Be at the top of your game: 13 lessons on creative progress from artists and designers
To help, we asked our community for their best advice on creative progress, and we share their top tips below. Disclaimer: you never stop learning or growing – that's part of the fun, so don't worry if you're already well into your career and still figuring things out: that's normal. But we hope the following advice is helpful and reassuring.
1. Be honest
When you're struggling to achieve success, it's tempting to try and project an image of infallibility. But in reality, it's normal to make mistakes. And web designer and photographer Mike Hindle believes that honesty is the best policy, not just morally but from a career point of view, too.
"When you make a monumental fuck up, as we all do from time to time, be 100% open about it with your client while explaining how you'll fix it," he advises. They will respect your honesty. Some of my best clients are a result of this very moment."
2. Be patient with clients
As well as honesty, clients will appreciate your patience. Yes, it's natural to want to dive into the creative process and start producing work. But sometimes, that's premature, and it's important to wait until you've truly nailed the concept and got everybody on board.
"When you get into a feedback loop with a client, which feels like pedantic pixel pushing, it's often because they feel that something isn't right, but they can't articulate why," explains Nick Ellis, creative partner and founder of Halo Studio. "Sometimes, you just have to start again." Or, as brand strategy director Paul Bailey puts it: "Sometimes a step backwards is required before you can move forwards."
3. Get a mentor
When you're starting out, everyone will tell you to stick to your goals, get your head down, and focus on your dreams. But it's also good to check in with others along the way.
"I think my biggest mistake was to run in the wrong direction at full speed without even knowing!" says artist and designer June Mineyama-Smithson. "So first I got a mentor from the Business & IP Centre and also been working with a business coach and co-mentor Dani Molyneux to keep myself in check."
4. Find your niche
As humans, it's natural to want to please others. But trying to be all things to all people can lead you away from your true passions and ultimately damage your prospects for career success.
That's a lesson that award-winning conceptual illustrator Ollie Hirst learned the hard way. "For me, it was a big deal to realise it's okay to be niche and lean into your interests," he recalls. "Trying to illustrate everything wasn't a successful strategy for me. I've found much more success staying true to myself."
Artist Paul Phillips tells a similar story. "One piece of advice that surprised me was that I should concentrate on the aspect of design I was best at," he recalls. "My portfolio included a bit of everything from photography to video to illustration. People get confused by too much variation, so I'd recommend you figure out where you excel and focus on that."
5. Stay open to change
Finding a niche, though, doesn't mean you have to stick to it forever. A creative career is about evolving, so stay open to new ideas.
In the words of textile artist and illustrator Jess Taylor: "Don't pigeonhole yourself, keep experimenting and playing. The best way to keep growing is to try things out. Even if perceived wisdom says your idea won't work, chances are perceived wisdom could be wrong. And you might learn something that will take you somewhere exciting."
6. Surround yourself with positivity
The creative community is generally an upbeat group of people, but not universally so. So make sure others aren't holding you back. "The single biggest lesson I've learnt since going solo with my consultancy, Second Mountain Comms is this: surround yourself with positive people," says Ben Veals. "Take every chance you can to collaborate, interact and learn from good folks – and also be attuned to and avoid negativity."
Head adds that real progress comes when you stop comparing yourself to others and lean into your individual strengths. "Take time to learn what you enjoy creatively and how you thrive," Ben says. "And then be willing to say 'no' to work that isn't a good fit for you."
7. Make lots of mistakes
Positivity, though, isn't the same as perfection. While others might want to project images of perfect lives and careers on Instagram, we all know there's no such thing in reality. And anyway, whenever you talk to the most famed and successful creatives, they'll all tell you that making mistakes is an essential part of growing as a creative.
Take Ian Anderson, founder of The Designers Republic. His best advice is: "Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them. Do what makes you happy whenever you can. Failure on your own terms is better than success on someone else's."
Graphic designer and type enthusiast Rohit Sharma agrees. "Don't stress about making it perfect!" he urges. "There is beauty in disorder and chaos, and nothing will ever be perfect. Instead, strive for continual improvement. Look at the bigger picture."
8. Take breaks
Working hard is essential for success as a creative. But that doesn't mean all the time! Make sure you set aside time for breaks and holidays, or you'll burn yourself out.
As illustrator and artist Frannie Gee puts it: "Take a step now and then, to appreciate things and people around you, and in general, just rest. I think overworking has had a negative impact on my work. Things just flow better when you slow down."
Graphic designer Megan Vickers agrees. "Spending my time for myself is so important," she says. "It gives the chance to do nothing and step away from work. I've learnt that you can't be creative all the time, and you need to take a break."
9. Think big
Some of the most creative solutions come from limitations: as the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. So as award-winning writer Lita Doolan advises: "Go large: even on a small budget, you can think big. Use open spaces to create the work and pick out discarded stuff to create the biggest version of an idea. There's joy in a big vision."
10. Be yourself
The best thing about being a creative is that there are a near-infinite number of ways to approach your career. And yet ironically, if you spend too much time on social media, you can get pulled into a stifling conformism.
"For the longest time, I was trying to be 'the right kind' of designer," recalls art director and designer Khyati Trehan. "Jump cut to years of working across industries and types of design studios, I've learnt that there's more than one right way of doing something. There are a lot of rights."
11. Focus on the work
Just in case you haven't got the message yet, the best way to progress your creative career is to focus on the work rather than what other people are doing, saying or (supposedly) thinking. Scandinavian interiors blogger Nomita puts it simply. "The biggest lesson I've learned is that my job as a creative is to create. Not to judge my work or to judge whether others will like it."
12. Turn negatives into positives
Even if you follow all of this advice, you'll still encounter challenges, failures and a lot of negativity in your career. But when life gives you lemons, you can still make lemonade.
As visual artist Clare Taylor advises: "Turn terrible clients into advice for others. Be generous with experiences, so others don't have to endure pain! In effect, share what works, what doesn't, expectations, and how to handle the situation. My biggest personal progress has been learning to say 'no'!"
13. Be proactive
In some careers, you can sometimes be lucky enough for success to land in your lap. In a creative career, though, that's never going to happen: you have to make your own luck.
As graphic designer Tony Clarkson puts it: "If there's something you'd like to try, get on with it before you talk yourself out of it. Send that email, write that book, enter that work, phone that number." Creative coach Kristy Martino adds: "One of the biggest lies you can tell yourself is that you have to wait for inspiration to strike. Instead, always be making a fire. Keep hitting the flint, and you are bound to get sparks."