A seasoned professional frames the problem differently than an amateur. The amateur will figure out how to “get the job done” and make good assessments of how much time is needed to steadily move a project toward completion. A professional works from a different altitude.
For a junior graphic designer, “problem solving” is limited to the actionable aspects of the work: following direction from art directors and creative directors or clients directly. They're also doing what they've picked up in design school, where educators rightly focus on teaching students to solve visual problems with good technical advice about typography, imagery, and composition. The focus is on the right tone, the right message. And the design student is often guided by historical precedent of what a great piece looks like, therefore how it should look, and how it might solve the client’s problem.
The important absence in this equation, however, is that student work is produced in a vacuum: the academic space is not the real world. It is not where tastemaking, and choices in color, type, imagery, and meaning are guided by more complex practical and political realities. In reality, clients bring baggage and “environment” issues that need to be managed. In other words, a designer in the real world is expected to wear numerous hats simultaneously, and “designer” is just one of them.
I once found myself in conversation with a composer who has scored music for a number of oscar-winning film directors. We were talking about how he went into this genre of music as a career, and why he has been so successful where others have failed. One comment was telling as much as it was counterintuitive: “Well…in the end, my gig isn’t just about making music. I can make the music and so can a lot of other really talented people. What I really do differently is consider what my job ultimately is, in context. My job is making the right people happy, and in this business that’s a big part of the gig.”
As a professional, the skill of doing the thing you're hired to do is one part of a much larger skill set. Understanding what directors, producers, marketing people and all of the other people on the team are trying to accomplish is the ‘big part of the gig’ to which he was referring. Understanding that unspoken part of things takes time, experience, patience and the ability to listen. These aspects are not part of any school curriculum, and might not be something that can even be taught in the academic setting.
“Making the right people happy” is more than being servile to the egos who hold the big cards. It’s an opportunity for you to put your best foot forward and prove yourself not just to a client but also to yourself. A professional knows that time should be set aside to expect to make changes. And that despite conflicts and obstacles, delivering a product that keeps everyone friends in the end is a very real part of the gig. Your role is to anticipate the evolution of the work as more people examine it through their own filters, perspectives and needs.
The amateur understands how to make just the thing that the client requested. That's a great place to start, and the transition from amateur to professional happens over time: it happens as you build a body of work and experience teamwork and collaboration, as you develop an understanding of how to anticipate the needs of collaborators and plan for all of the above. You've arrived when a client brings you into a project because they trust your vision, and your understanding of their processes. Then it's up to you to convince them that working with you will generate an outcome that is better than the sum of its parts, better than anything they'd have without you.
The right approach to being professional involves a genuine curiosity that extends well beyond your field of work. It also requires a lot of energy. The right attitude is similar to that of a martial artist who presents his best effort and is yet ready to adapt to his teacher’s corrections. Good form, sharpened skills and flexibility are crucial to staying relevant: it's up to you to understand the environment in which clients operate—the economics, technology hurdles, market pressures, and other tangential things that usually fall outside the realm of being just a “designer.” It's never a bad time to become interested in right kinds of conversations with the client, and to get a deeper understanding of your role in the big picture of the project.
The gig is usually always bigger than the gig you might have been expecting. To be a professional, your mission—should you choose to accept it—is multifold. You have to find the joy in putting out great work—reliable, consistently solid work—in an unpredictable, messy world of a few key people who come to the table with their own ideas and emotional investments.
Your gig, ultimately, is to become the person to whom problems are sent to disappear.