Make your design career a reality through the power of passion

GUEST ARTICLE by Ally E. HardgraveIf you would like to write for Millo, contact me.

Passion is a critical ingredient for success. We all can fall trap, however, to life’s constraints and suddenly wake up to find that the last thing driving us day to day is genuine zeal. I recently made the decision to actively pursue my love for graphic design no matter what stood in my way.
Unfortunately, as a realist who probably seeks rationale a bit too much, I asked myself why I thought I could make any progress pursuing a professional design career when I’m on the cusp of finishing my degree in Marketing.
I contacted three of my favorite designers, Brian Hoff, Chris Spooner & Millo’s own Preston D Lee, to get their opinions on pursuing a design dream without the formal education to back it up. Across the board, they all agreed that passion was the key ingredient to being a successful designer, not the fancy paper framed in your office. Each one of them had an interesting contribution to the topic at hand:

Brian Hoff twitter | website
“Reading books, analyzing design, collecting design, reading blogs…. all will help [you] to learn and understand design. Formal education is nothing more than “forced” learning, meaning that you have set times you go to class, set subject matter that you study, set test dates, etc. but if you apply this to your own passion you can learn on your own. It’s all about passion and dedication.”

Chris Spooner twitter | website
“…I’ve always said that most of my knowledge and skills have been learned through self-teaching, experimenting and following tutorials online. I always recommend for people to simply get stuck in and enjoy what they’re doing, and don’t worry too much about the certificates!”

Check out our most recent podcast episode:

Preston D Lee twitter | website
“Design is about the perfect fusion of passion and knowledge. Your passion has to come from within you and your knowledge has to come from a lot of dedicated study and practice… Just educate yourself. It doesn’t matter HOW, just get educated about design. Mix that with your passion to create, and you’ll be successful.”

Why is passion so powerful for aspiring designers?

Passion Comes from a Pure Source
When I become inspired and start to sketch, brainstorm or toy around in Photoshop, it’s because I want to: I’m not doing it to impress anyone else and I’m not being forced to produce. Aspiring freelance designers like myself simply create at will. When your drive has no obligatory motive, whatever it is you are trying to accomplish will flourish without fail.

Passion Leads to Productivity
When you get to spend your time doing exactly what you want to do, do you simply squander it away? Of course not! Your free time is the last thing you want to waste. Passion leads to productivity no matter what your personal work style. I never feel that I’m “slaving away” when I’m executing a personal project or even when I’m working on something for a client, because in the end, I’m designing and that alone motivates me to work.

Professional Fulfillment Supplements Personal Fulfillment
Satisfied at work; satisfied at home. Well, it’s not quite as definite as that, but when your career is something you truly enjoy, your life outside of work will certainly be influenced positively. When stress is not tagging along home after a rough day at the office, life at home is just the way it should be… Free of work-induced stress!

Passion is Infectious
The feeling you get from inspiring someone else is absolutely unmatchable. When your friends, family and even colleagues see you pursuing a career you enjoy, it can infect them in the best way possible. Everyday I read content created by individuals who not only love design, but also have transformed that love into a career. They are pursuing their passion and sharing their joy, which in turn makes me want to do the same. By doing what you really love, you will not be the only person benefiting from it, as those around you will clearly see what a difference a passion-driven life can make.

Care to Add Something?

Passion is something I clearly value, but what do you think? Throw in any thoughts or comments you would like to share. I always love to hear more about what drives other designers!

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About Ally E. Hardgrave


  1. I couldn’t agree more, especially since the path you laid out is how I got into paid design. Loving what you do is imperative in design positions, because it is a continual learning process. On top of working, there is a constant need for study.

    The only flaw with this passion-driven career choice is that you won’t always like what you do. The passion that drives you will have different effects when you are required to do something (that you have learned is wrong) in order to complete a project. Being able to explain your decisions, suggest alternative approaches and shake it off when you don’t “win”, is vital when you turn this pastime into a career.

  2. It’s a double edged sword really. I think passion is absolutely essential but education is critical to your growth as a designer. You gotta be passionate to be successful in this field. It takes a lot of work and practice. To remain successful and grow I’m constantly trying to educate myself and evolve. Formal art education is great if you have the means. I went to art school and It was a tremendous help. I don’t think you need to be a good designer but it definitely will give you a good foundation to build upon.

    • @Justin Lancaster, Woops…Forgot a word: I don’t think you need “it” (formal education) to be a good designer but it definitely will give you a good foundation to build upon.

  3. A formal education can be good in many ways. You get immersed in a variety of disciplines and experiences. But you can also spend a lot of time wasted on what really doesn’t interest you. Focus on what really excites you. Explore and learn all you can, carve yourself a niche, and above all enjoy.

  4. @Dan Denney

    Great points, Dan! As for the flaw you mentioned, I beyond agree. For myself, I have an advantageous perspective because my business background has prepared me for taking on projects that are not ideal. In fact, I’d describe my entire education as a “lose” in the passion perspective. However, I have found that you can really survive anything if you find balance…

    As I’m constantly taking on assignments and projects from areas of study that are of no interest to me and are not remotely intuitive, I’ve developed quite a tough skin for failure haha. I attribute this though to the fact that I balance my terrible work load with time working on personal projects that I love. This works for me at least, but that is not to say it will for everyone!

    Thanks for the input, Dan! 🙂

  5. @Justin Lancaster

    Let me say that I think that education is unmeasurably valuable and, as you pointed out, is vital to the growth of any professional, no matter what area. I just think that one should not let a lack of formal education hinder the pursuit of their passion. But hey, I would have LOVED to go to design school! As I have not gotten that opportunity, I’ve used alternatives methods to educate myself on various design concepts. I’m with you though… The formal education is undeniably a great foundation to build upon.

    Thanks for sharing your voice, Justin!

    • @Ally E. Hardgrave, I have to say though, you are in a unique position. I had no clue about marketing when I got out of art school. I learned about that in my career, sometimes the hard way. So, having a real understanding of marketing paired with the passion & ability to design, puts you far ahead many art students with a bunch of pretty stuff in their portfolio. Because at the end of the day, our designs have to sell.

  6. @Dave Aldrich

    Well said, Dave! I’m trying day by day to do all of those things. Would the formal education help? Of course it would. I’m working the situation I’m in the best way I can however and thankfully, due to the Internet age, I have a world of knowledge at my fingertips. 🙂

    I appreciate the inspiring comment!

  7. @Justin Lancaster
    It is pretty unique, huh? I actually am interested in marketing, I’ve just always felt I flourished more in a creative aspect.

    “Because at the end of the day, our designs have to sell.” This point is a great one to me because no matter what you do, in a professional sense that is, money is always the bottom line. My challenge is to step up to the plate and find an opportunity to do work for money. I’m a pretty confident person, but like most, a new venture is very intimidating. Life is short though, so why not go for it? C’mon Marketing degree… Don’t fail me now! Haha. 🙂

  8. This came at the right time! I am currently figuring out my future and design and I thought portfolio school was the only way to cover things I wouldn’t get to cover because I didn’t go to design school. Perhaps it is about patience and self-discipline. I am just afraid that I don’t have enough of either to get me anywhere. Oh, future things.

    • @Shenee
      Girl, don’t let fear hold you back! Honestly, any education is good education in my opinion. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have degrees in one field, but have careers in a completely different one. It seems that employers just want to see that you invested the extra time & effort into pursuing extra education.

      If you really feel that design is something you genuinely want to pursue, then just self educate! The Internet offers a vast amount of information in all aspects of design, but if you are at all like me, I absolutely LOVE to read when I’ve got a book that holds a subject that I can’t get enough of. So between online info and design books of all kind, you can learn so much.

      Nothing can hold you back except yourself, so get out of YOUR way! 🙂

      • @Ally E. Hardgrave, Hey girl! I am loving the encouraging words and I think it is awesome you were able to approach design with such passion. Are you graduating this year? And if you are, is it all speed ahead to your job as a kick ass designer / awesome contributor to the design community?

    • @Shenee
      And thanks for taking the time to share your POV, Shenee!

  9. I find that passion fuels a desire to be educated. I have a fine arts background, so a lot of “designy” techniques are new to me. But I’m constantly being inspired by good design work, and it’s driving me to find out how to do it myself.
    Maybe it’s not the same in a formal design education setting, but in the informal sense, you can educate yourself in what you’re passionate about, and that makes you passionate about educating yourself.

    • @Dan Sweet

      Absolutely right, my man! I couldn’t agree more.

      I cannot stand school in any sense, but that’s only because I’m learning things that are not priority to me. That isn’t to say that they are invaluable, they just aren’t my cup of tea. However, you give me a free afternoon and you’ll find me with my face in a color theory book, highlighting through a stack of design articles I’ve printed or experimenting with something in Photoshop. All of this is the equivalent to what I do in my formal education, its just revolves around a more interesting subject.

      As you said, passion drives you to educate yourself, and I am nothing but a prime example of that notion.

      Thanks for commenting, Dan!

    • @Dan Sweet
      BTW Dan.. Love your site! Your work is fantastic!

      You’re from Oregon, eh? I have to tell you, if I could find a job once I’m done with school, I would move to Portland in a heartbeat. Fab city.

      • @Ally E. Hardgrave,
        Thanks! MOst of my work including the site are a result of just what you mentioned–reading it up in whatever spare time I can find. I’m definitely with you on the school thing–while there was a lot of great info, I found myself bogged down by the subjects I was less interested in, and that made it hard to focus on the good stuff.

        As for Oregon/Portland, I’m not gonna lie to you–it’s fantastic out here.

        • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

          Man I am so jealous! I’m going to begin my job search there first and foremost when that time comes. Love the vibe, the people, the environment, everything! Now I’m sort of a nerd when it comes to recycling and nothing made me smile more than seeing homeless people recycle! Haha. Portland is fab.

          Again, you’re doing some great work! Keep it up!

  10. I’ve always thought that plans fail during execution, but passion gets us started, keeps us going, and gets us across the finish line!

    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

      @Brandon Cox
      Well said, Brandon! That statement has proven itself true for me time and time again. 🙂

  11. Great article Ally thanks, there are few of us that run on pure passion and I have to say that it does occasionally drive me to make bad decisions but in my experience, when I have tried to curb it – my creativity and lust for the ‘good’ things suffered. So now I stick with passion as a driver and just keep doing what I love to do and whenever I get a second, I am learning from tutorials etc ….. the work just keeps coming,so I’m sticking with it! I do frequently wish I could get a real good grounding of education in design but I know I wouldn’t last 5 minutes back at school – that’s why I ran off and joined the Army in the first place! But who knows – one day …… you’re never too old – til then I’ll just keep reading, reading, reading …..

    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

      @Max Maxwell
      I feel you completely, Max! For me, when I left passion take the backseat, I focus on whatever work I’m doing for all the wrong reasons. It’s hard to believe that two years ago I was an Accounting major simply because all I wanted to do was make money… At that point I felt that if I couldn’t pursue exactly what I wanted then I should at least be miserable doing something that banks. Terrible idea. At least I’m finally on track now!

  12. Having worked as a system administrator (computer guy) for 10 years, and recently decided to refocus on a career in design. I had worked in print shops and taken design classes while growing up, but it was always secondary to my information technology studies. It seems that my passion for design always landed me the responsibilities of a webmaster. I now use my computer knowledge and my passion for design to create unique and inspired web sites. My clients are more concerned with my portfolio than my education.

    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

      @Thomas Fusaro
      I would love to have some comp admin skills, Thomas! My knowledge is pretty basic and I’d love to have a ton more! 🙂

      You make a good point about the portfolio though. It’s so nice to know that your work that you crank out is what matters, as opposed to the overpriced, framed paper on the wall.

      Thanks for commenting, Thomas!

  13. Great article, very well thought out and informative.

    I’m currently at college, but have been freelancing for a few years now. I find college, to be honest – boring and…not useless, but far from a necessary. As you said if you have the passion and determination to put effort into learning something then its achievable without college.

    This said, I feel that if you are aiming to work for a studio, a degree may help to give you that competitive edge over other qualified candidates, whom may not have the degree.


    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

      @Aaron Moody
      Agreed, agreed, agreed! Fortunately freelance designers wow potential clients with their work, as opposed to their degree. I don’t think I would even apply for a studio/show job (unless it was a special circumstance) without a degree to flaunt. Too much of a hassle!

      Good luck with college btw. Just know you aren’t the only one who is bored. 🙂

  14. Denny Dzul says:

    Me, like Thomas, switched from sys admin works to design. I agree that if you have a passion on something – design, especially – nothing can stop you. I must admit it has been a struggle and to this day, I am still learning … but it’s worth it. At least I could somehow integrate the sys admin knowledge when building websites for clients especially those who request cron jobs to be running on the server side.

    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

      @Denny Dzul
      I most definitely think you have an advantage! Good design will be necessary in all areas, but the demand for web design is so great that you really put yourself at a disadvantage if you DON’T provide that service. You’re in a great situation: having a passion for something that supplements your previously obtained trade knowledge :).

  15. Some great points in your article and I agree completely about passion being the driving force for my work. The love of my career has gotten me through a few lulls, especially when you are working with a client that you just can’t seem to crack. This is when I usually take a step back, jump to something that I am really passionate about and follow up later with the stalled project. 9 times out of 10 I break through.

    I do think school is beneficial though, if not for the simple fact of working with your peers or finding a really great mentor.

    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

      @Joe Gillespie
      Thanks for the kind words! Your tactic for working through tough projects is exactly the same that I practice… I become uninspired/burnt out on one, so I switch gears to personal project that I cannot get enough of. So far, it has worked every time! 🙂

      As for school, I cannot say enough how I would have loved to go to a design school as there are some areas that my confidence is a bit shaky, at least in the sense that my knowledge was not traditionally obtained. Fortunately for myself, I’ve had the privilege of working with a handful of individuals who have helped me gain understanding (thanks to their design education). I am actually glad you brought the subject of a mentor up though as I believe mentors can be one of the most valuable resources in any form of education.

      • @Ally E. Hardgrave,
        I have had the privilege of studying under a few very good instructors/mentors, that being said I still believe school is what you make of it. If you want to absorb all it has to offer, you will probably find it rewarding but if you aren’t motivated by it you may lose focus.

        Good luck and I hope you choose the path that makes sense to you because everyone’s is different.

  16. I went to a design school where a junior year portfolio review eliminated about 10% of the students. The ones that were eliminated were the ones without the passion. Safe to say passion was required for the degree!

    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

      It is a shame that this technique is not exercised more often! 🙂 Well, maybe not too much as they probably would have booted me from business school a long time ago! Ha!

      Kudos for rockin’ the passion and not getting the boot, Scott! 🙂

  17. As a self-teached web designer and developer, I saw that degree designers had more and better job opportunities than me. In spite of this, passion helped me to be as good (or better) than them. But when I started at college, and learned the first design techniques and rules, I understood that sometimes passion for itself is not always enough to make the ‘creative neuron’ work fine.
    Alejandra —> *aleare

    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:


      I can definitely get where you’re coming from! The degree makes it a lot easier to get your foot through the career door for sure. However, I’ve seen several cases where over time, genuine talent and know-how can secure some great opportunities. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing!

  18. Excellent article and I couldn’t agree more. It also important to enjoy what you do. With regards to formal training, in my 14 years as a designer only once have I been ever asked if I have a degree despite the fact that a CV was sent. It has however always been said by every one that the passion shows in my work which is good feedback whether getting the job or not.

    Whilst on my degree I do remember that only half the students on the course were very good at what they produced etc BUT lacked that edge.
    As an experienced professional now, I never stop learning and can always tell whether a design brief has been answered for sake of answering it or has had that extra few hours of research & thought put into it which instantly indicates the persons passion and understanding.

    • Ally E. Hardgrave says:

      @Anil Amrit

      Well it is always refreshing to hear that passionate work distinguishes itself amongst others. Loving what you do is a great thing, isn’t it? 🙂

      I’m write there with you about always continuing to learn and going the extra mile. By doing both, you’re virtually guaranteed to never become stagnant.

      Thanks for the great comments!

  19. Passion is the secret ingredient to… anything! I believe that nobody can be excellent in a field without having passion for it. If someone has a job “just because it has to” and doesn’t really love it, maybe it will be good. But i don’t think it will be brilliant, even if it will work very hard.

  20. i see this post is old, but i’d still like to get your opinion.
    i’ve been working as a designer since finishing my undergraduate studies 4 years ago. but i can’t get the kind of jobs i’d like to have due to lack of connections and probably also cause i still think i don’t know enough.
    now i’m thinking about going back to uni.
    i hope to gain more knowledge, inspiration, connections, a sense of teamwork and the chance to work on great projects (without restrictions).
    but i’m also insecure…will i be way more experienced than my fellow students in their early 20s? (i mean concerning knowledge about the industry, how to work under stress etc.) how useful are connections abroad (the uni’s abroad) if i plan to go back to my homecountry? wouldn’t it be wiser to spend the money (a hell lot of) elsewhere? (like doing internships to improve, travel the world, buy a new camera etc.)
    would love to hear your thoughts!!

  21. its all true I realize I was doing wrong course in college by missing 40% of class attendance by spending it on cloth when i join fashion design
    class i was amazed how good i was at passion drive career


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