How to Stay Ahead of the Curve as a Designer

How to Stay Ahead of the Curve as a Designer

With the lows of financial times, and bleak economic outlook lately it can be a bit unnerving for us as creatives. Will our jobs be in danger if there are budget cuts? Will our client/freelance work slow down as a result of small business having to cut expenses? Is there enough work out there for all of us? These are all honest questions that have probably crossed our minds at some point over the last few months, and rightly so, but before we get all doom and gloom (which this article isn’t) I think we should look at things from another angle.

The more people I talk to who are working in the creative field, the more I am realizing that our current economy is actually creating many opportunities for us. People are going out on their own as a result of being let go, or new opportunities arising, companies are looking for new ways to gain revenue; this means new opportunities to work on websites, web apps, consulting, and collaboration.

Web applications, and web interfaces are the future of advertising, marketing, communication, and interaction. The opportunities that will arise as a result of this shift will be many, and often. I guess this leads us to the questions…

"What do we want from this, and Why do we do it?"

By "this" I mean our jobs, careers, and creative pursuits. If you are just in it for a paycheck, then it might be time to start reading a different article… but then again maybe this article is just right… the opportunity is now here to use our passions and abilities to make something for ourselves, to achieve goals by staying ahead of the curve.

Why Bother?

So why bother? To be honest… if you don’t want it, then don’t bother, but I imagine that most of us do care about what we do, and have a passion for design, development, and creative endeavors. The state of the web and the design community is in constant flux, new technologies, new solutions, and new trends are always emerging and if we want to stay current, we need to emerge with them.

If we look at it just from the aspect of being able to provide top-level services to our clients, and make a living using creative skills, then we need to stay ahead of the curve simply to remain relevant in our market, and have a successful career as a designer. People are looking for what is "now" and as mobile technology, and web applications continue to grow more popular people are going to be wanting more of whatever is "now" as we design sites, apps, print collateral, and provide creative services.

If you are anything like me, you can’t just stop at being a career designer. I want more… I am going to get more. I want to influence the design community as much as possible, I want to learn, and I want to change things. I want something more than just 9-5 until it is time to power down and retire. I have goals, I want to write, design, speak, help others get started, and I want to live fulfilled. So for those of us with drive, and passion staying ahead of the curve is very crucial to our success. It is not going to be easy, it is not going to come without failure.

So for us the "why bother?" question has been and is always answered because I want to, better yet I have to. I want to contribute, I want to remain relevant as our space changes, I want to embrace that change where it applies and make a name for myself and the community of designers I am apart of.

This may seem easier said than done, life happens we have jobs, families, and other things that can drain us or consume most of our time.

So I have gathered five different things we can do to stay ahead of the curve!

Be Passionate

In his keynote at FOWA Miami 2009 Gary Vaynerchuck made the statement Passion is Undefeated. Passion is defined as "a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept" if we are going to succeed in anything, especially the ever changing design world, we are going to have to have a strong passion for what we do. If we don’t have it then we need to devote time to discovering that passion and building it.

More times than not we start with the passion, but work, life and lots of other things can crowd that passion out so that we lose sight of why we love doing what we do. Personally I have found that setting aside time each day to read blogs, visit some flickr groups, or gallery sites have really been helpful with maintaining passion and inspiration. Interaction is also a huge helper, talking to other people hearing their passions about what they are working gets me really stoked to work projects.

Our passion is going to be the driving force behind our motivation (even when we have none) to be the best, to make a contribution to the design community. It will provide the fuel to go the extra mile for clients and for ourselves.

Hit the Books

Plain and simple get out their and read, blogs, books, listen to podcasts, whatever is going to help us learn and get better at what we do. If you specialize in design, go get some books on CSS, JavaScript, or PHP, start learning code, start expanding your knowledgebase.

I am not saying to become a "jack of all trades master of none", but what I am saying is that, as a designer, having a better understanding of code, and back end development will help provide better and more prepared designs. Learning and expanding your skill set also gives you a level of diversity, and can open up new opportunities.

I have always thought that the second I stop learning is the second I start regressing. As fast as the design world changes, it is in our best interest to be constantly seeking to develop an arsenal of skills, without sacrificing current abilities, but instead complimenting them.

We just might miss opportunities if we are not prepared to adapt and expand with our market: ask the newspaper industry that is currently scrambling to find a way to make a mark online, and cash in on monetizing it’s traffic.


I mentioned Gary Vaynerchuck before, and not to be redundant, I have to mention him again. He has definitely built a following and found success, especially in the area of developing a personal brand. One of his phrases is "Crush It" which has really stuck with me in that it really embodies the idea of getting out there and getting a piece of the pie for yourself. The thing is though… you can’t crush it if you don’t hustle.

Late nights, constant refining, going the extra mile, making sure that your work is just right, leaving no room for second best, these are the traits of someone who is going to rise to the top, no matter what the economy is like, or how many people are in the game. Even if we lack some of the skills we would think necessary, if we are hustling, we can overcome those hurdles.

I know a lot of people with amazing skills but little drive, and discipline to stay the course, I also know a lot of people who are good (but not the best) who are out there owning it right now, because they have the desire to make it happen, they don’t stop at having the desire, they act on that desire.

Set time aside, for yourself, make sure you are refreshed, and when the time comes go after it! Whether it is for work, or personal projects focus your efforts, and see the results. You know your limits, don’t settle for second best, push yourself to improve your abilities, adapt new skills and make consistent progress.

Collaborate With Others

One of the best ways to keep the motivation and passion behind what you do is to surround yourself with a design community that will help you get better, and open up new opportunities.

As we look to improve our skills and stay ahead of the curve interacting with other designers can be a huge benefit. Sharing project ideas, gaining feedback and collaborating on projects helps you refine your skill set, open up doors to new opportunities, and find other people to work on projects with.

It is great to find people that have skill in an area where you lack, and create something awesome as you each bring a unique talent to the table, whether it be coding, design, engineering, the more resources that we have to collaborate with the better opportunity we have to work on and deliver well rounded, apps, websites, and media.

Take No Prisoners

By no means does this mean to take a self-centered approach to design, nor does it mean to step on others to get where you need to go. Instead this is a no holds bared approach to determination, overcoming obstacles, and persevering through frustration.

Don’t let people discourage you. Welcome criticism (constructive or not) evaluate it’s value to you and your goals, then apply where necessary. There will always be haters and those who feel the need to rain on other people’s parade.  The ability to sift through the comments and apply what can make you better as a designer is a huge step in progression and is crucial to staying ahead of the curve. We have to keep moving.

We can’t wait for other people, we have get out there and lead, if not someone else will come along and do it first, and probably do it better. Again it may not be the person who does something first… but the person who does it right that wins.

Follow your passion full force… if doors close look for other openings, be willing to adapt, you may just find a passion and career path that you didn’t have any idea was for you, and nothing is better than doing what you love and doing it well.

Wrapping Up

I am sure this sounded like on big cheerleading session, but sometimes it is necessary… it isn’t easy, we get tired of dealing with jobs, clients, and everything else that comes our way.

Each of these points has it’s dependencies on your situation, but I would venture out on a limb and say that if you move forward perfecting your skills learning new ones, putting in the blood sweat and tears, you will find success, maybe not right away, but there is something fulfilling about putting your efforts into something you love. Success isn’t truly seen in money or job titles, success is developing yourself, your talents, and making your mark on your industry and design community.

I am committing to extra effort, late hours, and the right kind of sacrifices to get out ahead of the game, to make a mark; I don’t want to be left looking around when everyone else has progressed. I don’t want to think of what could have been I want to be what is!

These are just a few concepts for consideration, some food for thought. I would love to hear your thoughts on progression, the coming changes in design trends and how we can adapt and make our mark.

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About the Author

Aaron Irizarry is a user experience/interaction designer for IGN Entertainment in Costa Mesa, California (where it’s always right around 70 degrees and sunny). He has a background in visual design and has been handcrafting pixels since 1998. He shares his thoughts and experiences on his blog Follow Aaron on Twitter @aaroni268.

This was published on Jun 3, 2009


Aaron Irizarry Jun 03 2009

Thanks so much for letting me write this piece, I really appreciate the opportunity, and patience as I put it together

~ Aaron I

Mike Smith Jun 03 2009

Awesome article Aaron. I particularly like the part about Hustling. I had a lot going on recently and have been hustling to get things back in order. It’s definitely a trait I embody as much as possible.

Again, great write up. I’ve tweeted for you :)

kyle steed Jun 03 2009

YES! YES! YES! Wonderful article with a ton of encouragement and inspiration. Thanks Aaron for all the hard work you put in to writing this article. And I love the teaser of your new theme up top, looking forward to seeing it go live.

Brandon Jun 03 2009

Great article Aaron! I concur on many of the points and think perseverance is ultimately what distinguishes us. What I find encouraging is struggle and doubt and overcoming hardship are a common theme throughout history. I’m currently reading John Adams. I’m amazed by how much adversity he and his colleagues had to overcome, not only in declaring and obtaining independence from Britain, but also in simply surviving everyday life. Common threads have been sown throughout every other biography I’ve read.

Joshua Jun 03 2009

Refreshing words at a time when we need to hear them most.

Donald G Wooten II Jun 03 2009

This was well put. Articulate and eloquent. I try to design every statement that way. I appreciate you using the terms “hustle” and “hater”. Sometimes communications get stuffy on these blogs. We are expected to be expressive but maintain a drop ceiling on our feelings when we speak to the public at large. I can identify with the message when I believe it’s coming from a real person.
I do basically everything you listed, but being slightly crazy has aided me immensely in terms of staying power. That’s not say losing your mind should be on the list, but not internalizing trivial elements of reality will help preserve your passion and not lock up your drive.

Super Post! Thanks.

MiAcevedo Jun 03 2009

Wow, good article. Very inspiring! It’s true, we need to stay up-to-date with what’s going on in the design community, then get up and make it happen. If we are constantly working on our own projects, or portfolio, our blog/portfolio will always be current with our latest work and design trends. We will also learn ALOT along the way!

Sometimes it can be difficult to work on our own personal projects for clients or ourselves when we are working a 9-5 (or even 6-5) job. That has been my excuse since I took on my current full-time job. But working on our own projects will remind us why we chose to be designers, and inspire us to step out and do more in the design community. The only unemployed “designers” I know are the designers without good portfolios, or an online portfolio at all.

Thanks Aaron, you inspired me to get my new portfolio going.

cancel bubble Jun 03 2009

Nice article. I’d like to suggest doing personal project sites as well. I’m more a DIY kind of guy, rather than collaborate, I’d rather buy some books and spend time reading them, then have my hand and making something – all on my own.

I’ve done several personal projects, one is cancelBubble, a site that helps people like you all stay ahead of the curve! Check it out.

Personal projects are wonderful ways to learn new skills.

cool post! thanks! working those late hours right now…

michael soriano Jun 03 2009

Love this article. Actually picked up a Learning jQuery book because I got so inspired

Garth Jun 03 2009

Thanks Aaron. Especially appreciating the Hustle and Collaborate sections…

Raymond Selda Jun 03 2009

Inspiration article Aaron. I’m a freelancer and one thing I need to improve is the collaboration. Sometimes it’s really hard to stay motivated all by yourself. But I know I’m heading the right way. Thanks.

FilipFilip Jun 03 2009

What if you are already behind the curve, a day late and a dollar short, caught between a rock and hard place, asleep at the switch, lost with no place to go, at the end of your rope, with your back at the wall, beaten to the punch, resting on your laurels, and your job is on the line?

Some good thoughts.

By the way, “it’s” = “it is”.


Alice Jun 04 2009

Gr8 inspirational article. As designers, we definitely need to follow our passion, work hard and adapt as necessary in this current economic climate. You’ve articulated the issues that many of us may have been skirting around.

I feel re-energized – thanks!

Rene Zammit Jun 04 2009

Great Inspiration :)

This really resonated with me, just about all these points apply equally for a developer type. I can recall 2 occasions in the last 10 years where being let go was a total blessing in disguise, despite the shitty stress at the time.

grafikdetail Jun 04 2009

great article! loved the “haters” comment:)

Graham Smith Jun 04 2009

Congrats on this article outside of your own comfy blog. Must feel good to be able to extend your reach, especially when you know you have something of value and interest to talk about.

Good on you mate

Kev Jaques Jun 04 2009

Hi Aaron, Over at SkinConsortium we have long held these beliefs, working together to create, learn, improve and give back to the community.
In a lot of ways the past few years we have been ahead of the curve and introducing new curve balls into the mix.
This would not be possible without collaboration which is key imo



MAN! i know alot of talented people who are desireless! so annoying and sad. great post.

Aaron Irizarry Jun 04 2009

@FilipFilip – if it is all that crazy… I suggest you take a deep breath…view your surroundings, and find something to fight with!(like in a zombie movie.)

Seriously just keep on pushing something will give, also it is helpful to remember that there are something you just cant control… so focus your energy and efforts on the things you can.

Aaron Irizarry Jun 04 2009

thank you everyone for the great feedback!

Cristian Jun 04 2009

Agreed! This is a great post on staying focused and keeping motivation up as a designer. I especially relate to the first point, Being Passionate. As designers we thrive on creative input. If we have none our work will suffer. So juicing up in the morning by reading blogs and galleries is a great way to fan that flame. Fuel is essential.

Baz Deas Jun 04 2009

Inspiring words Aaron. Having a passion for design is one of the best attributes that’ll help you succeed as a designer. I mean, if one doesn’t love every minute of their job, then they’re probably not in the right one.

OllieJ Jun 04 2009

This is definitely one of the best articles I’ve read in a while. I particularly enjoyed the points about passion and hustle. Will definitely tweet this and share with friends. Thanks!

Ted Goas Jun 04 2009

It’s true that one must hustle to be successful, especially as a freelancer. I also enjoyed how you mentioned other learning new things to compliment one’s skill set rather than to become a jack of all trades.

But I think maybe at times you’ve made it sound like we need to be going at this 14 hours a day, though. Maybe it was the ‘Take No Prisoners’ headline…

veracitydesign Jun 04 2009

really nice article. six revisions has had some really killer articles up lately, and this is one of them! it’s so important to keep in mind all the things aaron mentioned, to keep from getting too discouraged. thanks so much!

DWcourse Jun 04 2009

I would add two more suggestions:

1. Participate: There are plenty of online communities that have vibrant design discussions going on (forums, facebook groups, twitter etc.). Join one (or more – although too many can be hard to manage).

2. Contribute: As you learn share what you learn with others through your participation in your online community and/or your own blog.

Josh Clark Jun 04 2009

Great article!

Very important to hustle, and equally important to refresh. It’s not so hard to work several 14-16 hour days after having several relaxing 24 hour days. For me, it’s all about balance.

Jeff Powell Jun 05 2009

Aaron – thanks for taking the time to write this up, I really do appreciate it. Lots of good points here and you really nailed it regarding passion and its role in what we do. Cheers!

Nick Pagano Jun 05 2009

This was a really awesome article! I especially liked the part on hustling. It is so important, and as you mentioned, often overlooked. I too know people great at what they do, that have no drive. Its sad to see!

I also agree with the “always going to be haters” aspect.

Overall, great read, with some very important points. Great job!

Joel Beukelman Jun 05 2009

“If you specialize in design, go get some books on CSS, JavaScript, or PHP, start learning code, start expanding your knowledgebase.”

This is me to the enth degree. I am totally pulling my hair out and pushing myself to learn some more php and css. Its difficult, but once you get over the fear of those hundreds or thousands of lines of code, its pretty freakin rewarding.

Carolyn Douglas Jun 05 2009

Hi Aaron. This is my first visit to your blog – I clicked on this post link from twitter. Although I built and coded our intranet product from scratch, I am at heart not a programmer but a designer. My passion is the user interface and I spend hours getting it just right (or trying to!). Your post hit home for me because it defines exactly how I feel about not only my work, but my life. Thanks for the inspiration and I look forward to reading more from you and your tweets!

Jack Rugile Jun 06 2009

The freelance world can be a bit scary at times. There is so much damn competition in web design. Thousands of designers who have years more experience, natural talent, and more creativity are all out there fighting to the death.

From my point of view (a beginner), it terrifies me getting into this kind of business. But I still love it to death and it is the only thing I want to do.

I am a musician also and I felt the same feelings in that industry. It can feel hopeless that you will ever reach a skill level or creative level that is of any significance.

What is going to set me apart from the others? Why will clients choose me? I don’t know. Maybe they won’t. We will see. Even with all this it is all still appealing to me.

By the way, if I see another independent web designer’s portfolio page that says, “Hi. My name is so and so. I design websites”, I will get a rash.

web easy Jun 06 2009

Nice tips. I guess the biggest problem is keeping the pace with ever-changing web design technology and constant learning you’re exposed to. But that’s the way it works: always something new and better…

Gaurav M Jun 06 2009

We need to keep on pushing the limit. but sometimes its feel that we are on a endless roads… always fighting with our self to give best. The definition of the best varies based upon certain constraints..but yeah we have to bother about the things so that we don’t have to eaten by lion ..firing etc.

Just what I needed after last week.

Lady_Jaws Jun 08 2009

I’m always struggling with my time management as I work full time and sometimes I have a freelance job as well. Am Juggling time between relaxation, family, jobs, reading blogs, do some tutorial, and other stuff.

Thanks to your post! I know I’m in a right track, just need to find and manage those time…

Prem Rawat Quotes Jun 09 2009

Thanks very nice article

Parvez Jun 09 2009

A thought-provoking article indeed!!

Wynter Jun 09 2009

“[..] they don’t stop at having the desire, they act on that desire.”

That’s very important in my opinion. It’s easy to be super motivated on Monday and not care on Friday. The most successful people are always acting on the desire to move forward.

Great article :)

Jason LaRose Jun 11 2009

Very nice article. A welcome change to all the “Top 20” lists and How-To’s out there. As a designer who is nowhere near as passionate and motivated as I was this time last year, this is a great article to help ignite that spark again, and helps designers give meaning to what they do and why they do it.

Les James Jun 12 2009

I often get very complacent with my design career and it’s articles like this that inspire me to keep pushing the limits of what I can do. Thank you for writing this. I’ll be sure to look back at it often for a motivation shot in the arm.

Sarah Jun 12 2009

I really loved this article– especially what you had to say about the Hustle. Sometimes it feels like hard work, keeping up with the Joneses, but in the end it always pays off.

For the past eight months or so, I’ve been doing freelance work since I haven’t been able to find full-time work since graduation. Instead of just job searching, I made an effort to learn new web scripts and programs, read more design blogs, and do some personal projects. I’ve gotten lots of interest in my personal projects, and now I’ve got job offers. As hard as it’s been not having a regular paycheck, the extra time has given me the freedom to try new things and experiment. I think this economy makes for a great fermentation of ideas. It’s the silver lining.

Sweet Pixels Jun 13 2009

I have about 12 – 18 months experience in web design & print design with technologies such as PHP, CSS, XHTML, Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator. With this downturn I’ve spent a great deal of time learning from the web and experimenting. I would say I’ve learnt more in the last three months then I have in the last 15 months from other great designers/developers through great articles such as this. Well done…!

Keith D Jun 13 2009

“Hit the books” – couldn’t agree more. There are some great books out there if you want to learn new skills. And the prices aren’t bad if you shop around.

I would add that therte are some great articles on the web about WordPress, php… anything that you want to learn.

Of course when you’ve done all that learning… you still have to find clients, and hope that they will pay you for a good looking, fast loading, well optimised site.

Chris Pierre Jun 19 2009

I believe this was a great article and very inspirational!
Keep it up!

Carina Jun 25 2009

I just love this article, Aaron. I personally believe that we can become everything we truly want to become. There exist no limits except those in our heads.
Hope to read more from you soon,

Tracey Jun 26 2009

Thank you so much for this inspiring article. As of next week I am taking 10 weeks paid long service leave from my boring, unsatisfying government job to focus on getting my web design business off the ground. I will save this article to read when I need reminding why I am doing this.

tintedPixel Jul 01 2009

It’s hard for some to stay passionate in an industry where the bottom line often trumps design and/or creativity. But don’t loose sight of why you got into this biz in the first place.

I have always found that collaboration with others, and learning (something new each day) can keep things fresh and exciting.

We are all very lucky to be earning a living doing something that we truly enjoy. It’s a state of mind and a lifestyle that I wouldn’t trade for anything. well… there may be a few things.

Elena Jul 01 2009

This is such a great read for me. I have projects on the horizon and I’m constantly doing new things for the website of my current employer. This advice is really valuable and inspiring in such a dire time. Fantastic job!

Kevin Jul 01 2009

Every designer/creative should read this and remember why they became a designer, otherwise, you should consider doing something else.

Pankaj Jul 11 2009

In spite of the competition, i think the pie is big enough at this point for talented and committed designers.

Amara Poolswasdi Jul 14 2009

Long time lurker, first time commenter.

I’ve been having lots of sleepless nights and restless days wrestling with lots of the topics you presented above — from having the passion and the drive to staying disciplined — and you’ve definitely put words to a lot of the angst and emotions that I have been experiencing (as well as the university students I work with!). When I’m not helping manage The Rainmaker Network (, I’m running my boutique studio Unicorn Press and the days can definitely be taxing. I try to keep my end goals and the bigger picture in mind.

Great piece — it looks like you’ve helped a lot of people along the way.

Jacob Gube Jul 14 2009

@Amara Poolswasdi: First, I’m glad this post drew you out – and I expect to post more of these types of posts to draw out the long-time Six Revisions readers, I know ya’ll are out there, so leave us a note here to let us know who you are! Second, wow you’re doing a lot and making sure that you have enough personal time does wonders in terms of staying ahead of the curve: when you’re doing so much, you end up just thinking about the next action — which prevents you from thinking about the future and innovation. My two cents.

BryanRegencia Jul 21 2009

Hi Aaron,

Nice article, very good inpiration. Thanks for sharing.


Very good content, but your punctuation drove me nuts.

Lorenzo Araneo Jul 24 2009

Thanks! Enjoyed this alot

romodong Jul 26 2009

very inspirational article, I often stuck with my job so this article give me inspiration what to do, what thing i have to ignore, what thing i have to grab.

Laura Jun 11 2010

Great article! I know that this post is already a year long, but I still wanted to thank you for it.
When you mentioned “I have always thought that the second I stop learning is the second I start regressing.”, I totally agreed. I tend to think the same. That ambission is what drives me to always be learning something new.


zalel Jun 15 2010

A grammar point: In the following paragraph, you have a misplaced apostrophe. The word “it’s” should be “its,” since it’s a possessive, not a contraction of “it is.”

We just might miss opportunities if we are not prepared to adapt and expand with our market: ask the newspaper industry that is currently scrambling to find a way to make a mark online, and cash in on monetizing it’s traffic.

Craig Sep 09 2010

I agree you need lots of passion and definitely helps to be constantly learning and evolving doing something you enjoy, Great article!

Nikki Davis Nov 28 2010

GREAT article Aaron, I am a creative and I run a small design agency and I find it very frustrating that there are soooo many designers (web and graphic) who are more than willing to do double the amount of work for a lot less money than us, so its extremely important for us to constantly stay ahead of the game but your article has inspired me tremendously, I love Six Revisions!

Joseph Elliott May 14 2011

Hi Aaron, what a great post, I do agree to be a good designer personal development is important as new things are happening at lightening speeds, new technologies etc… Wish browsers especially IE would do this so it makes our lives easier with HTML 5 and CSS3 lol soon it will be CSS4 when the browsers catch up lol :), thanks

Kristine Sep 29 2011

Terrific inspirational article – as I was born in the graphic design stone age and had to learn it all again. As you say “As fast as the design world changes, it is in our best interest to be constantly seeking to develop an arsenal of skills, without sacrificing current abilities, but instead complimenting them.”

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