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  • September 29, 2011

Escape the Fear Factory

With my Pittsburgh roots comes a 30+ year fandom of the NHL hockey team the Pittsburgh Penguins. But one of my favorite Pens memories didn’t happen during a game; it was actually a text message. A message sent by owner and legendary player, Mario Lemieux, to the team and coaches Decorative Illustration before decisive game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals.

Clear underdogs for the final game, the team awoke that day of the game to this bit of inspiration:

Play without fear and you will be successful!

I can’t help but think about this statement in relation to the current state of the web design industry. Are we working in a fear-free environment? I can’t say that we are; it feels like there’s a dark cloud hanging ‘round. This negativity is like the angry blob slowly oozing out of the Phoenixville Colonial Theater. It’s dastardly mission is seemingly to lodge doubt and fear into the mindset of hard working web designers everywhere. This hive-mind secretion provides no positive alternative: it bluntly decrees what we must do and know. But do I have the specific skills to actually live up to the title on my business card? According to the blob, I don’t, and perhaps you don’t either.

We should stop being frauds and just quit, right?

Of course not.

This continual land-grabbing for ownership of the term “web designer” seems silly and counterproductive. Isn’t the Internet big enough for all of us? I’d be lying if all this chatter hasn’t rattled my confidence a bit. When these moments of insecurity arise, I have to rely on my experience to remind me that I’m good enough, smart enough, and gosh… you know the rest. So how do we avoid the blob? Take a look in your own mirror and say these three mantras.

You are passionate about what you do.

Think quickly of a designer who has inspired you. Are you able to quantify exactly how you were inspired? Those fleeting and often intoxicating moments can be hard to define. But think about a designer who didn’t inspire you; someone whose presence fell flat. Pinpointing specific attributes of failure is easier. You likely saw evidence of uncertainty, apathy, or doubt.

Somewhere during their sad existence, these designers lost their passion. Luckily, I know the antidotes and am happy to share.

Do you create design? Express yourself excitably when talking about your work. Project Kickoff meetings are a great opportunity to demonstrate how much you care about the craft of design. Here at the ‘Cog, we ensure that graphic design is a hearty portion of our workshop-driven Kickoffs. It provides our design leads with opportunities to establish our passion for creating a quality product.

Do you sell design? Share your design values with your clients. Not a conversation after you’ve delivered the work, but a clear manifesto of your design ethics even before you’ve opened Photoshop. During the sales process or during the Kickoff meeting, demonstrate evidence of your specific design ethos. Then when you bring solutions to the table, clients can understand their origin and have better insight into what motivates your work.

Proudly own the responsibility of shepherding smart and beautiful design. When discussing the merits of your work, don’t be afraid to battle for the strongest ideas. Ask many questions to better understand the nature of your client’s feedback. No one was ever fired from a gig for asking someone to explain their reasoning behind a criticism.

When you disagree, argue your points with logic and purpose. You won’t win every fight, but you’ll earn the reputation of being a stalwart of quality and intention. Recently I had to stick my Creative Director neck out for our concept to one of our large clients. A few long Basecamp posts and an hour long conference call got us back on track. If I had not taken the extra time to ensure our vision stayed true, I would have been kicking myself for as long as that site was live. No one wants to stare at missed opportunities. No one wants to live with regret.

You’ll always have ideas.

If you’ve been at this for awhile, you know that creativity isn’t a well. There will never be a morning that doesn’t contain the same creative potential as the previous. Yet, what designer hasn’t agonized about the idea factory in their noggin grinding to a halt prematurely? Thankfully, the more experienced have learned that creativity isn’t divine. It’s based in process and hard work.

Consequently many young designers fear process; they irrationally push away the sense that they are automating creativity. But by allowing a design process to relieve some of the burden of the “how,” designers can be free to focus on the “what.” This is nothing new; Ellen Lupton’s Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming. provides one hundred thirty-six techniques for generating results. A casual read-through will inspire and (re)acquaint you with the notion that not all great design is a result of light bulbs and lightning strikes. Great design often comes from just working smarter.

You must succeed.

What’s the expected retirement age these days? 80? (Best stay sharp, Cashdollar.) Watching my 401k dwindle reminds me there is always work to be done, and there is always opportunity for improvement. Fear keeps me sufficiently curious and striving to evolve into a smarter, faster, each-day-is-slightly-better-than-the-last-day designer. Fears help us recognize the consequences of our actions (or in-actions) and change behaviors for the better. Subsequently, repeated behaviors become habits. Shut the baby gate. Check the oil. Always place iPhone in front, left pants pocket.

Fear is powerful. What other options do we have? Mortgages, families, and recreational kickball leagues all demand our money and our time. Are they going anywhere? Are our lives getting less expensive? It’s not likely.

Failure is not an option. To paraphrase Ian Mackaye, this is a life-thing; there is no back-up career or family business to fall back on. I will fight to make this work regardless of what the blob is blathering about. Fear will not keep me from helping my clients, learning as much as I can from my talented peers, and creating something beautiful every day I step into the office.

But who won the Cup?

The Penguins won that fateful final game and brought the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh. Of course the team had the talent to win, but that short communication gave them license to relax in a very stressful situation. They were able to enjoy the moment and just do their job. Simply put, Mario’s message took the fear out of the fear of losing.

Sadly, not all of our bosses can send us morning motivational text messages before big days. And we can’t win every time, of course. Perhaps someday, we will be the New York Yankees of web design, but until then, all we can do is focus on what we do well. The more curious and more engaged of us will survive just fine. Seriously, how fast can a blob really move?

How do you “play without fear” in your job?

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