We asked 10 of our favourite designers to think back to the beginning of their careers and remember the best bit of advice they received. Designers being designers, none of them went in for your typically 'inspirational' guidance. There's no talk of 'looking through the rain to see the rainbow' going on here – instead, it's more like: 'shut up' and 'accept that you're a failure'.
Read on for the brutally honest but perennially useful lessons that helped these designers climb to the very top of their disciplines…
01. Think for yourself
Craig Oldham is known for giving brutally honest advice in print – his book Oh Sh*t... What Now? is out now – and in person as a public speaker. The Manchester designer was once told: 'If you can think, we can teach you everything else.' It's stuck with him throughout his career. "This," he says, "hands down, is the most reassuring, inspiring, and supportive thing I was ever told as a young designer. It's something I refer back to myself still, and something I always share with others."
02. Know when to shut up
The best bit of advice David Airey ever received can be boiled down to this: there are times you need to speak up and be heard, and there are times you need to shut your gob and listen. The Northern Irish logo and branding expert offers plenty useful advice in new book Identity Designer: The Definitive Guide to Visual Branding. He puts it in far more constructive, far more diplomatic terms: "You don’t learn much when you're talking."
03. Seek out failures
Based in Glasgow, Craig Black specialises in lettering and exterior design. A recent personal project saw him build and hang paper-sculpted stag heads decorated with typography. He says it's important you don't go into projects blindfolded. "The best piece of advice I received," he says, "especially when I wanted to pursue being an independent designer, was from my good friend and amazing letterpress designer Nicole Phillips: 'Find people who've done it before you, ask about their successes and, more importantly, their failures.'"
04. Do what you do best
Johan Debit is co-founder and creative director at Brand Brothers in Paris. The studio recently created a new identity for the 'book-lovers website' Reading Wild. Identity, logo design, typography: this what Brand Brothers excels at, Debit explains. So the team leave graphic and communication disciplines to others. They don't take on work they can't do to the best of their ability.
"This ultra-specialisation choice has made us better and much more visible, while drastically reducing stress situations and increasing our pleasure dramatically," Debit says. "The best advice I received was to focus on what I could do best. There is a great temptation to know how to do everything, but it is impossible. In artistic disciplines, it takes a lifetime – or 10 – to hope to become excellent."
05. Face your enemies
Jaime Zuverza makes some of the coolest, weirdest posters around. The advice the Austin-based designer and musician would like to pass on is pretty open to interpretation: "Your enemy is your friend."
It could mean taking on projects that push you out of your comfort zone, or possibly that a certain amount of self-doubt can spur you on to do better work. Or maybe it's a bit more philosophical: that you shouldn't be jealous of other people's successes.
If that's a bit too deep for you, then try this, his tip on doing plenty of research before you put pen to paper: "Never start with a blank canvas."
06. Avoid surprises
Sophie Brown is project director at Freytag Anderson. The Glasgow studio recently created the identity for The Modern Croft, which was an "opportunity to reinvent the Scottish tradition of crofting in a contemporary retail brand". It was a success, and based on simple principles.
Brown says: "The best piece of advice I’ve ever received would be to communicate, communicate, communicate! Make sure everyone knows what they’re working to. If something has to to change, tell the client in advance. If something’s agreed verbally, follow it up in writing. That way, there are no misunderstandings and no surprises."
07. Work with people who are better than you
Max Ottignon is co-founder of Ragged Edge, the London branding studio whose clients includes Grey Goose, Google and the BBC. The studio owes its success to following a simple (but hard to implement) bit of advice. Ottignon was once told: 'Hire people better than you.'
He says: "To start with it was hard to get my head round it. Not being the best felt like an admission of failure. But once I managed to put my ego to one side, it enabled Ragged Edge to do things I never thought possible."
08. Stay curious
Vanessa Eckstein is the founder and creative director of Blok Design. The Toronto studio recently designed the branding for 48North, a Canadian cannabis business, a project that required them to visually represent 'the boldness and the clarity' of the company.
In work and life Eckstein always refers back to a TS Elliot quote her father often repeated: 'We shall never cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.'
"My sense of eternal curiosity, the need to question from different points of view, the openness and hunger to keep on growing, and to experiment, knowing that the journey is more important than the immediate result, since all will also arrive at the right time. All these pathways in this one quote that I still keep close."
09. Don't expect immediate results
During their career, Yarza Twins have had their fair share of bumps in the road. The London-based Spanish designers were told early on that it was going to be this way. Very few – if any – designers make great work from the get-go. It takes time and patience.
Marta says: "We don't think that it's possible to become a designer from one day to another. To be a good graphic designer is a process that can take years to learn. So don't feel frustrated if your early creations are not good."
10. Don't rely on talent
As a young designer, Mark Richardson – aka Superfried – heard a few pieces of advice that stuck. Really, they're all riffs on the same theme: "Nothing counts until it is in the bank … You're only as good as your book … Talent is not enough." They're about staying motivated, staying hungry, about always wanting to do better.
Richardson has had countless 'potentially' exciting projects that fell through or, worse, the clients didn't pay up. Similarly, he says, just because you went to an exciting university and got a first-class degree doesn't mean you're going to do well as a professional.
That's why talent alone doesn't equate to success. "I have worked alongside some of the most talented in the business and they work harder than anyone else I have met! Hard work should be a given, but don’t kid yourself, there is always someone out there working harder than you."