Lessons from Creative Pros: How to Navigate The Winding Path of A Creative Career

by Patrick Faller

posted on 11-29-2017

To live a creative life is to live a life with meaning — allowing your passions to intersect with your professional life. It’s an impressive and inspirational concept, one thousands of people travel to Adobe MAX to hear more about, every year. Speakers share their ‘secret sauce’ for taking what they love to create, and putting it at the center of their professional life rather than on the periphery.

But the path to a long, successful creative career is anything but straight and narrow, especially in the 21st century. At this year’s conference, speakers shared how they achieved longevity in their creative careers, spanning decades of doing exactly what they want, and getting paid for it. Here are some of their insights into the do’s, and don’ts, of keeping creativity and self-expression at the core of their professional lives.

Saying yes, and being prepared for what follows.

Melinda Beck is an illustrator, designer, and animator with clients like The New York Times and Nickelodeon. She studied design, but her first design job was anything but a dream come true. Her story is a testament to ‘starting small,’ slowly turning what you love into what you do. After graduating and landing a corporate design job, she quickly found herself disenchanted.

“So I started doing little angry drawings at night and put them in a portfolio, and my boyfriend at the time said they looked liked illustrations. He was an illustrator, so he brought them around in his portfolio. I started getting work at free papers, like the Village Voice, and newspapers like the New York Times.”

Beck continued to do her corporate design job, but at night slowly scaled up her “crazy, angry” illustrations. Eventually, her illustration work grew to the point where she could quit her day job. She attributes her success to her own passion for her illustrations, and says designers and artists should follow their heart, even if that means slowly scaling up your side business doing what you love.

Image Source: Melinda Beck

Beck has done many extensions of her work during her career. From animation projects at Nickelodeon to designing t-shirts for swim races, she has consistently branched out while maintaining her own style and interests.

“I think the trick is to always say yes, but be prepared to do the hard work. You can’t say yes to something you totally don’t know how to do, it has to be related to what you do and you have to be prepared to do a really good job. The first job you do in that new thing, you’re not going to make any money. You’re going to be doing way more hours than it actually takes, and you just do that, and suddenly it opens new opportunity in the future.”

Forging an indie career in the internet age.

Dan Stiles is a designer and illustrator who’s created work for everyone from the Arctic Monkeys to IBM. For him, the power of the internet has empowered him to become a success, while maintaining his own style and voice in his work.

“It’s so much easier now. I think I came, not late to the game, but late to having success with my design work because I had to wait for the internet to get good enough. For me, I spent 10 years attempting to get a career going by doing a lot of things for others, and it really was once the internet picked up that I really was able to disseminate my own work far enough that people were able to see it and hire me for that,” he said.

Image Source: Dan Stiles

Like Beck, Stiles recommends designers stay true to their interests and personal style. He says, in the 21st century, this can be your ticket to success, rather than a financial liability.

“If you really have an interest in something, pursue it. We now live in an era where that’s your strength, not your weakness.”

Stiles’ practical tip is to begin creating and displaying your own work online. He says displaying your own unique style is your calling card and “creative well,” and designers who are committed to successfully forging a unique, authentic career should be focused on “self-plagiarization.” He says big brands rarely want to experiment; they’d rather look at your own unique design work on your website, and hire you to replicate it for them.

MAX master class takeaway — be authentic. It pays.

Beck and Stiles are both examples of designers and illustrators who have played the long game of success. Both had many opportunities to deviate from their own styles in the name of becoming ‘successful designers,’ but both ultimately believed that following their own design passions would pay off.

“It’s about pursuing your passion and keeping that at the core of what you do. You’re going to end up doing other things on the side to make money, at some point, but if you look at people who are really successful at what they do, it’s people who keep what they’re really interested in as their central focus,” said Stiles.

“There’s almost no way to fail, and you’re going to find yourself in a unique position, doing what you love doing, because you’re the only one who’s really devoted to what you’re creating, your way.”

Every year, Adobe MAX brings the world’s best creative minds together to learn, share, create, connect, and play. Stay tuned for more lessons from the event’s creative pros, and head over to Adobe MAX’s website for more information.

Topics: Creativity, Design

Products: Creative Cloud