In college, my professors wanted us to know a lot about design and many different areas of it. They wanted us to become a jack-of-all-trades but in reality, they were making masters of none.
Within design—or the creative world in general—there are so many different fields and areas of study and to try and master them all is pure insanity. I go into some detail about this in episode 12 of the Design Break podcast.
It’s better to master one area or a couple of areas at most, rather than trying to do or learn too much. For me, there are three areas that I strive to learn and improve upon within my own professional career—illustration, branding, and strategy—all of which are the areas we at Blue Cyclops specialize in the most.
When it comes to our strengths and weaknesses in our creative careers we need to be honest with ourselves. We tend to take on too much of everything and that definitely goes for skillsets and specializations.
In the past, I’ve tried to learn many things like coding, animation, hand lettering, and many other specialties—my friend Brian Burkett is always telling me how much I should be learning animation but the truth is I don’t have the time to do so, but I wish I could. I can do a little of all of them, but I’ve found over time its better to outsource work in these fields than to spend countless hours trying to improve only too seldom utilize the skills and let them slip from grasp.
Its when we’re honest with ourselves and we see our core specialties as our strengths that we can truly excel. To do this, we must realize the extra baggage we’re trying to pick up and leave it behind. If we think about it like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, "To move forward, we have to PUSH something back." In order to push ourselves and our careers forward we have to also push something back behind us—I know so nerdy right, but so true!
Now, you might be asking yourself how we figure out what our specialties are and what the baggage is. We do that by creating a personal audit of all of our special skills—that pertains to our creative careers.
Side note—I actually do audits on myself, my business and the things I do in life quite often and I’m a total nerd when it comes to things like that so this might not be for you but I suggest that you try it at least once and see what insights come out of it.
The way we put all of this together and figure out through our audit is by taking a deep dive into our past, present, and future. Our audit is our roadmap for what we should and shouldn’t be doing in our careers.
The thing to keep in mind here is that there are many ways that you can complete your audit. The important thing to remember here is that we are arriving to one conclusion, what we should be specializing in.
For me, I prefer to do it a couple of different ways but the first thing I do to start is creating a list of all of the skills that I am doing, have done or want to do. This gives me transparency in my past, present, and future.
Once I have that, then I can either create a word map to see how everything is connected to things like opportunities, work, life, the way I feel, stress and other touch-points. With each of our skills, we need to look for things that we are passionate about, things that bring in an income and that give us a low barrier to entry or completion.
With myself, I am passionate about creating things—illustrations, logos, doodles, characters and such. The majority of these things can be used to help bring in money for me and my business and they are all relatively easy to do or things I already know how to do.
Another way of doing this—or something you can do in tandem with the first— is to simply strike off the low hanging fruit. Remove any line items that go against those three main things we’re looking for. With my list, I removed items like animation, coding, and UI/UX—these things are things I want to do or have done but they have a larger barrier to entry to which could cause stress or waste precious time that could be done doing something more productive.
In the end, you should try to narrow your list down to 1-3 main specialties that spark joy, are things you already know how to do or that you’re passionate to learn more about and can or could pay the bills in the present or near future.
The biggest benefit of doing an audit on your skills is the ability to save yourself time, energy and resources. Instead of focusing on developing skills or working on projects you might not be skilled in doing, you can focus the same energy on something you are or can do.
In the past, I’ve attempted to learn new skills or take on projects I shouldn’t have and wasted so much time. The whole reason why I did an audit and thought to write and share this article is that I hope to prevent you all from making the same mistakes I made in the past.
With this audit and the specialties that come out of if you can develop your own roadmap for the future. Let’s say that you discovered that one of your main focuses should be UI/UX work and that you shouldn’t spend time focusing on video editing—one of the things crossed off your list. This discovery tells us that you should focus your efforts to learn more about and work on projects for UI/UX projects.
Let’s say that you have three things pop up on your radar. The first is a workshop in your city to learn more about trends in UI/UX, the second is a project inquiry to create a marketing site for a tech startup for $5k and the third is a major video project for $10,000.
Now all three of them look good but you can’t do all of them. You might be tempted to work on the third option because of its double the income for the marketing site. The problem is that you have to learn new skills for the video project and fresh upon old video skills that you haven’t used in years. The overall project is most likely going to take up a huge chunk of your time leaving little room for anything else.
However, with the other two options, the workshop will help increase your knowledge of a skill you already know so well and could help increase your asking price for future projects and the marketing site could lead to more work from the startup. The best part, the project has a better timeframe and will allow you to work on more projects.
When you choose to work on the projects you specialize in, so many new opportunities can emerge and when you choose to work on projects outside of that, it can lead you down a negative road.
Last year, I took on a project that I thought was going to be easy and was something that I hadn’t done in years, a bit of graphic design work focusing on editing a book for a publishing company. At the time, my business was in a bit of a lull in work so I figured I would pick up the project and finish it while I waited for more leads came in. This project was outside of my normal specialization and it ended up turning into a real nightmare very quickly.
Instead of being a quick turn around, the project ended up taking twice as long as I thought and I had to spend many hours learning how to do certain things differently just for that one specific use case. At the same time that I started working on the project, I began getting a large number of inquiries coming in and I ended up having to turn down a few of them because of the time I had to focus on this project. If I had turned down the project because it was outside of my specialization, then I would have had that extra time to take on those projects or at the very least spent time increasing my skills in the areas that mattered most.
Don’t do what I did and waste time on projects or skills that bring in low returns, cause you to stress or waste all of your precious time that you’re losing or using up each day.
When you decide to do your own audit, don’t skimp on it or your time in doing it. Instead, set aside an hour or two to audit yourself and the work that you’re doing. The more time and energy that you can devote to this the better.
It’s also important to remember that this audit isn’t a one time only thing for you to do. This is something that you’ll want to do again and again in the future to make sure that you’re making the right decision in your specialties and the skills you focus on learning or improving.
I tend to do an audit every three to six months to keep things current and to keep myself moving forward in the right direction. If you’re changing things up and deciding to focus on a new specialization, then you’re going to want to do an additional audit sooner rather than later. That way if you made a mistake you can remedy it and change it or refocus yourself.
A great way for you to keep track of your progress and your skills is to record them and the things that you’re doing. I do this through bullet journaling and tracking goals/tasks on Airtable. I strongly believe that the only way that we can learn and better ourselves is by tracking the things we do or try. Without a record, we can never see what mistakes we’ve made or more importantly how we can fix them.
I’m not going to share too much about this since there are truly a plethora of different places and ways of improving the skills you already know or wish to know and you probably already know quite a few. My go-to sources for learning are YouTube—or as I call it “YouTube University”, Skillshare, books, and workshops.
When it comes to workshops, I prefer to look for workshops and webinars done by those I admire or look up to in regards to those specific skillsets. Recently I took a branding webinar put on by Retro Supply Co. and Emir Ayouni—one of the founders of Forefathers Group. Now, I already know about branding design and can do it quite well—or so I’ve been told, but I was able to learn a lot that I didn’t know before the webinar that I’ve since implemented in my branding process.
In short, KEEP LEARNING! (: