Do It Right: Build relationships, not networks by David Hu

There are countless business books dedicated to the art of networking. It has become a pseudo-professionalized method to gain the favor of people in higher/better corporate positions. Ultimately, you hope that this favor may give you an advantage when a job opportunity comes along.

There are two truths to networking: First, no one networks simply for fun. Second, no one networks out of sheer generosity. And therein lies the problem for creatives. True creatives thrive on inspiration, connection, and generosity. That's where the creative part comes from. We get excited when someone else shares our interests and passions, when we face challenges and solve problems together, and when we see someone else set a new standard for impactful work.

We don't get nearly the same thrills in a setting where everyone is there to get something from someone else. Because then we (over)think about what we have to bring to the table as bargaining chips. And that literally places what makes us special—that is, our creative knowledge—at less importance than the various skills of networking, such as forced confidence, a jack-of-all-trades skill set, and, of course, the ability to Talk the Talk.

This is why building relationships are much better and much more worthy of our time and energy than networking. As creatives, we need to find other creatives who speak our language, who can challenge our own way of thinking, and, most important, who can motivate us to be even better at what we do.

Here is a list of things we creatives can do to help build our own relationships:

  • Teach. Spend time not only honing your own skills but also sharing your experiences with those who need your guidance. The best teachers always say they learn more from their students from what they teach. When you teach—even if the topic of what you teach is the same over and over again—you get unexpected feedback. And when you respond to these feedback, you understand more about the way you teach and the subject of your lesson. Teaching is one of those rare things in which the return is almost always more than what you put in. (Remember to thank your teachers!)
  • Read. A LOT. Catch up on international and local news. Read books about other people who have made a difference. Make an effort to understand the world you live in. Why? Because the people you would want to have genuine relationships with will very likely be passionate about things outside your field. Being curious, being knowledgeable, and having an informed opinion about real things makes you not only more interesting but also more genuine.
  • Talk. For example: say more than just your order when you're at the cafe, at the gas station, or at the hardware store. Greet the staff, ask them about their day, and thank them when they have completed your order. Say goodbye on your way out. Learn to empathize with them about the challenges that they face: being on their feet all day and dealing with grumpy customers, not to mention their own personal life pressures. This isn't empty chatter—which is what happens at networking events. But instead of awkwardly looking at strangers in a hotel ballroom, this is about connecting on a basic, human level in an everyday environment. Don't dismiss these small acts; these help you build character and an understanding that the world is and always will be bigger than you. And when the tone of sincerity and humility shines through your actions and words, others will be drawn to you.

The importance of crawling by David Hu

The process of design is not unlike learning to crawl, then to walk, to run, and finally, to jump.

An example:

  • Crawling: you notice or become aware of the existence of design. Good or bad, you find inspiration (and frustration) in people-created objects, messages, and pathways. But most important, you see the energy and joy that design can bring to others.
  • Walking: your interest is piqued by design. You become motivated to pursue it, whatever it may turn out to be, because you see the power you could wield—and the sense of freedom you would have—when you design.
  • Running: you learn and execute the act of design. You call yourself a designer. The more you practice, the better (and faster) you become. You absorb and hone more skills over time.
  • Jumping: at some point in time, maximizing your efficiency and productivity is no longer brings enough satisfaction. In order to continue being a creative person, you "jump" out of your specialty, out of your comfort zone. And you do this because you desperately need a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.

But after you jump, don't run wild. Learn to crawl again.

Because crawling—not running—gives you the time and space to see things as you need to see them; to observe with wisdom but without bias; and to truly understand the significance of what you are about to take on. Don't be afraid to do this. You should do this. If you haven't first "crawled" in this new role, how can you see where your energy and passion need to be directed? If you're leading a team, how can you see where those are being wasted? Don't rush into an "insider" right away; otherwise, how can you bring fresh perspectives?

Right after a jump, you can feel exhilarated and full of confidence. You want to keep your momentum. But channel that momentum into time, for yourself, to understand the situation, to breathe in the new air, and to imagine the thrill of what it'd be like to walk, then run, and then jump again.

Design is imperfection by David Hu

There are many, many people out there who discuss the differences between art and design. I'll only talk about the difference that is applicable to you, the designer.

Art is perfect. Design is imperfect. Let me explain...

Art only needs to be perfect to one person: the artist. Its "imperfections" in other people's eyes are not relevant to its real perfection. If the artist can accept and love her own mistakes as part of the work, then the work becomes perfect. The work becomes art. Therefore, art can exist perfectly without an audience.

This is not true of design. Design is always imperfect, because it can't possibly satisfy all those who use it. Design's value is entirely dependent on how it is perceived by its audience. If someone loves the design, then it is a good design. If someone hates the same design, then it is a bad design. One can argue a terribly received design as a piece of art—that's also acceptable and fine—but the truth remains that design's imperfection is its weakness but also the source of its strength.

Because design is always imperfect, it can always be improved. Therefore, designers will always have a challenge to do better, even if perfection is an impossible goal.

Why do I bring this up? Because I see many young designers who equate good design with "perfection". And this mentality permeates every aspect of their process, causing them stress and sucking their creative souls dry. These designers want every sketch to be perfectly drawn, every PowerPoint presentation to be perfectly laid out, and every concept to be perfectly rendered. But even a perfect PowerPoint presentation won't make a design great.

Designers: when your focus is on a perfection that doesn't exist, you forget to go deep—deep into the heart of what matters; deep into the emotions of your users; and deep into your own motivations for designing. And depth is much more challenging—and much more worthwhile—than perfection. Rid yourselves of the unnecessary idea that design can somehow be perfect. There's no such thing. Let go of perfection. Just design.

Do It Right: You need a Design Gatekeeper by David Hu

Perhaps nothing is more crucial to the success of a design project than clear communication between your company and the agency. A professional agency will almost certainly have a "client manager", but it's far too common that the client doesn't have an equivalent personnel on its side. I call this person a design gatekeeper. Internally, this position can be given to any number of design-facing personnel from design to project management to marketing. The key lies in how well he/she is fulfilling this role.

Without a design gatekeeper, the project will run into a host of problems. Soon enough, everyone on your team starts calling and emailing the agency with his/her own input. Inevitably, some emails go to the agency's designer and some calls go to its client manager. This creates too many lines of communication that lead to conflicting information for the agency and, in turn, everyone at the agency becomes frustrated and over-worked. And nothing wastes more time, money, and talent in a design project than designers hating and being tired of what they do.

Your gatekeeper should be someone who understands your brand and can also execute the following consistently: 

  • Manage the expectations of your team.
  • Filter feedback from your team to the agency in a visually clear and executable way.
  • If the feedback is not like above, then discuss with the internal team until it is so.
  • Be able to think and talk like a designer.

In order to do the above effectively, the gatekeeper needs the following from you:

  • To be trusted as the day-to-day line of communication between your team and the agency. That is, your team will not circumvent him/her to contact the agency.
  • To be given enough freedom to make most creative decisions. If every decision requires your entire team's input and go-ahead, the gatekeeper immediately loses her authority and influence.
  • To be supported by your team as the go-to person if/when issues arise with the agency.

Whether your company is engaging a creative agency for the first time or have already been doing so, having an internal gatekeeper can make the design process go a lot more smoothly. And a smooth process can be the difference between designs that improve with every round and those that snowball into disasters.

Before good design comes first good mentality by David Hu

You look around and "design" is everywhere. Everyone is designing. Some are doing OK, but most are failing at "design". You even have friends working at the competition who enlisted the help of an "international design agency" and the project is a disaster. So you ask yourself, "Isn't there a formula for successful design? If there isn't, how can I possibly convince upper management the value of design for our company?"

These are normal questions. GREAT, even. But they are also very difficult questions.

Before you even think about finding a creative agency, you need to first do some internal preparation of the mind. Figure out who will have a final say on the design, then get them together and discuss in detail your expectations for design.

Ask yourselves questions such as:

  • What is everyone's definition of "design"?
  • Are you equating design with "innovation" or with "beauty"?
  • Are you expecting design to turn around your financial situation? Or are you already financially stable and want design to further differentiate yourselves from the competition? Or do you just see design as something really cool that other companies are doing and you're looking "stale" in comparison?
  • Does everyone expect "certain success"? Are they at ease with "possible failure"?
  • Is everyone committed to being passionate about design throughout the process or will some be stubbornly skeptical? (it often only takes one person to derail the whole thing.)
  • Is everyone ready to be hands-on in the design process (i.e. commit regularly to design meetings)?

Start with these and you'll figure out, in your own way, more questions to answer. It's not enough to engage any  creative agency, world-class or not, and say, "Here, make my product great." You need to first figure out why design should be an integral part of this project. Soon you'll realize how much "mental" alignment you'll need before you even have "budget" alignment. This will make the process much easier down the road. From time to time, you'll also need to remind everyone of these questions and answers so they can have a mental "reset".

Design is a long journey. But as with any journey worth taking, a good mentality will ensure that it will be as satisfying and successful as it can be.

Do It Right: Design is not a "phase" by David Hu

Avoid ever writing "design" as a phase in the product development timeline. This makes everyone involved (including the designers) think design can be delayed, turned on and off, and added on later. But design starts from the moment you have identified an unmet need in the market and decide to address it. Design exists in your intention to solve the problem; it exists in your efforts to put together a team; and it exists in the team's motivation to succeed. Finally, it materializes in the final product that you deliver to your customers.

Design is a tool bag—and a good tool bag is one that organizes well. It helps you orient your vision, assets, and talents efficiently; it reduces the mental clutter that distracts from the job at hand; and it makes "resetting" easy so that the next time you pull the tool bag out, it's ready to go.

Honesty is (still) the best policy by David Hu

Be honest. Be clear. Be original.

Everyone likes pretty products, and that's the problem. Anyone can make "pretty". It's much harder to do "beautiful", which is more than skin-deep. Beauty comes from being honest about your products—in how you develop them, in what they offer, in how you communicate and sell them. And that also means being original. There's a fine line between being inspired and making knock-offs—some of it can be decided in the court of law but most of it is really up to you to make your own judgment. But if your work isn't original, then you can't truly be honest with yourself; being a "designer" would just be a title, not a passion.