How to succeed as a not-so-young creative

I know creatives my age and beyond who like to refer to themselves as “seasoned.” This term makes them sound like they may end up as a roast.

I prefer “battle tested.”

Much cooler.

All kidding aside, age and ageism are serious concerns to a lot of creatives out there. How do you compete?

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Here are a few ideas:

Keep your tech skills and software current.

Don’t worry that you started your career when Rapidograph pens were more common than Macs.

Creative sensibility is paramount, but falling behind on current tools is going to stall your career.

I don’t mean that you have to leap into web design if you’ve been a print designer all along – just stay educated on the latest techniques and software, and get the latest versions as often as necessary.

Having to ask for files to be saved to a legacy format makes YOU look outdated.

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Stay up-to-date on trends.

Nothing will send you out to pasture faster than continually producing dated-looking work.

  • Get yourself some issues of Communication Arts (check out the library for free resources),
  • Subscribe to blogs that inspire you,
  • Buy some cool new fonts,
  • Join local creative groups,

…anything to stay connected and relevant.

And while you’re at it – respect younger professionals in your field.

Just because you have a few years’ advantage on the younger ranks of creatives doesn’t mean you have to disparage them or dismiss them immediately as newbies. Face it – that just exposes your own fear of being replaced.

Stay interested in the up-and-comers around you and let their work inspire you and keep you current.

Evolve

Be open to new opportunities and niches as you develop your creative career. A totally different aspect of your profession may lead you down a whole new career path.

Have you always wanted to teach? Figure out how to make that happen!

Put your experience to work for you.

As a “battle-tested” creative, you have tons of experience that gives you a leg up on your younger counterparts.

You are multi-dimensional.

You have been a creative in many different settings and in several roles and specialties. You are very well equipped to manage (or outsource) all angles of your freelance work.

You know what your strengths are and almost as importantly, you know what your weaknesses are – which brings me conveniently to my next point…

You have connections – use them!

You’ve lived a full enough professional life to have a long list of friends in the business to call upon for collaboration, advice or commiseration when you know I need to share the wealth of work or ask for some back-up. In other words, when you seek out help, you turn your weaknesses into strengths…can’t get much better than that!

And you have little hesitation about asking for that help. You don’t need to prove that you can do everything yourself. You’ve been around long enough to recognize that you don’t really WANT to do everything yourself.

Overdoing it consistently never ends well, and you’ve learned that from experience, too.

You don’t take much personally anymore.

You can take constructive criticism with the best of them. It’s about the work, not about you.

Tantrums don’t look good on anyone at any age. 

You’re mature enough to listen and see the truth in the feedback. And your experience gives you the tact and authority to push back when it’s appropriate.

You’ve had loads of human interaction practice.

You’re comfortable doing things like pitching a logo to a large group of strangers or throwing your ideas out there in a brainstorming session. Your radar is pretty good for interpreting what a client is looking for even if he or she has a hard time articulating it.

I’ve had clients say they felt like I could read their minds, and I take that as the highest compliment!

You’ve had time to wander.

Let your life experiences and your history inform your design.

When I got out of art school, I didn’t go straight into the design world. I followed a crooked career path that included stints as a merchandiser at the MFA Boston shop, an art supply store clerk and a picture framer.

Your experiences have given you a completely unique wisdom and aesthetic – appreciate that and put it out there!

You have persistence.

You’ve used it to gain your skills and break into the business, and maybe even to start your own business and keep it going.

  • I stepped back briefly from my design career when I had my sons and then came back to it.
  • I’ve been laid off more than once but came back stronger than ever.

That ain’t kid stuff!

And now, for my favorite tip of all…

Keep freelancing!

The most disheartened conversations I see online regarding age and ageism in the creative world center around designers trying to land staff jobs and losing out to younger counterparts.

How to work around that?

Build your own business. You’re a shoe-in with the hiring manager when that person is YOU!

Milton Glaser said this:

The real issue is not talent as an independent element, but talent in relationship to will, desire, and persistence. Talent without these things vanishes and even modest talent with those characteristics grows.  

Follow in Milton Glaser’s footsteps – make the effort to keep doing this thing you love, and keep getting better at it.

Stay battle-tested.

Where are YOU in your design lifespan?

If you’re a younger designer, you have so much to look forward to. If you’re battle-tested, congratulations! Either way, please write a note in the comments telling us how YOU succeed.


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  1. Great Article, I have had this topic cross my mind everytime I go out and interview for a new job. I have had a lot of freelance work and have also have worked in corporate. I did my own design studio but I needed something a bit more stable, so that’s when I decided to go back into the work force.

    My experience and work has made me a jack of all trades. I started in print, moved into web design, then programming, then social media, now email marketing. I have kept evolving as opportunities have been presented. To imagine that I did start with rapidographs and rub on type… lol

    I will definitely borrow your “battle tested” to go up against all of those design ninjas and wizards…

    1. Thank you for spreading the battle tested gospel, Francisco! Keep on evolving and finding those new paths that interest you – sounds like you have this down!

  2. A great perspective on a challenging subject. I’ve been an independent designer / illustrator for 30 years now and ageism crosses my mind from time to time. It probably would bother me if I let it …but more often than not I forget that I’m 25 years past 30 and I live my life continually trying to move with the times.

    1. Being perpetually young for your age is a gift, Neil – I’m thankful to have it, too. Stay that way, and thanks for reading the post!
      –Rebecca

  3. This was a great read and I’ll add that in my research, ageism is the only “-ism” out there that people will confess to practicing.
    It’s real.
    +1 for borrowing “battle tested”.
    Thank you.

    1. Timothy–
      Isn’t that the truth! I’ve heard it in practice myself many times. Thank you for reading!
      –Rebecca

  4. I’ve been a creative for over 15 years and I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately. For me to stay current I challenge myself to learn as much as I can through reading, online classes, design conferences, and watching younger designers whom I admire. I don’t give into trends, I stick to what I know works based on my experience. Thanks for opening up the subject for discussion.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Steph–
      Keeping an eye on trends but filtering them through your own experience sounds like a win-win to me. What online classes are you doing? I’m always looking for new ideas.
      –Rebecca

        1. Right on with the blog post! Thanks for sharing that and the creative live.com info, Steph. Your site is awesome – keep putting that great work out there!
          –R

  5. lovely article… it’s one of my worries of the future, thanks for bringing me calm

    1. I’m glad this brought you some calm, Barney – and thanks so much for posting!
      –Rebecca

  6. I enjoyed this article and it’s really timely for me. I have been doing this for a long time! I did start when we used drafting tables, light boxes, and scissors. I’m in my 21 year of freelancing and so far have managed to pay most of the bills. My two children learned on my first Mac and they are both more than talented and proficient with design and web design. I didn’t have the advantage of a GD degree, just on the job learning and experience.

    With all my life experience, I am happy to have good interpersonal skills and absolutely never take it personally, even though I did 20 years ago. Projects and clients come and go, some last for years, others not, but I take it all in my stride and depend strongly on my local reputation.

    I agree, we battle-tested do need to keep up with new trends and ideas. I wouldn’t want to be interviewing for corporate jobs anymore but don’t have too because I’ve put the years into my business.

    I agree that everyone can learn from anyone. I’m happy to be inspired by a fellow creative. Your article has reminded me to dedicate a little more time to research on trends etc. to keep my work fresh.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Colleen! Yep, I started in the lightbox and Letraset days, too – it’s so much easier to cover up mistakes now!! I’m glad to hear you’ve built a strong business – keep that up, and good job passing the design torch on to your kids – I’m doing the same with my boys 🙂

  7. Nice article. I have been freelancing as a GD since 2008, have worked individually as well as a team on various projects: logo design, complete event design, web design, email campaigns, etc. The experience I gained didn’t come to me that easily as I am enrolled in university as Marketing student. It was and is very hard to manage time between the two. Moreover, I didn’t have the basic knowledge of graphic design that is taught to the GD students in universities or institutes, I just had the knowledge of operating some adobe software. Nor I had a mentor to guide me, therefore had to learn what I know today by experimenting and reading articles from websites like this one. Of course, there were few good senior GD’s who helped me and gave me some useful tips when I got stuck at some point but relying completely on them was never a good idea. Actually, the more I tried things by myself, the more I learned and I am sure I wouldn’t be able to learn them if I have asked for help.Though faced failures and criticism but later it didn’t matter as I felt that I have improved my skills.

    And when you want to become a freelancer, here is an advice: make sure to work in a professional company first for sometime. Because I have learnt how to deal with things more professionally when I worked as an intern in a local but big advertising agency with 4 branches around the country. No matter I had all that experience with me, but working there made me realize that I am just a beginner and so I learned a lot from there no matter I worked for 5 months. (they hired me for 2 months but had to leave due to timing clashes with my university)

    1. Thank you for posting this note! I agree that the best way to learn is to jump in and start swimming – I’ve learned a lot from my trial and error and mistakes. The process can be painful, but that’s how you learn what is NOT taught in design school!
      And working in a design department or agency setting for any amount of time is very good advice for designers who would like to eventually go freelance – that real world experience is priceless.
      –Rebecca

  8. Your article is spot on. It is vital that we keep up with the tools and techniques of our profession.

    I am a self-taught print designer for over 35 years. Now I am in my final year of aquiring my bachelor’s degree so I can teach younger designer this awesome field I have and still enjoy so much.

    1. Yes – pass that hard-earned experience on! And just as importantly, pass on your love of design.
      Thanks for the note, DJ!
      –Rebecca

  9. Actually i feel a lot of proud for being in the creative field for a lot of time. i keep finding new ways to keep the work fresh.
    For me the experience has bring a lot of confidence to try other kind of projects

    1. Absolutely, Jose! Your experience and eye are primary, and the medium/platform is secondary. Thanks for the comment!
      Rebecca

  10. As a Army vet transitioning to freelance web design, I am going to absolutely steal “battle tested”.

  11. What about if you are a new(ish) designer, but older than most on your level because of a career change?

    I keep finding myself losing jobs to younger designers. I’m in a weird no man’s land of being both overqualified and unqualified for my age.

    1. I have been designing for a really long time. I am now battle-scared-tested…. and it is an inside job. It’s hard to explain and there is stuff you will realize and become present to within the process. Find a way to neutralize perceived rejections. Perhaps they were not going to be your perfect place to work. Make up your own assignments. What do you love to do in the field of graphic design. Do that and then advertise that and share that. You bring a wealth of knowledge with you and because graphic design is a communication art…. as long as you show up daily, share (even if you are concerned NOT to share, share anyway) and work it! Work on something you love to do at least 15 minutes a day. You cannot predict the crossover and what such an act can do for you. Do your best to not allow yourself to be TOO influenced by what is going on around you when you make effort towards work and not get hired. It is really an in your head, inside job, way of thinking, way of emoting your confidence and energy.

      1. Ashley– great advice! It really is an inside job a lot of the time, isn’t it? It can be a tough road, for sure.
        Just as you said, the best self-encouragement is to just keep remembering why we love design, and convey that as much as possible in our work, and in how we talk to our clients (or prospective employers).

      2. Thanks for the advice! I try to have the attitude that everything happens for a reason and rejections just mean it’s not the right place and time. I do have a design job now, but I am getting to the point where I need to grow and it’s not happening here.

        Will continue to try and do good work and hope for the best!

    2. I completely understand your frustration! This sounds like a good topic for a post in itself.
      Are you looking for freelance work or trying to land a staff job? I know designers “of a certain age” who have done well signing on with temp agencies and found longterm freelance work or permanent positions.
      And one other thing worth mentioning – I’m always amazed at the simple spelling errors that I see on resumés. This may have little to do with design skills, but making sure your resumé is perfect does give you an edge…
      Best of luck to you!
      –Rebecca

      1. I do have a job now at a small company, but there’s little to no room for growth. I’m just trying to do the best I can while I’m here, and keeping an eye out for the right opportunity.

        I also have an English degree so having a mistake on my resumé would be the ultimate embarrassment! 🙂

        Thanks!

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