Written by Nguyen Le

As I sat down at my desk today pondering what to write. I came to the realisation that hey I’ve been doing this for a while. 15 years of my professional design career has kind of flown by. They say time flies when you’re having fun, which has been true, but even so my career has had its share of ups and downs. Fortunately more ups than downs.

I started my career at the beginning of 2007. From what started as a hobby in my high school years turned into a professional career. And through that I think I’ve had a pretty interesting career so far and have learnt a thing or two.

Today I’d like to share with you, some of my key tips and insights as to what I’ve learnt over the last 15 years.

These are some of my personal lessons that I hope to pass on to you. Consider these bite sized tips and lessons of wisdom that can hopefully help you on your own journey. You don’t have to agree with everything but for my own career I’ve found them to be useful and most of all to be true. Hopefully you get a ton of value out of these bite sized lessons. There’s quite a few so feel free to bookmark this and refer to them at different points in your career.

35 Tips and Reflections from my Career

  1. When you are working on a project. Consider the business and user objectives. Good design is the execution of form and function that delivers on these 2 objectives. If you can do that you will be a valuable designer. If you can cultivate and lead a team to amplify this you will be an extremely valuable designer.
  2. Have self awareness. As you move up the ranks as a designer you will inherently become a director or a business owner. This will mean managing people, more client meetings, winning proposals etc. Think is this what I want? There’s nothing wrong with being a craftsman or a business person or both. But think and contemplate deeply about what gives meaning to the work that you do. And ultimately what makes you happiest. You can always turn down that management position. There are always options.
  3. If you want to be successful - you have to work hard. It’s that simple. There’s no way around it. You can condense the timeframe for sure. But to think you can skip the hard work is a lie. Hard work is always needed. Even when you work smart.
  4. Throughout your career and life. There will always be problems. Problems are a natural part of life. Learn to deal with problems.

    Marcus Aurelius book Meditations is one I read often
  5. Surround yourself with good work, and good people. Naturally your bar for excellence and what you can accomplish will increase. Put in the work and you’ll bridge the gap in pay, work quality and wealth to those around you. If you surround yourself with multi-millionaires you will think like a multi-millionaire. If you surround yourself with good designers - you will become a good designer. If you put in the work. You are the average of the 5 people closest to you. But also who you pay attention to the most. Follow the works of great philosophers, designers and people you admire. In books and videos. Your attention shows your priorities.
  6. If possible try to create more than you consume. Making is more fun that consuming in the long run.
  7. Using a grid in your work makes vertical and horizontal spacing easier and more consistent. Have the discipline to use a grid!
  8. All work is a grind. There is no end game. Or utopian land where everything is gravy. The journey is the destination. When the grind becomes fun. Work is no longer work. But merely a process and play.
  9. Tough moments in your career, are incredible lessons. You learn more in failures than you do in success. This has turned out to be true. Whilst it severely sucks in the moment. It tests your perseverance and capacity to deal with problems. Looking back it’s these moments that make you grateful for the journey you’ve been on. Embrace the tough moments. Your character will improve as you go through them.
  10. Learn how to use type. It’s one of the best skills you can have as a designer. Get my type playbook for free if you want a beginner resource.
  11. If a picture is worth 1000 words. A prototype is worth much more. You gotta know how to prototype.
  12. Learn about marketing and business. Early on in my career I didn’t give 2 shits about business objectives. Make cool things was the mantra. But if you want to make an impact with the work that you do. Learning marketing and business acumen is one of the best things you can do. Businesses make an impact. Design lead businesses can make an even bigger one.
  13. Freelancing is awesome. But after 5 years. It’s definitely not for everyone. It can be tough at times. Trying to run an indie business - is like jumping out of a plane while trying to build your parachute mid air. Your goal is to build the parachute before you hit the ground and die. But the rewards far exceed the risk for some.
  14. Save good work somewhere. And READ.
  15. As a good leader, lead by being an example.
  16. You have to keep learning and improving your capabilities and skillset. This industry waits for no one.

    I use mymind to gather inspiration and bits and bobs
  17. Explore and gather inspiration from different mediums not just the medium you are working in. If you are doing digital design, look to film, architecture, photography, print, graphic design, people, etc. to gather inspiration. It will give another dimension to your work.
  18. Company culture is super important. When you work with other passionate people - your work mates become your second family.
  19. Work life balance can work for most. But I believe work life integration fits best. Granted work is play.
  20. Save and invest your money. Should you ever choose to go in a different direction. It’s always sound to have some f*ck you money.
  21. Grow your network. Reach out to as many people you respect and admire as possible. Join the conversation. Our industry while large - at its core it’s really all about relationships and people. It is quite small in that regard.
  22. We are really privileged to be designers and creators. Don’t take it for granted.
  23. Invest in yourself throughout your career. What you learn compounds and pays massive dividends down the track.
  24. Learn to communicate your ideas with developers, project managers, clients, other designers. Your ability to SELL and present your work is nearly as valuable as creating good work.
  25. When setting up a folio - showcase the kind of work that you want to do moving forward. Think about what your value proposition is to prospective employers and clients. Tell a story.
  26. When designing try to think in terms of what the user wants to achieve. And how it ties overall into the experience of the product, website, app, or interface.
  27. Learn to interview and talk to users and gain insights from people. Synthesizing disparate bits of information and rationalising and being able to join the dots is what makes you a designer. Learn to synthesize and join the dots into sound solutions.
  28. Take one small step at a time. I know you want to do all sorts of things. But it’s every small step that you take that turns into a massive journey that’s your career. You’ll look back and realised you’ve generated millions of dollars, reached millions of people, worked for some dream brands, created positive change for many
  29. You're probably not getting paid as much as you could be. Research and find constructive and friendly ways to negotiate higher pay. Both as an employee or freelancer. It costs more money to replace you than to give you a pay rise.
  30. Be an independent thinker. Carve out time to build self awareness. What values do you have? What is important to you? What kind of work is with while? What kind of company is worth keeping?
  31. Start building an email list, and a social presence. Share what you know with others and share your work.
  32. Take the criticism. If you stand for something. People will love you or hate you. It’s ok. Stick to your values and you’ll be golden.
  33. Take the criticism #2. It’s ok if people don’t like your work. It’s not a criticism of you just your work. Go back to the drawing board and try to improve it.
  34. Your work is just one tree in the forest that is life. Don't forget to look around and admire the view.
  35. Have fun along the way

And that’s some of my takeaways, I’m sure there are a bunch more that I’ve missed, but I hope these reflections serve you well.