Doctors practice medicine. Attorneys have a law practice. But it’s uncommon for most creative professionals to talk about their work as a “practice,” and that’s a shame. How do you practice?
To reach and maintain a level of skill requires ongoing learning and development in order to stay current and effective, but it doesn’t end there. The worst thing about “best practices” is the trap of aiming for a standard as if it’s a fixed target – and a guarantee of success – instead of something that can continually be improved.
Practicing well is a career-long pursuit.
Practice makes perfect
During the pandemic, my son picked up his sister’s under-used guitar and started messing around. There were no formal lessons. He learned by trial and error. Before long, he had the guitar in his hands every single day – sometimes for hours at a time. He kept pushing the boundaries of his knowledge, kept improving, and now he writes and performs his own songs.
About ten years prior, I received an acoustic guitar as a birthday present. I practiced more sporadically, learned some basic chords, and a few favorite songs. My improvement has been slowed by a reluctance to struggle with more difficult techniques in my limited spare time.
We both enjoy playing, and we’ve both improved at the things we practice. Is it perfect? Hardly. Perfection shouldn’t be the goal. Even with lots of practice, real growth only comes from getting out of your comfort zone and embracing the hard parts.
There are several ways that poor habits can undermine the effectiveness of your design and marketing efforts:
- Aim low. If the client asks you to “just make it look nice,” it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the designer’s role. When you start a project without establishing goals, and assessing audience needs, it’s just window dressing. As Steve Jobs once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
- One and done. Launching a brand, website, or fundraising campaign is a heavy lift, but it requires as much care and attention post-launch as it does leading up to the big reveal. A successful creative practice requires both thinking three steps ahead, and recalibrating tactics based on results. You can’t just set it and forget it.
- Consistency breeds complacency. What’s wrong with doing the exact same thing, the exact same way, every single time? Over time, consistency becomes monotony and loses its effectiveness. Consider exercise. The human body will become more efficient at whatever it is asked to repeat. But after a few months, while you may feel psychological benefits, the physical benefits can diminish. In a dynamic environment, keeping your marketing fresh – like changing exercise routines – is a better practice.
- Shiny object syndrome. On the other side of the consistency coin is the tactical practitioner with a short attention span. Trying things and learning from mistakes is a smart way to improve performance and deliver value. Change direction too soon, however, and you may not see the benefits of your investment. Practice requires discipline.
A culture of learning
There are many endeavors – often hobbies – that we fully understand the need to practice if we wish to improve. Maybe it’s because – unlike work – hobbies are supposed to be fun. Maybe there is too much anxiety around or attachment to a specific outcome. No matter the cause, a culture of learning seems less common in professional settings.
Lawyers lose cases despite their best efforts. Sometimes a doctor’s prescription doesn’t deliver a cure. When designers – and problem solvers of all kinds – are unsuccessful, it is often due to unknowns.
The ability to accept ambiguity – and trust that the process is sound – separates those who continuously learn and improve from those who don’t.
Practice what you preach
It takes humility and curiosity to continue learning – and improving – whether that’s exploring emerging tools like artificial intelligence, or learning a more challenging song on guitar.
Many years ago, I took a class at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design called “Creative Problem Solving” by Jerry Allan. One of the lessons: “When faced with two choices, always choose the one you are less familiar with. You will learn more. And you can always go back to the more familiar option if the other one doesn’t work out.”
The origin of the word “practice” simply means “to do.” A more nuanced use of the word includes “to do with the intent of learning; to rehearse.” We must continually study and redesign our practices, to understand what we’ve done, and to become better designers.
For more thoughts on practicing design, read Lessons in Brand Improvisation.
Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter