Staying Relevant

As I’m sure is the case with many people in my field (interactive media), I constantly get the feeling that my skill set is quickly becoming obsolete. With every passing day it seems like new technologies emerge and there are people all over the world pushing the boundaries of interactivity to a new level. So how do you compete or even keep up with all of these new technologies? You don’t. You learn to evolve and adapt your skills to relevant situations and problems. And above all, you need to let go and realize that technology will change faster than you can handle.

Of course there are things that you should be keeping up with. These are the things that keep you relevant in the field, regardless of what your field may be.

1. Read up!
I am guilty of this myself, but I have found (for the most part) that designers don’t usually like to read. Our brains like the big pretty pictures and skip over the “fuzzy grey stuff” otherwise known as copy. Well, there’s no better way to keep current and relevant than to know what’s going on in your surroundings, and most of that information is acquired by reading. Whether it’s Wired’s latest issue or yesterday’s paper, having your focus shifted to something other than design might bring fresh new insight to your thinking process.

2. Be Conceptual
Nothing brings more value to a communication piece than a strong concept. And nothing is more valuable to a design firm than someone who can come up with strong concepts on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I have come to discover that this skill is not something you can just pick up. As someone who often struggles to find strong concepts to inform design, I’m probably not the best person to give you advice on this end, but what I can say is that there is real value in thinking conceptually about a design problem.

Some things I try to do on a regular basis are word associations, where I come up with as many words as I can think of relating (either directly or indirectly) to the problem at hand. I also sketch as much as possible. It’s so easy to want to sit at the computer and nail something out, but more often than not you’ll spin your wheels for a while, and that’s precious time you can’t afford to lose.

Concept doesn’t have to be grandiose! It can be as simple as a color, a repetition of shapes, or even a witty line of copy, which brings me to my next point…

3. Learn to Write
A good designer can make something look nice. A great designer can communicate a message by partnering the right image with the right words. After all, don’t forget your key objective here is to get that message across. In order to do that, you must become well-acquainted with good writing. You know the saying: practice makes perfect! But as my ever-so-wise wife stated “perfect practice makes perfect.”

The blogosphere is a great place to start (ahem…that’s exactly what I’m doing in case you haven’t noticed). I’m not a great writer, but I know that the more I practice and the more I read, I’ll have a better command of the english language, which in turn will turn me into a better designer. Lorem ipsum can only take you so far.

4. Network
The bottom line is, it’s mostly who you know, not what you know, that gets you hired. Obviously, if your portfolio is strong enough you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding work (there’s plenty of work out there), but taking the time to network and get to know your design community is a must. As much as you may dislike the social scene (ahem – me again), it’s important to stay connected to what other people are doing. Yes, most of these networking events are geared towards stroking someone’s ego, but that is not always the case. These events are often where business connections are made, and you want to be in the middle of that to remain relevant in the field.

A good friend who also happens to be a fantastic businessman recently pointed out to me that networking inside the design community is often not enough. You should concentrate your networking efforts on businesses and business people. After all, these are the people that will most likely make the final decisions.

5. Think Strategically
I think the more you mature as a designer the more you come to realize that making something look “cool” is not always the right answer. As a designer, your challenge is to take a message and communicate it properly and effectively, yet often that message may be involving an industry or a business with which you’re not very familiar with. This is when I would suggest that you should take a step or two back, and try to look at the big picture. How does the message affect the brand? How will it be perceived by your intended target audience? How will it help your client position their product? Can your design decisions increase their return on investment?

Designers often forget that what we do is ultimately all about business. It’s about increasing product or service awareness. So think about how you achieve that goal and make strategic decisions to accomplish it.

6. Understand Trends
There will forever be a place for beautiful typography and design, whereas trends change on a yearly – perhaps monthly – basis. Train yourself on good design practices and leave the trend-following to the rookies. It’s easier to fall into the trend wagon if you don’t understand where it came from, why it’s happening, and where it’s going. Keep in mind that there are opposites to all things – where things were once bright and vibrant, they later became subdued and neutral, what was once rigid and structured became organic and flowing.

When you learn to recognize the trend, you’ll be able to anticipate the change, and you will know when your design should follow, and when it should steer clear.

7. Build Relationships
Speaking of trends makes me think of the volatility of our industry. In a field with so much creativity and individuality, high turn-over rates are almost inevitable – both with clients and employees. But you can change that by building strong relationships; true partnerships that will add value to the process. When you think strategically about a client’s needs, you begin investing some of yourself into their business. The more invested in their business you become, the more valuable you are to them as a resource, because now you understand their business and are able to give them reliable and relevant direction.

In Conclusion…
I’m in no way suggesting that you should stop trying to keep up with the constant changes in technology or design. I’m simply suggesting that it’s impossible to do so and keep your sanity. Instead, figure out the best way to keep relevant in your field and pursue that. There will always be a younger, more hip recent grad with fresh ideas, but your seasoned approach to problem-solving will more often than not give you the upper hand. The more well-rounded as a person you become, the greater the chance that you will remain relevant regardless of where the trend wave takes you.