As a creative person, I can tell you that no two projects that I’ve worked on have been identical. Some I’ve taken on without knowing how to actually complete them. The first time I did this was for a family of icons for Hewelett Packard. I hadn’t done something like that before and wasn’t even sure that I could get all of the icons to look like they were stylistically in the same family. While I was thrilled to have the project and needed the money, I was pretty scared of how things would turn out.
Looking back, it’s a mystery to me why the art director that hired me, had so much trust in my abilities. Several weeks and many rounds of icons later, I was able to pull it off. That experience became an important lesson in my career. One that taught me that if I can solve problems, then there’s an infinite number of things that I can do within the realm of design. (This bit is universally applicable…not just in design)
My dated thinking had gotten me into a habit of taking on only the things that I was really good at…because then I wouldn’t have to deal with the responsibilities of failure or whatever intermediary stages lead up to failure. What I’m speaking of is not a form of bravado or arrogance. For example, most designers own X-Acto blades but that doesn’t mean that they’re up for some light surgery. I’m talking more about broadening one’s capacity/appetite for learning on the job. One of the tricks to doing so has to do with convincing yourself and your client that you can totally do a great job with their project, even if it’s unchartered territory as far as you’re concerned.
Last year I started working on the design of a 200-page book for a client. I had never designed a book before and technically didn’t even know how to set up my files properly. Nevertheless, it was a project that I’d always wanted to work on. These were some of the steps that I took to get through something that I’d never done before:
- Took a mental note of what pieces of the project I did know how to do and compared those with what I needed to learn.
- Ordered a manual for the application that I was going to work with in terms of setting up the book, which would allow me to deal with the technical challenges that I would experience during the process.
- At times when I ran into problems that I couldn’t solve, I would work on a different part of the book that I could gain traction on and would revisit the existing problem later with a fresh brain.
- The physical act of working on something consistently cultivates a familiarity and understanding that develops as a byproduct of the process of showing up. This recurring effort helps to build your confidence.
One of the things that I’ve come to understand is that in most cases, there are several if not more solutions to a problem. Creating space to have options when you problem solve, allows for better results. There’s this little mantra that I developed and I’m not even sure where it came from but it goes something like, “The more you do, the more you can do.” It’s very, The Little Engine that Could, sort of thinking, in that our capabilities exceed the mental constructs that we often create for ourselves. Within the same scope of what I’ve been talking about, Tony Robbin’s TED talk delves into the specifics of it all.
I hope that when new opportunities present themselves to you, that you don’t shy away from them because you’ve wired yourself to be a specialist—to the point that you want to do what you’ve always done. It can be much more exciting to try your hand at something new that stimulates your mind into solving new problems.