During the first chunk of my design career—about eight years spent in 2 full-time jobs—I didn’t get many “thank-yous”.

The work I was doing was pretty good, I think, and got nominated for a few awards.

But I wasn’t a well-known designer, so I didn’t get much exposure or feedback from beyond the studio. And if someone was sending messages of thanks, it was usually my bosses getting them, not me.

I’m not bitter about this by the way… I had little interest in being ‘famous’ (as a designer this is relative anyway), and the creative process itself was enough to keep me motivated… at first.

Sometimes the work alone isn’t enough

Often as a designer, you don’t work for the most deserving cause, much as you would like to. Instead, you end up designing for the people who want—and can afford—to hire you. The design is a service industry after all, not an art form. (As any newly-hatched design student soon realises).

But this helps explain the lingering feeling I had that the work I was doing wasn’t that useful.

I knew that the websites I was designing wouldn’t be around for long. And I started to wonder what I’d be doing when I was older… somehow graphic design wasn’t part of the picture.

Ironically, it was only when I quit my full-time design job, back in 2012, that I got a bunch of thank-yous all at once, from my bosses and clients. (And some cupcakes, delivered by courier :)

Does that mean that my work wasn’t valued the rest of the time? That I didn’t value it myself?

I don’t think so.

But I was certainly lacking in motivation.

Perhaps this quote provides a clue why:

“Design is all too often used as an attractive costume for a so-so idea” — John Maeda

When it’s used right, design can make the world a better place.

It’s just that a lot of the time the improvements that designers go unnoticed by the general public. “Good design is invisible” etc.

Which might help explain why after a long stint in the industry, design wasn’t making me feel good anymore. In fact, it contributed to me feeling truly terrible for a while.

There were a lot of factors contributing to my burnout/depression, and not all of them were job-related.

But I do know that I’d lost touch with my motivation… and that I felt disconnected from people/the world as a result.

Looking back, I’d neglected to think about some important stuff, like…

What motivates you to do “good” work?

What rewards (other than money) are you seeking from your career?

If you neglect your self-worth, work can never be truly fulfilling.

Partly because the people around us don’t hold back from setting out THEIR idea of what constitutes a practical way forwards.

Unless you’re a saint, your work has to make YOU feel good, as well as other people.

And in the long run, everyone benefits when you find your flow, not just you.

So it’s not selfish to find a way of working which makes you feel fulfilled.

How, though?

Well, I don’t have any easy answers for you.

Just some big, complicated, life-defining questions that might help :)

Three questions to help you evaluate what ‘good’ means in relation to your career:

  1. Will it make me happy?
  2. Will it be good for me in the long-term?
  3. Will it be useful to other people?

Over the past few years, I’ve gradually figured out that design doesn’t tick all three of these boxes for me. While I’m grateful that I can make a good living from the profession, I can’t see myself being a designer in twenty years time. And when I write, it feels like I’m helping more people—lots more people!—than I do when I make good-looking websites.

By using these questions as touch-points, you can start to get a sense of what matters most to you.

For example…

Q1) Will it make me happy?

Happiness is a hell of hard thing to define, but you’ll know for sure when it’s missing from your life.

If you’re not sure what you want to do, try as many things as possible by running short—but intense—experiments. Immerse yourself in a new field or hobby as deeply as possible, and see how you feel about it after a few months. If you hate it… no biggie, just move on to something else.

If nothing else, give yourself permission to do the things that YOU want to, instead of the things other people expect you to.

Q2) Will it be good for me in the long-term?

You can’t only pursue happiness of course… you need a strategy of some kind.

This doesn’t necessarily mean defining an end goal, but it does mean thinking ahead further than the next year or so.

Forget “Jack of all trades, master of none” and embrace “Jack of some trades, master of one or two”. In the new world of work where careers are more fluid than ever before, having multiple skills—which you can take with you as you move jobs—makes you more employable. (And the ability to quickly assimilate new skills becomes an asset in itself). Stay curious, and keep learning. Embrace self-autonomy. Being in control of the work you do (and how you do it) is a surefire way to make you feel good. This might mean going freelance, starting your own business, or simply having a fun side project where you’re 100% in control. Whatever it comes from, accountability will keep you engaged AND accelerate your performance.

Q3) Will it be useful to other people?

Usefulness is the third piece of the puzzle in evaluating what ‘good’ means — because pursuing only your own happiness and well-being won’t be fulfilling for long.

If in doubt, do things that people will be grateful for.

For instance, if I’m stuck for something to write about, I pick a question that someone has asked me, and turn it into a blog post. The bonus is that instead of emailing the answer to just one person, multiple people can benefit from what I’ve written.

Useful is also good because people pay money for useful things.

Building stuff that people (a) want (b) will pay money for is an excellent way to start a business.

So go ahead. You can pursue purpose AND profit at the same time without feeling like a slimy salesperson. (I’m still working on this, I must admit.) Imposter syndrome is almost a given for any sane person — but you don’t have to be crippled by it.

Further reading on figuring out your career path

Career advice requires deep thought and much scratching of heads and/or facial hair, and I’m not claiming to be an expert.

There are huge questions involved, like:

And one of the biggest stumbling blocks of all:

(Short answer: Nope! There’s no such thing as a “one true calling”, and working right trumps finding the “right” work in the long run.)

If you’re feeling stuck with your career/purpose, I’d urge you to read Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, which does an incredible job of debunking the “follow your passion” myth.

And if you feel trapped by your (design) job, read this article I wrote about defining your why.

Posted to Graphic Design, Life in 2016.

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