional goals on these three truths has helped me get to where I am, and they are lessons I wish I had learned as my younger self: embrace structure, study the art of resilience, and (everyone’s favorite) learn to effectively communicate.
Embrace the Virtue of Structure
My relationship with structure began as a negative but has slowly evolved to a positive. At the beginning of my design career, I rejected structure. Initially, I was simply not self-aware enough to realize its importance. By the time I was in art school, ’structure’ was a four-letter word – quickly deemed as a hindrance to the creative process (Maybe you’ve seen that Master class ad where David Carson tells you “never snap to guide”).
I can’t say it was a very unique stance for an art student at the time. We all had one or two rebellious tendencies. Heading into my final years of school and going through internships was perhaps the most insidious form of structure’s rejection, the dogma of, “Oh, I’ll definitely remember to do that” or “No need to write that down, I’ll remember the details”. Nope, no, I didn’t and no, you won’t.
No matter your current relationship with organization and lists, it is important to reframe an understanding of structure as a beautiful virtue to cultivate. It gives direction and purpose to everyday tasks. When paired with a powerful force like creativity, it will bring your work to the next level. I like to think of structure as similar to putting the guard rails up when bowling. It’s not cheating, you see the pins at the end of the lane, it should be an easy shot right? You get to focus on the game all the while you are chatting with friends, and you’ve finished a beer between frames 5 and 6.
To bring the metaphor back to the workplace: another meeting gets put onto your calendar, a new task was sent over via email, and then another through Slack. Give yourself some space to breathe, make a plan, pull up the bumpers. It can be as simple as asking more detailed questions about the outcome of the task. Ask questions that create guard rails for your creative energy.
Being a creative is chaotic. Give yourself structure and parameters. It is an act of kindness and meditation that allows for deeper and higher-quality work.
Go Ahead, Call it a Comeback
In all aspects of life, there will be setbacks. We spend a good majority of our waking lives working, so it stands to reason that there will be quite a few along our career path. The most important way to measure a setback has very little to do with the setbacks themselves. Instead, it is our resilience or “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties – toughness” (Oxford Languages). Resilience, like other skills, can be strengthened with practice over time.
I have found the most helpful tools to build my own resilience have come with a little help from my friends, family, and co-workers. A trusted support network helps you reframe a rough patch as a challenge and you find your footing when you’re ready to pick yourself back up. I can remember several unexpected challenges that have cropped up throughout my design career. A few of them felt more world-shattering than others.
Ego and pride told me to hide my failings – if I hid them under a thin veil, maybe they would disappear. I was fortunate to have a mentor who brought up my problem points in a space where I could deal with them. She helped to guide me through the challenge, giving me more confidence for the next time. She taught me how to take the hit and keep going.
A funny thing about resilience: as you become stronger, the size of challenges on your radar also continues to grow. Luckily, they will not feel as big as they might have a few years before. All the small things will become more manageable. They might not even register as challenges anymore. For instance, if an internal meeting did not go according to plan, it will still feel less stressful than it did a few years prior. Until a moment of reflection, you might not even realize it’s getting easier.
Learn a ‘second language’
Now I don’t mean a second language in the sense of learning German, French, or Spanish. Communication styles and industry lingo acts have much of the same nuances though.
Once you have an idea of your professional goals, take an inventory of people you are likely to communicate with on your way there. Are there developers along the path? A few business-minded folks; MBAs or CEOs? Maybe a few community builders? Each group has knowledge and experience that will change the way they talk about a challenge. This begins in school and becomes more specific the higher the education we pursue. We learn a type of shorthand specific to our chosen professions. This makes communication with similarly minded people very efficient; as a designer speaking with other designers for instance we can say half as much to each other and convey twice as much as we could with a non-designer.
One of the biggest ‘aha!’ moments came when working together with a business-minded coworker – we were working to understand a new challenge space. While talking through the space he continually used statements that to my ear seemed very confident and assured. I took this to mean he had a more solid understanding of the space than I did (even though we were both equally new to it). What I didn’t understand at the time was that making statements was his way of verbally working to understand the space. He had just as many uncertainties as I did, but was communicating them in a style that I was unfamiliar with.
We were both looking for a verbal partner to bat ideas around but had opposing styles. There would be times where I would say something in the form of a question that was not actually a question. Non-question questions were a valid communication tool when used with other designers only because we had developed it as a shorthand. In this new context, questions meant uncertainty or a lack of confidence. Which was a subtext I was not intending to convey. I’m not saying true questions are negative, quite the opposite! In this conversation, something was just lost in translation. Knowing this now, I have been able to adjust my communication for more effective problem solving within the group.
Take an inventory of your professional goals and make an effort to work with those who have a different professional background. Learn their style of communication and learn the industry language! It can also be helpful to double back when you notice something might’ve been misunderstood. Communication is a living language.
At the end of the day, a lot of professional goals are individualized. We all go through a different process and it will continue to change as we go along. This is only a snapshot of a few things I have learned along my journey. The important takeaway: set professional goals and then find what you need to do (or not do) to meet those goals.
Below, I’ve listed some outside articles that helped me while I was reflecting on this piece. Check them out, but don’t get bogged down reading too many opinions. You know yourself and what you want to do. Happy hunting!
SMART goals: https://resources.betterup.co/smart-goals-quick-overview?language=en.xml
Ultra-Smart Goals: https://www.lifehack.org/805783/professional-goals-examples
Building Resilience: https://hbr.org/2016/06/627-building-resilience-ic-5-ways-to-build-your-personal-resilience-at-work