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Paper Chase Press client work.

Big Ideas

9 Creatives on Their Most Valuable Career Lessons

From the importance of a sketchbook to the right way to use Twitter, creatives share the hard-earned career lessons that now guide their professional lives.


We all dive into the unknown with plenty of excitement and a good measure of tenacity. The wisdom tends to come later, after a fair share of stumbles and tests of courage. Looking back at their careers so far, nine thinkers and creatives let us in on some of the most important learning moments that act as their touchstones when making decisions and planning for their future.

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1. Learn How to Be Alone

Julia Bainbridge is something of an expert on loneliness and solitude, and the distinction between those two states. Her podcast, The Lonely Hour, explores the social distance that has come to define many of our lives, and digs deeper into the creative value of solitude. For Bainbridge, taking the time to sit with herself with no distractions is where she finds her expression. “I am my most creative in moments when I am alone — when I’m on a quiet walk, not listening to anything on my iPhone. That’s when I come up with ideas. I want to underscore how important this time is for us all. We are constantly entertained today. If there is a void, we are taught to fill it.”

2. Use Social Tools Your Way

For many of us, social media is a necessary evil, and this goes double for creatives and designers who rely on online exposure and self-promotion for their professional livelihood. Sabrina Hall is a self-confessed lifelong introvert, who as a designer has been compelled to find a way to use these tools to her advantage. After some trial and error, she found that maintaining a Twitter presence, with boundaries, worked for her personality. “As I always tell myself: my voice may not be the loudest, but it is equally as important. It’s the shy, introverted voice; the Afro-Latina voice; the voice that loves reading and gets excited about typography. I can still be my true, introverted self online and share as much or as little as I want with others in the online community, without competing for likes.”

3. Support Your Community

Finding “your people” can be a lifelong quest for many. Creative work flourishes in a supportive community, and being embraced by like-minded creatives allows us the freedom to thrive, fail, and take necessary risks. For Nicole Katz, the creative culture in Los Angeles sustained her when she took the reins at Paper Chase Press, a family business that started in the 1970s. Entering the industry at the height of the recession was a fraught prospect, but Katz was buoyed by the passionate artists and designers that appreciated the business’ dedication to quality and innovation. Today, Paper Chase Press is a hub for a niche print culture that thrives with its independent-minded spirit and investment in the local community.   “You have to sustain the community that sustains you,” Katz says. “We’re keeping people interested in print, and doing projects that use print. That’s our long game: making projects happen so that we continue to support the print community, and the medium in general.”

The San Francisco headquarters of Rapt Studios

The San Francisco headquarters of Rapt Studios feature a barista instead of a receptionist. Photography by Noah Webb.

4. Stay True to Your Priorities

For David Gallulo, CEO of Rapt Studio, making interaction and communication natural is the first order of business when working with brands like Ancestry, Dollar Shave Club and Dropbox. Rapt Studio’s interdisciplinary approach to building teams and spaces and fostering environments that bring together people to work on one project, mirrors the complexity of the world itself. Making a space for this variety of viewpoints comes with challenges that aren’t supported by a traditional workplace. “With clients, we often start our processes not asking what kind of spaces people need, but what kind of interactions you want people to have,” says Galullo. “If you want people to bring their best selves, to look at things with curiosity, you can’t expect them to stand at the same desk for ten hours a day.” Rethinking the obvious answers has led to unexpected but human-centric results, such as doing away with standard reception desk at Rapt’s San Francisco headquarters, replacing it with a barista and espresso machine. This casual, welcoming note sets the tone for the day’s interactions for their team and clients.

5. Stoke Curiosity

Shana Dressler, co-founder of DLW Creative Labs, believes that “possibility thinking” is one of the ten major skills for the future of work. Opening yourself up to the uncomfortable and unexpected can have transformative effects on your ideation process. This can be a shock to the system, but as Dressler says, “Challenging rigid ways of thinking and working enables new ideas to form. Allow yourself to experience moments of awe and wonder, and bring that practice to your work.”

Illustration by Brad Heckman.

Mediator Brad Heckman is also an accomplished illustrator.

6. Learn to Listen (Really Listen)

Conflict is uncomfortable, awkward, and…inevitable. But it doesn’t always have to be a fraught crisis situation marked by old defensive coping mechanisms. Brad Heckman, professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and founder of the New York Peace Institute, has lent his mediation expertise to everyone from the NYPD to NASA. The biggest lesson learned in his time spent diffusing tense situations is that there is no conflict resolution without really hearing what the other person is saying to us. “We hear from our clients all the time,” says Heckman, “that people value being heard and understood more than they value a detailed agreement. Agreements and resolutions are important, but being heard is a necessary step for that.”

7. Keep a Record

Getting into the habit of noting your inspiring ideas will allow you to see the workings of your mind and let you follow up on nascent concepts. Even if they don’t pan out, you shouldn’t let the spark of an idea evaporate. “Keep a sketchbook,” says designer Kelli Anderson. “Your good ideas aren’t going to come on a schedule,” so make sure you’re prepared to capture them at all times. That way the next time you need a prompt, either for your own project or for client work, you’ll have a trove of ideas to sift through.” Given that our best ideas often strike us in odd moments, work out a method that suits your lifestyle, be it an audio recorder, the notes app on your phone, or a pocket-sized notebook to keep on you at all times.

The Type-A pen by CW&T Studio

The Type-A pen is a minimal, stainless steel pen that doubles as a ruler and is meant to last forever. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

8. Make it Personal

Husband-and-wife team Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy are the creatives behind the Brooklyn-based CW&T Studios, responsible for singular projects such as the “forever jump rope” and a 100-year clock. “On the simplest level, everything we make is something we want for ourselves. We often find a small void or need in our lives, then furiously search for a solution. When we can’t find one that we find satisfactory, we make it,” says Levy. Listening to that inner compass can lead you to your most fulfilling work and memorable ideas. For Wang and Levy, they are motivated by a desire to inspire “joy and a regular dose of delight” from those who engage with their products.

9. Recognize Telltale Patterns

Keri Elmsly, Chief Creative Officer at Second Story, was used to spearheading ambitious projects with huge scope. But with every launch came a deep dissatisfaction and inability to look past the small imperfections that only she could spot. She was focusing on the negatives so much so that she couldn’t appreciate the hard work and beauty of her team’s efforts. Realizing this prompted some serious soul-searching. She reflects, “I took a pretty deep look at ownership and attachment. It made me realize: if you’re going to take on epic projects you’ve never done before, you need to plan for recovery and you need to see the patterns — the peaks and troughs that you go through. It’s not worth it to let the anger, frustration, and disappointment undermine everything.”

More Posts by Mia Pinjuh

Mia is a writer based in New York. 


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