OPINION: Design your opportunities

Published:  February 20, 2014

Illustration by: Max Dalton

Text by: David Trewern, founder of creative technology agency DT and Chairman of Tractor.

For a young designer, today’s world is more competitive than ever, but it’s also filled with opportunities. If you’re a recent graduate hunting for your first design job, you may have already noticed a plethora of practical advice out there on how to polish your CV, how best to present your creative work to a potential employer or how to go about applying for a range of different jobs. But there’s also merit in keeping an eye on the bigger picture; how to prepare yourself creatively to find that ideal role, and build your creative career for the future. And as someone who has been there and now helps train our best and brightest graduates, I believe that keeping to some simple steps can be the most effective approach to ensuring you mix practical tactics with more strategic design thinking. Here are some thoughts to help get you started:

10,000 hours

According to a study referenced by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers, 10,000 hours is the amount of time you need to spend to become ‘great’ at something. Regardless as to whether it’s an AFL player, a concert pianist, or a successful Graphic Designer; 10,000 hours is the magic number. If you spend 40 hours per week doing the same thing for 4 years, you are getting close to 10,000 hours.

As the story goes, the Beatles went to Hamburg and played non-stop live gigs between 1960 and 1964. It is estimated that they spent 10,000 hours performing. By the time they returned to England, they sounded like no band that had ever existed before them. Because of 10,000 hours.

The point is that it takes a lot of hard work to make a successful career in anything. And you need to be prepared to put in the time that others don’t. Spending 10,000 hours doing something you don’t like doing is difficult. So while 10,000 hours sounds like hard work, the key is passion. It’s easy to get lost in learning when you are in your element. And that is the key to being successful. Doing what you love, and loving what you do. Albert Schweitzer put it best: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful”.

But of course there are many others who also love what they do. Real success requires passion at a higher level. And when you have that passion, 10,000 hours goes quickly. To have this sort of passion you have to be courageous. You have to have an element of faith. Keep learning, creating, and building in your own time. Gain work experience – even if it means as a lowly paid intern to start with. Keep developing your portfolio, learning new software, following your passion. If you really do this with courage, you will inch ahead.

Your Time

Most creative people dreamed of inventing something as a child. I know I did. And I used to think that everything had already been invented! Well it’s not true. The opportunity to bring something new to the world has never been greater. The world is changing at a faster rate than at any other point in history.

Much of this is to do with the continuing development of technology. Gordon Moore (founder of Intel) stated in the late 60’s that engineers would continually find ways to double the number of transistors on a computer chip roughly every 18 months. And since the late 60’s this has been true. Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2019 a $4,000 computer will be more powerful than the human brain (20 quadrillion calculations per second). And by 2029, a $1,000 computer will be 1,000 times more powerful than the human brain. Amazing!

What this means is that everything is continually being disrupted. The leaders of one generation are constantly being replaced by people from the next; people who intuitively understand how the new world works. So I come back to my point: If you are transitioning from tertiary education into your career, this is your time.

From the biggest companies in the world right down to the smallest, everyone across the globe is grappling to make sense of the new world. Companies like Kodak and Blockbuster have collapsed because they failed to understand the new world. Leaders of big businesses everywhere need digital natives. People who grew up in the world in which we now live. I don’t just mean programmers, but people who instinctively know how to communicate via social media. People who instinctively know what makes a good website experience, a good smartphone app. People who know intuitively, what it takes to build a respected brand in this new world. These people are in demand.

There is a whole new world to be invented. By your generation. Not the people 5 years older or younger. Yes they have an opportunity too, but it’s a different opportunity.

When I graduated from design school, the term ‘web designer’ didn’t yet exist. Two years later I started a web design business ( http://www.dt.com.au ). People thought I was crazy. Today that business employs 180 people across Australia. That was my time, not theirs. This is your time. There are things that you understand that I don’t. Find an employer, or an idea that can tap into your unique knowledge.

The value of creativity

My third and final piece of advice is a reminder that ideas are the most valuable commodity on the planet. Ideas are amazing things, birthed out of thin air. One minute there is nothing, and then there is an idea. An idea that could potentially change the world. A quote from the famous Apple ad: “The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones that do”. What this says to me is that you need to be bold with your creativity and aim high.

Most successful careers are really about creativity. Great accountants find creative ways to solve problems. Good doctors find creative ways to diagnose illnesses.

If you have recently graduated from Design School, you have had a very unique opportunity. You have spent the past few years developing your creative capability. 95% of people don’t get this opportunity. This is your edge.

When you have a creative career, your unique character is an advantage. It means you will develop ideas that others won’t. So it’s not just your skills that bring value to a workplace, but your unique perspective as well.

As I said at the beginning, the world is more competitive than ever. Many design school graduates won’t initially land their dream design job. Hopefully you do. And if you don’t, through passion, determination, hard work (10,000 hours) and by making the most of your time you will get there in the end. But all design school graduates have the potential to exploit their creativity, across a broad range of careers.

From the class that I graduated with in 1994, there are certainly some big name designers; David Pidgeon (Design By Pidgeon), Garth Davis who went on to become one to become one of Australia’s most successful film/TV directors (after an internship and spending a further 10,000 hours learning how to make films). Christina Re went on to start her own stationary business. Many others moved out of design altogether and went onto become successful in other areas. All have an edge, which is their creativity. The point is that even if you don’t end up with a job in design, you will always have the opportunity to use design in your job.

So in summary:
• Work hard, put in the 10,000 hours.
• Love what you do, and keep learning with passion.
• Make the most of your time.
• Use your unique talents, your edge.
• Be open-minded about jobs. It’s a big world. Many specialist areas of design are brimming with opportunity.

Remember that you have a unique talent, and wherever that happens to take you, your creativity and passion will help you get ahead.

David Trewern is founder of creative technology agency DT and Chairman of Tractor, an independent design school whose mission is to produce sought after industry ready graduates, and connect up and coming designers with senior industry creatives.

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