How to build a brand both you and your customers love?

How to build a brand both you and your customers love?

Do you unconditionally love your brand? And also feel comfortable showing it: your brand and your love for it? And I don’t mean, are you comfortable speaking in front of camera or on a Facebook live. I mean, do you get lit up just by talking about your business, your mission, and the value you bring to people?

I really really hope you do. Because you are the most important ambassador of your business. When you’re representing your brand, it better be pure authentic love fest. Because people can smell insincerity miles away.

If you’re embarrassed by your branding (visuals, messaging, etc.) you should fix that ASAP. I understand it feel overwhelming just to think about the project. But it’s much easier than you think. The part that can be a bit of a challenge is the brand strategy. 

By “challenge” I don’t mean that it’s super difficult to nail down or anything. In fact, you as the soulpreneur service provider have all the information you need for brand strategy. You just need to know what to surface.

The process is very thoughtful and deep. It focuses on your reasons for being an entrepreneur, your passions and values in life, and — of course — how you want to serve people. So, if you’re not clear on those, the entire branding process may feel uncomfortable — or even intimidating.

The intimidation often comes from the misunderstanding people have that there must be some “correct answers” when drafting brand strategy. And that it is so thoroughly specialized field and dominated by experts, that an average Jane possibly can’t have anything intelligent to add to their own brand strategy.

I assure you: it’s the opposite. Yes, there’s some thought work you need to do, and maybe some research into your competitors and your ideal customer. But for a business founder and a soulpreneur like you, many of the brand strategy exercises are interesting, eye-opening, and thought-provoking. They offer an opportunity for deepening you bond with your business and brand.

So, as long as you do this ground work well and have the brand strategy nailed down, all the pieces will fall in place easily. And you can fall in LOVE with your brand again. And have your customers do the same thing.

Enough with the chitchat! How do to build a brand both YOU and YOUR CUSTOMERS absolutely love?⁣ The steps are below in a nutshell. You can also get my more comprehensive 7-step brand strategy framework now for free.

How to build a brand both you and your ideal customer love?

Step 1: Get clear on who you are, what you represent, and why you’re in business.

Step 2: Get clear on who you want to serve, who is your ideal customer. Define the demographics, but most importantly their needs, pain points, desires, and beliefs.⁣

Step 3: Define the personality of your brand. How would you describe your brand if it was an actual human being? How does that person talk? What do they look like? And so on… ⁣

Step 4: Discover the aesthetic preferences of your ideal customer⁣. What do they like? Pink and floral patterns? Or conservative gray and pinstripes? 

Step 5: Build a brand story that reflects who you are, what your mission is, how you’re unique, and how you bring value to your customers. Wrap that story in a visual identity that represents all the above and reflects your brand personality.⁣

As always, let me know if you have any questions, or if I missed something in this post.  ️❤️

Happy Branding!

P.S. If you haven’t already done so, come check out my free Facebook group DIY Brand Design & Strategy for Soulpreneurs where I teach soulpreneurs like you to build their own branding and create their own designs. 

How to create consistent branding without brand guidelines?

How to create consistent branding without brand guidelines?

One of the reasons we create visual guidelines (logo, colors, fonts, etc.) is to ensure that any marketing and visual communication we put out there is always aligned to our brand. We want everything to be consistent. If you have well-crafted brand guidelines and a design system, you’re in a good place. And this may not be a concern for you. But if you’re still trying to figure out your branding, you might struggle a bit trying to keep the cohesive and consistent look and feel.

You know, your brand doesn’t wait for you to build it. It starts building itself the moment you start representing your business and interacting with people. And there are few tips you want to be aware of in order to avoid inconsistency and misleading branding.

Before you have a stellar design system for your brand, you can still affect your brand look and feel — big time. If you know me, you know that I encourage people to keep moving forward whether they have a fully fleshed out branding or not.

Your brand is not your logo

Number one thing I want people to understand is: your brand is not one single thing but an experience. This includes your customers’ interactions with you. This includes the impression they get when they come across your marketing. This includes the vibe you give out in your Facebook lives or Instagram stories. This includes what people talk about your business. And yes, this also includes your logo, colors, fonts, and how well those are used together. Your brand is the experience your customers get when they come across with anything related to your business.

This might sound overwhelming, but it’s actually good news. One of the most common complaint I get from solopreneurs who are just starting is: I can’t move forward with my plans because I don’t have a logo. And by this they typically mean a professionally designed logo. But the good news is: your logo is just one small piece of your branding.

Yes, you will need to have a logo. But no, it doesn’t necessarily have to be an expensive investment. Have you ever heard anyone say “I bought this service or product because the. company had such a great logo. I don’t know anything else about them, but the logo sure was great?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a designer, I love nothing more than beautifully designed business identity. But I would never want someone to feel stuck because one piece of their branding is not perfect. If this gets you excited and ready to move forward with your logo design, I have a quick logo creation guide that you can use to design something for yourself. You can get it here. And I’ve created a check list to help you decide whether your logo is ready to be published.

Brand personality & keywords

The second thing I’d like people without fully fleshed brand guidelines and design system to do is to define 1-3 brand personality keywords to help them make decisions related to their branding.

You brand personality is all the adjectives and characteristics you want people to associate with your branding. For some people, this is super clear and they immediately have a couple of characteristics in their mind. For others, it’s tough to grasp this concept. So, let me help you figure this one out because I have a fun exercise for my clients to help them figure out the brand personality.

What often helps with brand personality is to try to imagine who your brand was if they were a person. A living and breathing person. And then you start describing this person. Are they a man or a woman? How old are they? Where do they live? In what kind of house? What kind of music do they listen to? What kind of clothes do they wear? What is their personal style? How are they as a person (social, introverted, deep, cheerful, etc.)? Are they married? Do they have kids? Do they have pets? If they do, what kind of pets? Who do they hang out with? And who is their best friend? So, you build an image in your head about what kind of person your brand would be if they were a person.

You might think that “how many descriptions of people you need to create” because maybe you’re just done describing you ideal customer avatar (your target audience). But you should not mix your brand personality with the personality of your ideal customer. They are not the same. Your brand as a person should be your ideal customer’s best friend or someone they admire and aspire to be. Let me explain a bit further.

If your ideal customer is a shy introvert who you want to coach to make their dreams come true, it wouldn’t help if your brand as a person was also shy and introverted. Now, would it? So, one more time, your brand as a person should be your ideal customer’s best friend or someone they admire and aspire to be. They should be someone your ideal customer feels drawn to, someone they can relate to or look up to.

It often helps to understand how this will affect your branding to first visualize that person. Find imagery of a person you imagine your brand would be as a person. Find images of the house they’d live in and the clothes they are wearing. Are you building an image of a person who wears colorful dresses and flower reefs or a serious business man who always wears the best-fitting expensive tailored suits?

When you have a good idea how your brand would be if it were a person, list 1-3 keywords or adjectives that describe that person. The more specific these words are, the better guidance you’ll get for your branding. For example, if your keyword is simply “happy,” it is too broad to bring up a certain look and feel. And you’d be better off trying to either define more accurately what you mean by happy. Or at least, add two more specific keywords to go with it.

But let’s say your keywords are cheerful, easily approachable, and light-hearted. That will already give you an idea what kind of language, imagery, or colors you’d associate with those keywords.

When you have your keywords down, start using them with everything you do in regards your branding until you have a fully fleshed design system for your brand. And in many ways, after that, too.

When you’re choosing what photos to use on your website or on your Instagram feed, you’d ask yourself “are these photos cheerful, easily approachable, and light-hearted” (or insert whatever keywords you’d be using). And same you’d ask for your messaging and tone of voice, how you’d present yourself during a live performance, what kind of colors you’d choose for your color library, etc.

Is it necessary to always include all your keywords? Not always, but the more you include all of them the more consistent your branding will be.

Color has a big impact

After you’ve nailed down your personality keywords, you can use them to help you define your initial color library. What colors communicate and represent the keywords you’ve chosen? You can use a photo to help you further refine your color library. I’ve collected some examples of color libraries built with the help of a single image here.

Colors have a strong impact on our experiences and memory of things. So, one powerful trick to keep the brand feeling consistent is to always use the brand colors consistently. Colors also help to catch attention and communicate your brand personality.

I’ve written about the impact of brand colors more in detail in the blogpost Color me branded: How to choose the right colors for your brand.

Branding can feel overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. And you don’t have to wait until you have everything figured out. Many entrepreneurs will create a “starter brand” which is less specific because they are still figuring out who their customer is and what their offering will be. This starter brand doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy, but it does have to be professional to evoke trust.

And many will end up re-branding few years into their business journey when all the details are clear. Once you have those amazing brand guidelines and design system established, you’ll start using those components and instructions to always have 100% consistent look and feel. But until then follow the advice in this post to make sure your brand won’t be all over the place.

Happy branding!

P.S. If you haven’t already done so, come check out my free Facebook group DIY Brand Design & Strategy for Soulpreneurs where I teach soulpreneurs like you to build their own branding and create their own designs. 

How to work with designers: design brief

How to work with designers: design brief

Do you outsource design tasks and find that often the end result looks nothing like what you were expecting? This is a super common friction point between designers and their clients. If this happened to you, maybe you hired an unexperienced designer — or just one without the right skills. There’s also a good chance you didn’t communicate your expectations clearly enough.

Every successful design project starts with good communication between the client and the designer. No matter how good the designer is, they can’t read your mind and they don’t know your products, services, or audience as well as you do. Well, what all things does the designer need to know? And how do you communicate everything in the best possible way?

The answer to your question is: a design brief. This is a piece of documentation that you should hand to the designer in the very beginning of the project. It outlines the goals and expectations for the design deliverable — the outcome.

Sometimes the client and the designer work together to get the design brief just right. Basically this means, you draft a brief for the designer. And they return it with questions and comments.

If you produce a design brief that both parties feel good about, your project is up for a much smoother ride. Below you can find a listing of things that are good to have in an effective design brief.

Business information

Start the brief by listing important high level details on you business:

    • Company name
    • Contact person (if someone else than you) and best ways to contact
  • What does your business do
    • A brief explanation of what your business does

Project information

    • Goal of this project
        • What is your project about?
      • What are you trying to achieve, what is the ideal outcome?
    • Project plan
        • When is this project due?
      • How many revisions you’re expecting
        • Sometimes the designer dictates this based on the amount you’re paying them. General rule of thumb is: more revisions mean more expensive price tag.
    • What is the design deliverable (the outcome)
      • What are you expecting the designer to deliver for you?
        • Is it an ebook, a website, a flyer, a business card, etc.
        • This can be one item or multiple. List everything you are expecting to be designed during this project.
  • Scope of the design work (be as specific as possible)
      • Quantity of each item
        • E.g. How many pages on the ebook or website? How many different versions of the business card?
    • What is the content (text, images, etc.)
      • Be as specific as possible (how many words, how many images, etc.)
      • Spell out if the designer has any flexibility with the content or if you’re expecting them to use your content exactly as is.
        • Typically designers shouldn’t touch the content. But in some cases you may want to give some flexibility, if you want to make sure the content fits on x amount of pages, etc. Or if you know the designer also has editing experience and you trust them.
    • Are you expecting to see design exploration?
      • If you want the designer to show you 2-3 different versions to choose from, spell it clearly out here.
        • Sometimes the designer dictates this based on the amount you’re paying them. General rule of thumb is: more exploration means more expensive price tag.

Client expectations

  • What are your expectations? How do you want the designer to work?
      • Does the designer have free hands to do whatever they want? Or follow your direction tightly?
    • Are you expecting something creative and unexpected? Or rather follow traditional styles and thinking?
    • What are the non-negotiables?
      • If you already know that you have strict rules or limitations you want the designer to follow, spell them out clearly here.
        • E.g. Never use red color. Or only use the imagery you provide. Or your audience is old people and you don’t want any font below size 14 pts used. Anything that is non-negotiable for you.

Brand compliance

If you have a brand guidelines documentation separately, you can give them access to that. And you don’t need this section. However, if you don’t have your brand guidelines documented anywhere, then include a section for it here. You want to keep this section rather brief. You’re including it so the designer understands the look and feel you want to convey. And to make sure they are creating designs that comply with your brand.

    • Tagline or slogan if you have one
    • You audience
        • Description of your audience
      • Demographics
          • Age 
          • Gender
          • Geographical area
        • Needs and desires
    • What makes your business offering unique
      • What is the unique value your brand offers to your customers?
    • Brand personality
        • Keywords (3-4 keywords that describe the personality of your brand)
      • Description of the personality 
        • What are the defining characteristics of your brand?
  • Visual guidelines (You should have at least a one sheet document that includes the visual identity guidelines)
    • Logo
      • Primary logo
      • Additional logo lock ups or versions if you have any
    • Colors
    • Fonts
    • Design elements (icons, illustrations, graphics, etc.)
    • Photography style

Working with designers is not difficult as long as you have good lines of communication with them. With a solid design brief, you can get a good start for any design project. You know what they say: well planned if half done.

Have you had difficulties working with designers? Tell your story below in the comments.

Catch you soon,


P.S. If you haven’t already done so, come check out my free Facebook group DIY Brand Design & Strategy for Soulpreneurs where I teach soulpreneurs like you to build their own branding and create their own designs. 

How to know if your design is good enough to publish?

How to know if your design is good enough to publish?

One of the most common questions I get from non-designers is “how do I know when my design is good enough to publish?” People seem to think that there’s some magical gut feeling to tell you that “wow, now it is ready and amazing.” The truth is, even experienced professional designers, prone to strive for perfection, use checklists and cheatsheets to define when a design is final and “done.”

A mentor once told me: “digital product is never truly done because you can tweak it forever.”  This is both good and bad. It is good because if you made an error or found out something new that has an impact on your product, you can go and improve your design and re-publish. But it can also be bad because most of the times you have deadlines and goals. And actually, perfection is not desired nor does it even matter. Good design is what matters. And that is what I am going to help you achieve.

So, how do you know when your design is good enough and ready to be published? It depends on the design you’re creating, but let’s assume that you’re creating design assets for your brand. Below I’ve created two cheatsheets (logo and layout) to help you evaluate whether your design is good enough to be published.

Logo design

Logo is a tough one to evaluate because there are so many things that can make a logo successful. And not all of those things are directly visible in the design. In any case, I will list questions you should ask yourself before you declare your logo ready:

Does the metaphor or your logo symbol reflect your offering, mission or vision, or a signature process you may have? Essentially, does the metaphor either depict what it is you sell or who you are?

Does the aesthetic reflect the personality or your brand? You will need you brand personality defined before you can assess this.

Do the colors align with your brand guidelines? You will need to have your brand design system built for this step.

Is the aesthetic appropriate for your ideal customer?

Does the logo (physically) scale well to different sizes? This is the most common issue I see with logos created by non-designers — and well, by professional designers as well. If the size contrast between logo elements is too big (some elements are much bigger than others, typically graphics vs text), the logo won’t scale well to small sizes that are often used on mobile version of your site, in the corner of your instagram post, or on a business card. This is because when the larger elements in your logo are appropriately small for the use, the much smaller elements (typically text) have become illegible.

Are there elements in the logo that can easily become a standalone element and that can be used for an app icon, on a clothing tag, as a social media profile picture, etc? This one is optional. If you are a service provider and know that you have no need for a standalone element, then you can ignore this one.

Are the texts legible? In large sizes? In small sizes?

Are the graphics clean and clear? No pixelation visible, edges are crisp/clean unless the style requires otherwise

Do you own the copyright to the design of your logo [important] If you hire a freelance designer or an agency, make sure that it spells out in the contract that you will own the rights to the design of your logo. I’ve heard about cases where there has been confusion who actually owns the copyrights. And I even know about cases where the designer tried to deny the business owner from making changes to the logomark due to the rights of the graphics not being transferred to the business owner in their contract.

Is the design timeless? This one is my personal preference to add. Ideally, your logo will stand time and you don’t have to redesign it too often. If your brand becomes successful, your logo will start accruing value in recognizability and customer loyalty. And you want to keep that.

Layout design

Layout design is a bit easier to evaluate, but there are also more variables you have to consider. Below I list some general rules that can be applied to almost any layout design. Not all rules will necessarily apply in your case. And some of the things below will only apply to text heavy documents with lots of body copy).

Is all the required content included in the layout? This sounds super boring, but is actually very important to check. Did you remember to include everything you need to? The only thing worse than having a bad layout design is missing some important content content.

Is the content hierarchy immediately clear? Will the reader know where to start from and how to proceed? Hand in hand with this goes: are you prioritizing the right things in your content? This is more about content strategy, but it does affect the design as well.

Are you using a consistent grid? This will affect the alignment of items on the page. Do the items align well and consistently (especially left edges in the left-to-right reading countries)?

Are you following the rule of thirds? The most important elements are placed according to rule of thirds to create interest and balance.

Is the visual style of the layout consistent and unified? Do you use header and body styles for your text consistently? Do you have consistent image style and cropping?Are you using colors consistently? When in doubt, use color sparingly and only add one or two colors in addition to black or dark grey.

Are your font choices appropriate? For example, don’t use Comic Sans or a script font for a business document. If you have brand guidelines, use the fonts that were specified there.

Are you pairing fonts appropriately? Rule of thumb is: don’t combine more than two different typefaces (fonts), and pair together sans serif and serif. When in doubt, use only one typeface and select one that has a good selection of different weights and styles (e.g. light, medium, regular, bold, semi-bold, etc.). Then use the different styles and weights of that one typeface to create hierarchy, balance, and visual interest.

Are your type sizes age appropriate? Don’t use tiny mouse type if your audience is elderly people.

Are your type sizes appropriate for the selected font? Don’t use a script font in small sizes because it won’t be legible. If you’re in doubt, test it. Show your layout to few people and ask “can you read that?”

Do you have appropriate amount of content per page? Don’t over stuff your pages with text. Breathing space (the notorious “white space”) helps reader to focus themselves to what is coming next.

Are your columns the appropriate width? 9-12 words per column is recommended for English language. You can adjust the word amount per row by adjusting the type size or the column width.

Do you have appropriate amount of margins around your layout? Will people be printing this? Are they going to put it in binder? Is it going to be viewed on a mobile device? All these things will affect the margins.

Is your imagery appropriate for the topic and audience?

Are the images high enough resolution for the size and purpose (print vs digital)?

Are important details like dates, prices, and contact info easily found?

Do you have a comfortable balance between large and small elements on the layout? Visual interest and balance can be created by combining large and small elements. For example, most successful web landing pages out there will have one really large element (typically the featured hero image), a few medium sized elements (the offerings or services), and a few small elements (social media icons, contact info/links, navigational items). This is especially important for poster style layouts such as flyers, (visual) social media posts, and well, posters.

Have you thought of all different types of readers? How does your layout design serve and support someone who has: Two seconds to glance? Two minutes to browse?Two hours to sit down and read everything carefully?

There you have a few things to check form your design, when you’re having difficult time deciding whether your design is good enough to be published. Let me know what you’re working on in the comments. And check out our facebook page for more design tips: https://www.facebook.com/dlycreative/

How to choose the right Canva template for your leadmagnet

How to choose the right Canva template for your leadmagnet

Design is becoming more accessible for masses with easy to use online design applications like Canva.com. This is great for solopreneurs and, really, anyone who has just started their business and can’t afford to (or don’t want to) invest in hiring a professional designer. Canva.com is so easy to use, and has many well-designed free templates, that it really does make creating brand and marketing assets a breeze. However, I still often get questions on how to take advantage of Canva templates and how to choose the right template for your needs. So, I put together this post to help you assess the templates and pick just the right one for your leadmagnet.

How to find and apply templates in Canva

Canva’s design workflow has been built around choosing the right template. You can either start from “Your brand” section and select the “Templates” tab as shown in the image below. You will get a selection of templates to choose from. It may feel overwhelming for a moment as there are so many to choose from. By taking a closer look at the template’s thumbnail, you can see what the template is tailored for (e.g. Instagram post, Poster, Presentation). For a beginner, it is a good idea to select a template that has been designed for the same purpose you’re building an asset for. On the thumbnail, you can also see how many people have “liked” the template. The higher the amount of likes is, the more likely the template layouts are versatile and well-designed. But the likelihood of other people using the same template also goes up.

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 12.17.04.png

The other way to access templates is to click on the “Create a design” button on the top left corner. This will take you to a page where templates are grouped by categories based on the use and purpose of the template. See image below. This is the approach I like to use as it supports the way I think about starting a new project (e.g. I need to design a “How to” document pdf.)

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 12.17.29

Let’s say you are making a How-to guide or a cheat sheet as your leadmagnet and you want it to be a letter sized document, and it will likely have multiple pages. Choosing to create a document from the “Create a design” view will open an empty document where you then need to apply a template from the template library. When you are browsing the templates in the library, one important thing to check is how many layouts are included in the template. The more layouts there is the more versatile the template is.

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What makes a good document template

Whether a template is a good fit for your document really depends on your intended use. We already defined you wanted to create a multipage, letter-sized pdf document. That already excluded other types of templates (e.g. poster or flyer). Now, whether there are enough layout options in the template for your leadmagnet, depends on how much and what type of content you have. You’re going to want to have all your content written and created before you start laying it out in Canva. This is how professional designers typically operate, as well. They request to have all of the content before they start the design work, so they can get a holistic view of the content types and what needs to be done. Good design supports the flow of the narrative and you cannot create that without all of the pieces of the puzzle on the table. That being said, things will change, and edits will happen. And that is ok, it’s part of the process. Just try to have as much ready as possible, as it will help you choose the right template.

Having your content ready also allows you to evaluate the layouts and compare them to the types of content you have. You want to find one that matches as closely as possible. This is not to say that you cannot customize the templates and create new layouts or layout elements. But for beginners it is much easier, if the template already has as many as possible of the needed layouts and elements. Let’s say your content is sectioned off into few different sections and includes some large images and a couple of quotes. What you’re going to want is a layout with multiple header styles for hierarchy, large image area at least on one layout, and a predefined quote style. You could create all these styles yourself, but having them built into the template makes your work much quicker.


Have all your content ready before selecting a template. Compare the layouts and elements to your content and select a template that has styles defined to as many as possible of your content types.


Another good thing to consider is the amount of text. How much does your leadmagnet have so called “body copy” (the text forming the main content). Most document templates will have a style for body copy out of the box, but if the template was tailored for a photo heavy document it may not have multiple layouts with different options for how the body copy could be set. See the examples below. The left template works well for content that is image heavy. And the template on the right works well for content that is text heavy. With the template on the right, you have many options for how you’d like your body copy to flow: one column with an area to add image(s), two columns with background image, two columns with smaller image, and even three columns with rather large image. When choosing the amount of columns, remember that one wide column with small text can be burdensome to read. The typographic rule is: 9-12 words per line is ideal, more than 12 words on a line can become tedious to read.  That is a good goal, but I think you can get away with a couple more words if your text flows nicely and is easy to read. If you want, you can adjust the amount of words on the line by either making the type size larger or changing the width of the column.

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For beginners, it is a good idea to try and find a template that already supports your brand personality, at least to some degree. The templates were designed with some tone of voice and feeling in mind. If you can find one that matches well with your brand, it’s always easier to have to do less customizations. But if you have a bit of experience with Canva or creating designs in general, you can fairly easily change the tone of the design by changing colors, fonts, graphics, and imagery.

One last thing to consider is: will your audience be printing this document? If you are creating something you’d like your audience to be able to print, consider adding less images and color for easy printability. You might even consider doing just a black and white document to ensure it prints nicely for everyone. If imagery is not necessary for your document, you can find some nice typographic layouts.

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Happy designing! For more design tips, news, and FREE trainings, subscribe to our newsletter. And be sure to like our facebook page where you can share your designs and ask feedback and design tips from our Daily Creative community.

Download our FREE Logo design guide

Download our FREE Logo design guide

So, you’re building a new brand? Congratulations. We have made the work a bit easier for you with our new FREE “How to create your first logo.” The Guide will walk you through how different styles can help represent your brand personality, what colors communicate, and how to quickly build a stylish text based logotype with Canva for free.

Design tips for non-designers

Design tips for non-designers

Having a professional designer in your team is great. A good designer is worth her weight in avocados and Peet’s Coffee — not to mention a healthy financial reward. Designers often specialize in an area like branding or user experience, and that makes their process and the outcome even more valuable. Expert designer knows how to create design systems that tie together your brand visuals, web experience, and marketing assets. They have deep understanding of color psychology, how human mind groups and connects visual objects together, and which layouts are more pleasing to the eye than others. Indeed, great design is worth every penny you can afford to invest.

But what happens when you can’t invest in design? What if you are a solopreneur, mommypreneur, or any other one person hustle? Not only are you cost-conscious with your business spending, you might be used to taking care of your business needs by yourself — and that’s the way you like it. Or maybe you’re just starting your business, and you need to get it off the ground and running without major costs. There is proven value in hiring a designer, but let’s be real: it’s not always possible or something you want to do.

Whatever your situation is, the audience today is expecting visual candy. Vast Marketing Solutions writes on their blog post The Importance of Visual Content in Social Media that “according to a study conducted by 3M, 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual and visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text. 46% of people say a website’s design is the number one criterion for discerning the credibility of the company.”

So, what can you do when you need designed assets such as a logo, marketing materials, or web designs, but don’t have access to a designer? Well, actually, quite a bit. While it doesn’t replace having an expert in your team, there is still a lot you can do to improve what you have. Behind are the days of expensive and difficult to use expert tools for designers. Today, affordable and easy-to-use design software and online applications are available for anyone. With pre-made, customizable templates, these applications make creating pleasing designs effortless for non-designers and designers alike. And understanding few principles when it comes to branding and having few tricks up your sleeve will help you strategize around your design needs and save lots of money in the beginning of your business journey.

Favorite beginner tools

Canva: With Canva’s design templates you can easily create a variety of assets from logo designs to ebooks and social media posts, and more. The price is affordable $9.95-$12.95 per month for the Canva for Work. However, if you prepare and plan well, you might be able to create enough assets for your brand to last for a while during the free 30 day trial period. There’s also an option for a free plan, but some customizations and asset management isn’t available in the free plan. Downside: unless you customize your templates enough, you’ll easily end up with assets that many other small business owners use and will lack a unique edge. Though customization is easy to do, you will need some knowledge of basic design principles to ensure your designs look well thought out and professional.

Squarespace: Squarespace makes creating a simple marketing website for your business/brand effortless and quick. With well-designed templates, these sites don’t pale next to custom designed websites. If you only need a simple site with 1-5 pages with more or less static content such as About us, Services, Contact, Gallery, and so on, I would argue that you can’t much get a better deal than Squarespace. The learning curve is mellow and, like said before, the templates are fool-proof for pleasing UI. Squarespace templates are also mobile friendly out of the box and their 24/7 support team helps with any questions you might have. The best thing about Squarespace is how quickly you can get your beautiful site up and running: in mere hours. And the easy site management will save you hours every month. Downside: Squarespace is less customizable than say a WordPress site. And while you can buy a lot of plugins and premium themes to add up costs to your WordPress site, a simple blog still comes out more affordable on WordPress than on Squarespace.

Money (and time) saving principles

1. Your brand is not your logo

First thing to understand about your brand is that it is so much more than your logo. Yes, it is very likely that you need a logo. But no, you most likely don’t need to invest thousands in getting it designed with an expensive brand agency. Your logo alone won’t define your brand and your logo alone won’t bring you new business. Just like Jeff Bezos so nicely worded: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” This means it is about reputation. What kind of reputation does your company have? How do you deal with your customers and what do they say about you after they bought your products/services?

Brand is also build by telling stories. What and how you communicate to your audience matters more than your logo. And of course where you tell these stories. Your audience wants to be able to relate with the company and its mission, so these stories will become significantly more important than a little graphic you attach to it. Part of how you tell your stories is visual. This means photos, illustrations, graphics, and color can play a big part of it. Being consistent and genuine is important.

If you are a service provides and solopreneur, your personal brand is likely going to be your business brand — even if you don’t realize it. You’re selling your expertise and unique way of doing things, whether it is massage or marital therapy. For most service based solopreneurs, clean text based logotype with some unique treatment is more than enough to get started. Especially, since you don’t need packaging for goods you’re selling. And Canva provides plenty of templates to get your creative juices going.

Caution: While amazing logo alone won’t bring you new business, a bad and unprofessional looking one may actually cost you business. Using graphics and adding logo marks adds to the challenge. That is why I recommend sticking to logo templates that are already designed to be professional looking, and with small adjustments you can make them yours.

If you are tempted to hire someone to make you a logo for a small amount of money (read: cheap), you might want to rethink. Creating a high quality, professional logo mark is usually expensive for a reason. If someone is selling this service cheap, I would proceed with caution. It is very likely that a nice looking logo template will do a better job — and this you can do yourself.

2. Design principles are timeless

There are a basic set of rules that can be applied to any design you need to create. These principles are timeless, and when you once learn those, you can forever follow the principles to help you create better designs. One well-known set of rules are the Gestalt Principles. These principles were created in the 1920s by a group of psychologists in Germany for a series of theories of visual perception. The principles are: similarity, continuation, closure, proximity (aka grouping), and figure and ground. Knowing how tp apply these rules, you can create hierarchy, balance, and professional feel to any design asset you need to create.

3. Take advantage of templates

One thing in common with the online design tools geared towards non.designers is that they typically have templated solutions available. Use them. The templates are designed by professionals and many of the design principles have already been thought out for you. With a little customization, like using your own photos or changing colors, you can add a bit of unique flare. When you become more comfortable with design principles, you can customize the templates more by rearranging and resizing objects, changing typefaces, and adding new elements or graphics.

And after you’ve found and customized your favorite, say, social media post template, to save even more time, that one template can be used over and over again by switching the imagery and texts to suit each post. And elements of that can be recycled for an email newsletter or an event flyer, etc.


Most importantly, be brave and trust that as a non-designer you can learn to create better designs. Ability to design is not a magical quality reserved for those who graduate from art school, but something anyone can learn to a degree. Let me know in the comments what you have designed and how it went.


How to manage your designers

How to manage your designers

In the 14 years of my career, I’ve had 7 employers and equally many managers — some of whom I still think of with respect and others with less so. For example, one manager tried to damage my career by lying about my work behind my back, and outright broke the law by reading my emails. Another one, in a different company, used me as a psychological crutch running through all his reasons for each business decision with me during phone calls that sometimes lasted for hours. The same guy — also the owner of the company — sabotaged the payroll so much that in the end I lost 3 months’ worth of pay checks (my advice to all young designers: keep your eyes open when you’re considering a job at a new and unknown startup). I also had one or two managers who were great people, but had little creative direction to give or were more or less disengaged. And then, of course, there were couple that were absolute gems.

Managers are important to employees wellbeing. According to Brigette Hyacinth, the author of The Future of Leadership: Rise of Automation, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, “A Gallup poll of more [than] 1 million employed U.S. workers concluded that the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor.” This means your immediate supervisor or manager has the biggest influence on whether you resign or stay. On the company level, this has major effect on employee retention (ability of an organization to retain its employees).

And any company should be concerned about employee retention: in 2016, the employee turnover cost US companies $160 billion a year. For an individual company, the cost of replacing an employee might range between tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2x annual salary. And the most valuable players are the quickest to leave: only about half of high performing employees are satisfied with their job and one in five intends to leave their current companies within six months (Harvard Business Review, November 18, 2014). Sometimes, there are company policies at play and managers can’t easily affect them. But many other things they could. While competitive compensation still ranks as the most valuable aspect of a workplace, things like supplemental training, flexible working location, and flexible schedule are all in top ten (Harvard Business Review, November 18, 2014). And these, among others on the list, are things a good manager might be able to arrange.

All companies want to attract top talent. While design is team work, key individuals can make an entire team thrive. The right talent challenges everyone to raise their bar. Having top talent in the team can also be motivating simply because their choice to join the team makes everyone feel a bit more worthy: we are good — someone amazing chose to be one of us. Often times, top performers have  perfected their design process and they can help a team to do the same thing to their shared process. And of course, top talent will lead by example, and it can be inspiring just to watch them work. But top performers also know their value. They might leave a company very quickly if they are not happy, because they can. They will always find a new opportunity.

There is a lot of research out there on how to retain top talent, as I already referred to in the beginning. But it is not just about filling someone’s calendar with training, allowing them to work home when their kid gets sick, or letting them decide whether they want to come to the office by 8 am or by 9 am. Keeping any designer happy is about figuring out who they are, what drives them, and how you can help them thrive — both professionally and personally. Below you can find my thoughts on what would’ve made me stay in some positions I left due to not feeling supported.


1. Wellbeing

Maybe the single most important thing manager can do for a designer is to care about their wellbeing. Are they working too much? Are they having to juggle too many projects? How is the work-life balance? Have your one-on-one meetings and ask how they are doing. Signal that you want them to stay home when they’re sick or when they’re kid is sick. Let them know, you are ok with a mental health day, if needed. Think: what can you do to make their life easier so your top talent can focus on work instead of the stresses of life. Remind them that family comes first and that you are aware of it.

2. Respect

Respect their time and input. Don’t invite your top talent to meetings that do not require their attendance. Or alternatively you can give them the autonomy to decline any meeting invitations they don’t see necessary.

Respect their expertise. Unless you have comparable background and have extensive experience in design work, don’t force poor design decisions on them with your authority. Nothing is more frustrating than having to take orders from someone who has zero understanding on what they are talking about.

Human decency and respect is undervalued. Please, treat anyone and everyone you hire with general respect, and maintain professional composure at all times. This means no yelling, no throwing things, no petty behavior, and no retaliation. (Yes, I’ve had managers who showed these behaviors, unfortunately. How did they ever get to be managers?)

3. Supplemental training

Top performers are curious life-long learners who are constantly looking to improve themselves. But it is critical that they feel this supplemental training is in service of their projects, current role, or future opportunities. Supplemental training does not serve as a benefit or perk if it is useless waste of time. Talk with your top talent, find out what they want to learn. What skills are essential to their role and would benefit them in future, as well?

4. Flexibility

Flexibility for name sake is not helpful. Trust your team, and let them decide where to work and when. Together you can come up with rules, such as certain meetings you do in person or times when everyone should be available. But if your take on flexibility is measured in one or two hours, that is hardly flexible. Flexibility goes hand in hand with wellbeing because it allows employees to take care of their health and that of their family.

5. Autonomy

No one likes a hovering manager, and your top performer the least. This doesn’t mean that as a manager you can’t check in with your team to see what they are working on or that are not accountable for you. But it does mean you drop micro managing their every move. You chose to hire a high performing top talent, now let them do their magic.

6. Motivation

Unless your top talent is also the owner or a partner in the company, it is likely this is not a position they are planning to stay in for life. And that is ok. The job market is changing, people rarely spend their entire career in one company anymore. And it is actually advised to change jobs every three to five years these days. Don’t worry, three years is enough to transform your design team to a thriving unit with the help of highly performing designer(s). The reputation of your team will attract new top talent when one leaves.

What does this have to do with motivation? Signal your top talent that you understand the current market and you are not expecting them to stay forever. Instead, find out what their career goals are. Then make a plan together on how you, your team and company, and their new position can help them move closer to their career goals. When a top performer sees their position as a milestone on the way to where they want to be, they will put 120% effort in making their project, themselves, the team, and you successful.


Managing designers can be challenging, but it helps if you have a design background. If you worked as a designer, you were in the receiving end of design review and feedback sessions. And you have first hand experience on what the design process is like. Having design background, you’ve probably also worked with all kinds of designers and know that there are as many personalities as there are designers.

Some time ago, I was working for an amazing creative director who not only was a great people manager but had just the right combination of hands on design guidance and “throw you in the fire” attitude. She could identify her team members’ strengths and weaknesses, and knew how to push us to the right direction so we could grow and become better designers. She was also always professional and had a solid process she drove forward. After leaving that kind of supportive and inspiring leadership, I’ve found myself wondering if I’ll ever get a manager like her again.

How not to feel possessive about your designs

How not to feel possessive about your designs

As a young designer, it is difficult not to feel deep ownership to your work. In general, ownership is good. It makes us take initiative, move forward, and take pride for our work. In design, however, this concept can get tricky. Unless you are a fine artist or create designs just for yourself, your designs are never really yours. Yes, you made them. But someone else is going to have to use them. Unless you are your own audience, which is rather rare in design work, you create designs for someone else. This also means your success depends on whether or not this someone else, your audience or the user of your product, likes what they are getting.

Regardless of the length of your design experience, it is hard to hear your design sucks. You may have created the most beautiful thing, but maybe you misunderstood something in the brief or it failed the usability tests. In any case, it sucks to miss the mark. The difference between a rookie and a leader in this situation is that a leader is ready to “kill her baby” and go back to the drawing board without having her feelings hurt. A rookie might feel offended, become defensive, and pushes back to the idea of having to start again. The truth is: no one cares how hard you worked on it, except maybe your mom. So, you will always need to be ready to do it again.

Tips for not feeling possessive about your designs

1. Redefine what “success” means to you
When this happens — and it will happen — it may help to redefine what “success” means to your design. If you keep in mind that you are creating something usable and delightful for a target audience (not for yourself), it is easier to accept that their experience defines whether your designs are successful or not.

2. Feedback is part of your journey
Understand that reviewing and testing designs are essential steps on the journey to a good product/design. The earlier you start testing and getting feedback, the likelier it is that you will be creating something successful and useful. It is expected that you’re going to have to change many things along the way, so accept that right from the start. And the earlier and rougher designs you test, it is much easier to accept the failure and start again because you haven’t yet invested too much time and (your heart and soul) in getting the details just right.

3. Take a deep breath
When you receive constructive feedback, from stakeholders, peers, or your target audience, your first reaction might be to immediately explain yourself and defend your design. First, take a breath and keep listening. Sometimes, it is essential you explain why you did what you did so that people can react and apply their approach accordingly. This is especially applicable when you’re in a design review with your peers or manager. But when you’re dealing with your customer or other stakeholders, it might be better to just listen.

4. Ask questions
I cannot bring this one up often enough. When faced with negative or constructive feedback that was unexpected ja you feel stunned, ask questions. Ask if they can give you more details on what they just said. Ask if there was anything they’d have any ideas or recommendations on how to solve the issue. For one, this changes the dynamic to more conversational and reminds everyone that you are on the same side trying to create something together, rather than opposing parties. Secondly, it gives you the details you need to adjust your designs to become successful. And thirdly, it gives you more time to adjust, steers attention away from you and towards your designs, and portrays you as a leader who is interested in getting things right.

5. Focus in the learnings
Before each feedback and review session, remind yourself that part of the design process is continuous improvement — of yourself and your designs. You need to find out what is working, because only that way you can improve it. Hearing how great your designs are does not help you improve them, only the criticism does. So, focus on finding out what you can improve. And remember, each review will teach you something valuable that you can add to your design toolbox. So, tell yourself that it is not only an opportunity to improve your designs, but your design skills, as well.

6. Focus on your portfolio
As a designer, your portfolio is your biggest calling card. It is the single most important tool you have for finding work and new opportunities. Designers of all age and experience should be updating, fine-tuning, and improving their portfolio continuously. So, whenever you are designing something, the NDA permitting, it may end up in your portfolio. And your goal as a designer should always be to have the best projects in there. Take every design review and test as an opportunity to get the feedback you need in order to create something you can be proud of and include in your showcase.

How to create a portfolio that will land you a job (Part 1)

How to create a portfolio that will land you a job (Part 1)

As a designer, your portfolio might be the single most important tool you have to help showcase your talent and land a job in your field. In most job openings for design positions, there is a request to send along a link to your online portfolio. And when it is not explicitly spelled out, if the position requires you to create designs, it is often simply expected that you have an online portfolio to share. If someone is hiring a designer they’ve not worked with before and is not interested in seeing the applicant’s portfolio, I would proceed with caution. To me, this would be a sign that the person — or the company — does not value design or the design process enough to check the quality of the applicants.

What goes into your portfolio?

The short answer is: your best work. But it is not as simple as that. A good portfolio will not only attract prospective employers’ and clients’ attention, but also communicates what your soft and hard skills, core values, and passions are. First and foremost, your portfolio is a selling tool that helps you promote your talent as a designer. But it’s also a tool that can help you ensure that you find your ideal employment opportunities or freelance clients — not just any old paying clients, the ideal ones. Tuning your portfolio to not just land you a job, but to land you your dream job is critical for your career growth and motivation. So, let’s begin.

The single most important portfolio advise I’ve had was: include in your portfolio the kind of work you want to do. This means if you are looking to design books, the vast majority (preferably all) of your portfolio projects should be about book design. If you’re looking to do UX, then your projects should be about UX. If you’re looking to do branding, then you should include branding projects. You get the picture. The hiring managers who evaluate portfolios want to be able to compare your design work to the projects they would have you work on. They want to know if you are familiar with the process and understand what designing for their project requires. If they are looking to hire someone to work on a design system, they want to see if the candidate has already designed a design system — and how was the outcome.

The previous phenomenon goes beyond being a piece of advice, it can become an unintentional cycle of less-than-ideal jobs. Especially with young designers, the will to include every type of project and any side gig you’ve ever worked on is strong. In the beginning, when gaining real life working experience is critical, this might work for a while. But you have to be intentional of fine-tuning your portfolio frequently so you won’t miss your career goals. And remember, you can include personal and passion projects to your portfolio. Not all projects need to be client/professional work. We’ll get back to this a bit later.

Reveal your thinking and dazzle with quality

In the beginning of your career, it is tempting to include each and every project you’ve ever done in to your portfolio. But typically I would recommend showcasing 4-12 of you best projects depending on the depth and documentation. Four projects can seem like a scarce number, but if each of those is a thorough case study that showcases the process and outcomes in detail, then it likely is enough. And only choose your best projects: you are showcasing quality, not necessarily quantity.

Even if you cannot or don’t want to build detailed case studies of all of your portfolio projects, I would at least create one good one. Ideally this would be for your best project — your “crown jewel.” Having at least one project documented thoroughly is important because it is your opportunity to tell the story of that project from your point of view. The stage is yours to showcase the process, flaunt your skills, and highlight the areas of your expertise. If you have at least one, preferably 1-3, well-documented and detailed case studies, in your other portfolio projects you can show partial process. Showcase with 1-3 case studies that you understand and master the entire process, and then focus on the parts you most enjoy and excel at.

Case study can be one of the tools that help you to strengthen or course-correct your career path, if necessary. Do you want to focus your career more on the research part of the UX process? Emphasize the research part, discuss in detail what the process was like, what methods were used and why, what unexpected findings and insights were gathered and how those affected the design decisions. Do you want to move from logo design towards more strategic brand design? Don’t just show design sketches and the finished logo designs. Talk about the client motivation and needs for the (re)brand, their positioning in the market place, the inspiration for the designs, and how the system scales for the client’s known needs — and potentially the unknown needs, as well. Talk about how the brand you helped to create enables the client to achieve their goals, and the customer of the client theirs. Most importantly, explain you thinking behind your designs — regardless of you design focus. This is what makes you unique as a designer.

Let the work shine (and make it easy to find)

My pet peeve with designer online portfolios are those large greeting areas (“Hi, I’m Jane and I am xyz..”) that take the entire viewport or separate landing pages that don’t showcase any work yet. While your personality is an important part of the hiring decision, if you don’t have the right skills, you won’t even be considered for the position. Design focused recruiters and hiring managers, especially in large companies, look at portfolios on a daily basis. When an interesting position is open, they can get hundreds of applications and most will include a portfolio link. Time is money, and if they have to click around or scroll too long to find your work samples on your portfolio site, they might bounce without ever taking a look at your amazing designs. So, make the landing page about your work — whether it is about one project or all of them. Make it quick and obvious how to find your projects, and make it simple and easy to navigate between them.

While you absolutely want to design your portfolio well, don’t overdo it. The idea is to showcase you best work samples, so let those projects shine and give them all the attention and focus. If you add lots of extra design elements (that have nothing to do with your portfolio projects) they will quickly become noise that makes focusing on your work samples difficult. It is still possible to show personality and design preferences through type and color choices and other subtle ways. But even with those I’d be purposeful and keep in mind that your portfolio site will become the frame others look at your work through. The design choices for your portfolio site are more closely associated with your persona than your client work is. If you are certain that you want to work for punk rock music makers and producers, then go for it and style your portfolio site for attracting those opportunities. But if you don’t have strong conviction and vision about your future employment yet, I’d keep the design just clean and simple until I’m there.


This is the first part of a multi part post series about building a design portfolio that can help you land a job. The goal is to help you define and focus you career and attract your ideal job opportunities. 

Being nice is a design skill

Being nice is a design skill

Design is a team sport: designers work together and interact with customers, colleagues, teams, and stakeholders. Collaboration doesn’t always come easy. Interpersonal skills can be measured not only by the success of the project but also by the happiness of the design team. And a happy team is a productive team. Indeed, at times I feel like being a designer is being a therapist, an interpreter, and a detective — all at once.

For businesses, design is a productive effort that aims to return profit. This means more pressure on collaboration between business people, engineering teams, legal teams, and creatives. Sometimes industry jargons can clash like different languages — or cultures. In that moment, design can be the flexible matter that brings everyone working together by visualizing the shared goals and vision. But at the same time, designers can get caught in the crossfire of conflicting interests and feel unvalued or even attacked.

For two years, the tech giant Google researched what makes a team at Google successful. One of the top three most important factors they identified was “psychological safety.” This means that the team members feel safe sharing their ideas and work with each other, that they can expect to be treated with respect, and feel comfortable about being vulnerable in front of each other. As a result, team members know they can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. Critiquing sessions with multiple rounds of feedback — and even failing in front of others — are a big part of designers’ work. In addition to their immediate team, designers often showcase their work for larger groups of stakeholders or clients revealing their thinking and designs that sometimes are in very early, uncultivated stages. On top of that, designers sometimes feel personally attached to the work we do and criticism can feel difficult to take in.

Naturally, if we are afraid of being ridiculed or judged harshly we’ll easily default in not taking risks in our work, but want to play it safe to protect ourselves and to make sure we get treated well. And it might happen entirely unconsciously. At Google, they realized that taking risks is an important part of innovating, so they wanted to make sure their employees felt comfortable exploring uncharted territories and taking the necessary risks to do that. So, they declared psychological safety as one of the key elements of their corporate culture.

“Psychological safety” sounds fancy and complicated. But really it just means that we are nice to each other. Unfortunately, “being nice” has a bad rap in our culture that embraces competition and associates niceness to soft, more feminine or submissive values. It’s time to start appreciating niceness as what it really is: a part of successful leadership and an enabler of innovation.

What does it mean to be nice?

It can be difficult to shake off the “pushover” label of being nice. Little girls are told to be nice, so it possibly can’t be an important skill of a successful professional. This is how we are used to thinking about niceness. After battling for over a decade of professional experience with the label of a “nice designer” I am elated to read about Google’s research, and I agree with it. To help others adopt what it means to be nice, I put together the new rules of being nice:

1. Being nice is vital for productive design critique 

Being nice doesn’t mean I won’t tell you what I think. And it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t give you honest feedback on your work. In fact, being nice means I want to help you be successful, and if I see you’ve created something that doesn’t work I will point that out. And it makes a big difference how I do that. Being nice and thoughtful in that situation can make the critiquing session feel like we are both sincerely invested in the outcome. And it will make us work together and truly collaborate. Giving thoughtful feedback takes a little practice, but the results are worth it.

2. Being nice doesn’t mean shying away from conflict

Being nice doesn’t mean I’m a pushover. I am still fully capable of disagreeing and standing my ground. When I disagree with you, I can do it in a calm confident manner without making you feel defensive. Being nice in a conflict means we both understand that issues disagree, not necessarily people. It means I am willing to take the time to have a conversation about the conflicting point of views, I am willing to make the effort of trying to understand where you are coming from. And I expect you do the same.

3. Being nice is a part of design leadership

Bullies don’t make good design leaders. Nor do dictators. A good design leader is respectful and empathetic. Being a nice leader doesn’t mean you don’t have high expectations for your team, or that you don’t hold your team members accountable. It means you’re able to understand where they’re coming from, direct them graciously, and lead by example. A nice creative leader is ready to get their hands dirty, when need be, and work alongside her team to help them be successful.

4. Being nice is not about maintaining the status quo  

Nice people won’t rock the boat, right? Wrong. As we’ve already learnt, you can disagree, stand your ground, give constructive critique, and be a powerful design leader while being nice. You can be an agent of change while you’re also a nice person. In fact, creating a lasting, sustainable change requires a loyal following for the things you are advocating. An ability to get people to listen to you is invaluable. And more importantly, to have people not just to follow you, but to help you create and innovate that change requires that you exhibit the psychological safety that enables people to step outside their comfort zone and come up with creative ways the solve the same problems you are trying to solve. Remember, psychological safety fosters innovation.

5. Being nice gets shit done

Working across teams, business units, industries, and geographical areas requires communication skills like no other. It’s clear we need cultural sensitivity and understanding of different ways of working to be successful. And if we, on top of all that, can create a psychological safety zone by being honest, respectful, direct, empathetic, and open to hear others, we can become more efficient in the ways we work, and more successful with the outcomes.

6. Being nice is a design skill

Empathy is a core element of human centered design. It enables us to understand what our customers need, and how might we creatively solve their problems. In human centered design, research unlocks empathy: talking with the customers, listening to their feedback, and trying to understand their goals and pain points ignites the process in which we begin to step into someone else’s shoes. Empathy is also an innate motivator to be nice to others. And the more we practice empathy, the more prone we are to champion psychological safety. It’s a beautiful cycle of people being nice, efficient and creating great designs. Who doesn’t want that?

Baby steps towards design leadership

Baby steps towards design leadership

Leadership can be intimidating, especially if you have just started your career. It is perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable or unsure when you realize it is expected of you. In fact, little nervousness or stress can be a good thing: it ensures we stay aware of our own performance and prepare better for the situations we feel nervous for. But if nervousness and persistent insecurity becomes a blocker for taking leadership roles, it’s time to try and work on getting rid of those feelings.

As a young designer, just starting my career, I felt nervous about speaking up in meetings or hesitated asking clarifying questions. I didn’t want to be seen as arrogant. Still today, after having worked as a the lead designer for years, I sometimes catch myself feeling nervous. But with time, I have become comfortable with leading the design process — even in situations where I don’t have all the answers.

If you have feelings of inadequacy, I recommend you start working on getting rid of it because they can hinder moving forward on your career. The good news is that you don’t have to jump to the top with one giant leap. Instead you can start by taking baby steps that feel less intimidating and quickly become like a second nature. After taking many enough baby steps, you soon realize you’re running the show.

Six easy baby steps that helped me become the lead designer

1. Start paying attention.

And I mean, pay attention beyond your own desk. Design projects exist in a context, and to be taken seriously you need to understand this context. Who all are working on the project? Who are the internal/external stakeholders? What connections and ties does the project have to other projects? What is the meaning of this project to the company? What kind of long term strategy is there for the success of this project? Leaders see the big picture and can make decisions with long term goals in mind. While you’re not expected to make this kind of decisions yet, it is good to start seeing the context.

2. Ask questions

This is always my “go to” when I am nervous about a big upcoming design review, etc. As a designer, you already know that design reviews are critical and you need to solicit feedback either from your clients, peers, or design manager/director. But what if the feedback is something to the effect “this is utter horsesh*it.” That’s not helpful to you and frankly it’s rude. A good leadership move is to lead the person to add more detail because you need useful feedback not incoherent rant. You could say something like “could you tell more what it is you don’t like about it?” Don’t start defending your design decisions before you get more specific feedback. This tactic also shows you as a calm person who is interested in learning more about what is not working rather than getting triggered by an insult.

3. Justify your designs through research

Your design decisions should always be based on your audience’s/user’s validated needs. But sometimes we designers forget to emphasize that when we present our work. When you can argument that you have designed something that you tested (or know based on previous research) and that it resonates with the audience, you come out as an expert. After you gain some confidence in acting as an advocate for the audience/user, you can start reminding others in the room that feedback should not be based on any one individual’s personal preference (e.g. “I don’t like yellow”) unless they directly represent the audience.

4. Save all design exploration and sketches

There will be time when all the designs you chose to present miss the mark. Discussion will follow on what should be done differently, what needs to be explored more. It can be helpful in those moments, if you can quickly pull out our sketches and exploration to show you have tried other options. It is not unusual that design review will turn into a co-design session. Any work you’ve produced will serve as a starting point and your thinking may come through clearer when all your sketches are on the table. Often times, I have an appendix section on my presentation decks where I add all or most of the sketches I’ve produced for the projects. We may never look at them, but any time I’ve had to pull those it has greatly helped the situation.

5. Behave professionally in meetings

Show up on time, or a little early. Prepare beforehand by going through the meeting agenda, so you’ll know what the topic will be. Bring something you can take notes with (laptop, pen & paper, etc.). Keep your phone silent, and don’t play with it or even glance at it unless you absolutely have to. Learn a quick intro so if you are asked to introduce yourself to a new client or co-workers/stakeholders you can confidently tell few of the following things: your name, role, what you’re currently working on, who do you report to, your business organization, etc.

6. Dress professionally — especially if you are presenting to an audience

And I don’t mean you need to necessarily wear a suit and a tie. But be mindful of how you dress. If your team is presenting to a CEO of a large corporation, then wear more business like attire than if you’re having a design review with peers. Know that how you dress affects how you feel. Whenever I need to feel more confident, I dress up a bit. And how you dress affects how people see you. It is a good thing to have a personal and unique style, so never feel like you have to completely change who you are. Just make sure you’re clothes are not dirty, wrinkled, or too revealing.