So you're considering becoming a creative. What should you do next? First, make these two important decisions.
Decide whether you will admire it or do it.
The difference? I always admired great footballers all over the world. But to be a professional soccer player would have meant committing to that lifestyle, including intense training, enduring difficult challenges, and challenging myself physically and mentally. But I decided not to and I'm ok with that. I'm a big fan. I read about it. I follow it. I love to coach my kids and watch lots of games. I don't do it. I admire it.
Decide whether you will be a hobbyist or a professional.
Here's a good example. My wife makes amazing cakes. My grandmother gave her a family recipe and some awesome secret methods that result in beautiful and scrumptious cakes. Every time she makes a cake for some event, she's asked to make another one. Inevitably, people comment, "You should go into business!." However, making cakes isn't her passion. It's a hobby that she loves. And if she made it into a business, she'd probably end up hating it. Instead, she takes the comment as a compliment and keeps making cakes for fun. Remember that you have you are faced with deciding whether it's something you love to do (leisure) or something you will do to pay the bills (work). Be mindful of whether you want to turn your hobby into a career.
If your answers are "admire it" or "hobbyist," then enjoy it as such. If your answers are "do it" and "professional", please read on.
1. Know what it takes.
What is good design? What are the principles? Who is a good designer? Why are they good? What is good code? What are the standards?
2. Start from scratch.
A good cook starts from scratch. So does a good website designer. Learn at least a basic working knowledge of html, css, typography, and grid-system design.
3. Give yourself assignments.
You are at an awesome time in your career where you can do anything. So do it. Build a website for someone who needs it and tell them you need a guinea pig. Tell them you'll do it for free as long as you have zero restrictions. Non-profits are usually great for this sort of thing. Then, pretend they are your best client. Blow them out of the water with brilliant ideas. Use illustration, stop-motion, ink in liquid, paper or hand puppets to execute and solve their problems.
4. Get out of your comfort zone.
In order to be inspired, I have purchased books, dvds, and downloads from Japan, the UK, Italy, and other places around the globe. I've covered a wide span of subjects, including architecture, interior design, urban art, fabric, and fashion. It's important to also find non-computer methods to solve problems.
5. Politely bow to the greats, but don't worship them.
These great designers are your peers. Read about their methods. Respect their work. Then go create your own unique style. There's no problem with establishing a network of colleagues -- follow them on Flickr, stalk them on Twitter -- whatever. But there's way too many people right now who worship people on the web, steal their ideas, copy their work, and devalue the industry.
6. Be great at something.
You've heard the old saying, "It's better to be great at one thing than good at a lot of things." It's true. At the beginning, you'd be smart to learn a little about everything. But eventually, be great at something. Design or front-end development, back-end development, or user interface design. It took me 8 years, but I finally figured out I was pulled in too many directions. Now, I focus a majority of my time on interactive design and brand management.
7. Ignore trends.
It's fine to check out nice sites every once in a while, especially to recognize standards and user interaction. But the longer you look at other sites, the more likely that your sites will look a lot like them. Take them for what they are, then throw them out before you design. Someone, somewhere started that trend by doing it different than everyone else. (See #5)
8. Remember to solve the problem.
It's usually not "just a website" for most. Often times, people are sinking a lot of money into the investment and would like to see some kind of return. So they push their own goals, needs and desires onto the project. But remember to solve the problem for which real people are using the website. A good solution gracefully balances all aspects.
9. Avoid templates.
They're crap. They'll give you bad habits and more headaches than you would've imagined
10. Give great attention to detail.
I can't tell you how many times I've huddled around a computer talking about whether a pixel or an extra click matters. If you want to make great websites, it does.
11. Take advantage of content management systems.
BUT understand what they do first. A CMS is a great way to get tools that you couldn't program yourself. But don't think for a minute that you've solved the client's problem simply by installing one. (See #8)
12. Build your own portfolio site.
This is your personal place to experiment. Don't feel like you have to represent yourself as a "company" or show a bunch of sites. But this is one place where you can blog, install things you wouldn't want to try out on other people's sites, and try out new visual concepts.
So now what do you think? Is becoming a full-time creative the right path for you? When you're making the decision, remember that becoming a creative requires a lot of effort, so you shouldn't make the decision lightly. This isn't like deciding whether or not to mow your own yard. See you online.