Everyone is Lost: How to Find Direction in the Design Industry

Between Imposter Syndrome, burnout and missed invoices, the life of a freelance designer can be hard enough. But what about when you find yourself completely lost for what to even do in the design industry?

I've found myself there a few times, and as a result, I've explored pretty much every branch of the design tree. From my bread and butter with UI, UX and web, to projects in fashion, graphic, print and even 3D. I enjoy pushing the limits of my skill set and learning new things. But this inability to continue down a single road can sometimes become a problem if sustained too long. There was a time during 2019 I was dividing my time between working on all of the disciplines mentioned above. And the burnout and mental fatigue had a significant effect on the quality of my output.

So if you can't spread yourself out too much, for fear of decreased quality. How do you constantly keep things exciting by trying new things to find your place in this big, cold world?

The answer is going to be a hard one to swallow:

You don't. You can't.

Sorry.

Terrible Results

Experimenting is all well and good. It's an important part of growth and progression. But experimentation without a hypothesis and scope just makes you a mad scientist. Experimenting at random is akin to multitasking, in the fact that working on multiple things at once will lead to terrible results.

The reason that flitting between tasks doesn't work in anything, let alone design, is because brains work like trains.

Yep.

I didn't just say that because of the rhyming element. Brains actually do work like trains.

Let me explain.

A train jolts into life before slowly and steadily building up to its top speed. Often taking a while to get past the "why the fuck are we going so slowly?" stage. A brain needs the same kind of ramp up time. And the longer you work in a set direction, the faster and more effective you become. Once you get past that initial slow patch.

To avoid terrible results, plan just one thing and work on it consistently alongside your work, school, job, whatever. By choosing just one thing at a time (it doesn't have to be a forever decision, just a, for now, decision), you're able to know what direction you're heading in without thinking. You know what goals you want to achieve.

Everyone Else is Lost Too

Ever wondered how amazing directors make shitty movies? Or how that band you love made a whole album you just can't stand? It's because, just like you, everyone else is making it up as they go along.

It's easy to feel lost in the design industry. Or in any creative industry. Because every person brave enough to share any piece of their thoughts and feelings into the world (be it an app design, a painting, a song or macaroni and glue creation) ends up hating their own work. Maybe it's overexposure. Maybe it's impostor syndrome. Who knows?

So now you know everyone else is lost too. Does that help you feel better? Probably not. But at least you know you're not alone.

Finding That One Thing

I mentioned the importance of making a decision (even in the short term) to work on just ONE thing with your passion or progression time. This might seem like a difficult task, and it truly is. But I've learnt a few times (and been rewarded with some very savage burnout) that trying to work on multiple directions at once within a passion can be damaging to the results.

During mid-2019, I went on a bit of a tangent after feeling lost in my direction. I decided to spend all of my free time designing posters, or as my friend, Cassius called it: "goth cyberpunk nonsense". While I enjoyed this for a period, I soon lost interest and wish I had spent more time thinking through the activity before embarking on it.

This is an important lesson.

That tangent didn’t just cost me time I could have spent better on literally anything else. It almost certainly cost me money too.

By massively changing up the direction I've been working down for over a decade, I lost a large portion of the audience I had worked so hard to build. After that, I realised that I had made these key decisions a long time ago without thinking; and can only adjust a bit now without needing to start again.

I'm now getting back on track after this realisation and keeping my more "extreme" creative exploration to places like music and clothing. I have returned to posting primarily iOS work over on Dribbble. It might be less "fun", but my business is growing and getting more inbound leads again.

Back on the topic of deciding what to direction to pick. It's a tough one. But a decision you must make. I chose to pursue iOS due to my background in UI, web and other technology design, but your circumstances may differ.

The most important thing is you find a spark, validate it and push as hard as you can until you know if it's going to work or not.

Why Not Deciding Will Hurt You

While the time spent discovering that spark to push you forwards might be hard, it is nothing in comparison to the difficulty you'll experience trying to work on a variety of different things within one discipline will provide you with. I can speak from experience that spreading yourself out in an industry will damage you and your prospects (as I said above). Not only that, but I believe it can result in a drastic dilution of your creative skill.

Let’s take the example of a designer. In deciding to work on a large variety of different methods, you spread out your creative power. Resulting in terrible or average results across the board.

Instead, choose to make a decision and push to practice and make it work. Build habits that affect your end results and don’t stop.

Keep Getting Up

Not giving up is an important part of success. While there may be some (very rare) occasions when that voice telling you to give up is right. In 99% of occurrences, you should keep pressing forward.

You're going to get hit and experience some hard losses. You’ll need to tweak, adjust, alter and most importantly practice.

During these difficult times, you’ll feel like giving up or “taking a break”. But these are the times that you’ll need to dig extra deep for your motivation. Take a moment to remember your overall goals and look back at how far you’ve come on your journey.