Getting through stagnation — growing as an experienced designer

As a mentor, creative director, and leader of a fabulous team of 22, I have seen many designers feel stagnated after working in the same industry or position for an extended time. While a little feeling of stagnation can become a great motivation boost for self-improvement, a significant dose of the same sensation could be fatal for even the most experienced designer, myself included. Demotivation, desperation, and stress are just some of the states of mind that may accompany the feeling of stagnation. Letting this feeling fester for too long will cause significant damage to a designer’s mental health and, in extreme cases, may force the designer to give up on her career or lead to other undesirable decisions. In this article, let us look at a few essential approaches that a designer should consider when affected by stagnation. If you are an experienced designer overwhelmed by the feeling of stagnation, I hope this article could serve as a pointer to help you head back on track and grow further in your career.


Experienced designers will more than often face professional stagnation, particularly due to extended periods in stressful roles. Stagnation can stem from losing sight of goals. To tackle this, self-reflection is crucial but challenging as designers tend to view themselves too positively or negatively. For a more effective self-flection, designers can create a list of points to evaluate career status, financial comfort, and work-life balance. Rediscovering goals is the next step, involving questions about career choices, plans, and personal passions. One additional, but equally important step is to embrace constant learning and exploring outside one's comfort zone. Developing a habit of learning and gradually intensifying it is, therefore, vital. Lastly, communication and vulnerability, particularly through conversations with family, friends, and colleagues, can provide solutions and reduce stress.

Self-reflecting and rediscovering your goals — cracking one of the major causes of stagnation

After working in the same position for an extended time, especially in a position where constant stress is the norm, it’s easy for you, as a designer, to lose sight of what you may want to achieve professionally. This is one of the major causes of stagnation. Without a goal in sight to measure your progress, it’s natural for you to feel stagnated. As a result, one of the best approaches for getting out of stagnation is to take a step back for self-reflection and to rediscover the lost goals.

Self-reflection, a non-linear process

Let us take a closer look at the first half of this approach: self-reflection. Strangely enough, self-reflection isn’t a simple task for many, especially designers. More than often, a designer tends to either view herself in a too-positive or too-negative light. This further leads to the designer shifting her blame to external factors that she cannot control or further loss of self-confidence. As a result, a designer must stay as neutral as possible when self-reflecting to ensure that the results can help her overcome stagnation.

Creating a list with points to consider is an excellent approach to ensure the neutrality of the process and that you have sufficiently considered your achievements and environment. For each point in the list, take the time to ponder slowly and answer truthfully. Remember that the purpose of this list isn’t to condemn you as a designer but to help you better understand your current situation. It is okay, therefore, even if most of your answers are negative. While the content of the list can be varied case-by-case, it should include the following essential information:

  1. Career-wise: Compared to your peers, are you, as a designer, currently in a good position (experience-wise)?
  2. Financially: Are you earning enough to keep yourself comfortable? Are your earnings also enough to help you pursue your goals?
  3. Work-life balance: Is your current job offering sufficient work-life balance? In terms of workload and stress, is your current job offering you enough freedom for your private life?

For each answer in your list, try and elaborate on it. If your answer is positive, ask yourself: what did you do right? What can you learn from this positive experience that can contribute to solving other negative factors? On the other hand, if your answer is negative, ask yourself: was this within your control? If it was, can you take action now to change it? Just like this, with a thorough self-reflection on the situation, you should have a clearer understanding of your current situation at the end of the process.

Rediscovering your goals

Now that you’ve understood your situation better, it’s time to rediscover your goal. Similar to your self-reflection process, your journey to rediscovering your goals also starts from a list of basic questions:

  1. If you were to continue forward, would you choose to stay with your current job or with a different opportunity? What’s your career goal?
  2. Where do you see yourself in 5 years? How about 10?
  3. Are there any other passions you would like to pursue?

Successfully answering these questions will give you the time and consideration you need to discover more about what you want to achieve (and hopefully will ignite your motivation). Once you’ve figured out the big goals, you can start dividing them into smaller, achievable, bite-sized ones with a timeline (if you are familiar with it, writing down your goals following the SMART approach would help a lot). The smaller goals will become the new tools to help propel you forward in your career. As long as you put in the effort to achieve these divided smaller goals, the sensation of stagnation should start to fade away.

However, not everyone can successfully answer these questions. In some cases, you may not know what you want to achieve in the near future or where you want to be in your career. If that’s the problem you are facing now, let us visit the next set of approaches to help you get through stagnation: learning and exploring.

Learning and exploring — when curiosity doesn’t kill the cat

The design industry is, perhaps, the most dynamic industry in the market. With new technologies and frameworks constantly being introduced, it’s not strange for businesses and agencies to expect their designers to be able to keep up with the trends and new ways of working. For example, a print designer may now be required to know how to work in an agile environment and how print design can be combined with digital assets in a marketing campaign. Furthermore, as pioneering agencies are starting to integrate both old and new media to create more immersive experiences, experienced designers hoping to jump to a more senior position or pivot to a different niche may be expected to have a cross-understanding of both traditional and modern media.

The bar is now higher than ever, and that’s all the reason why constant learning and exploring is yet another great approach to curing and preventing stagnation.

Getting out of your comfort zone — the key to efficient learning

Having significant experience as a designer means that you are more confident in your work. However, at the same time, the same experience can narrow your vision, and as you continue to work in the same niche, your frame of mind naturally becomes fixed on the said field. This is when the feeling of stagnation builds up.

As a designer, you need to get out of your comfort zone to break out of and prevent stagnation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the more experienced you are in your chosen field, the more uncomfortable you must become.

If we are not a little bit uncomfortable every day, we’re not growing. All the good stuff is outside our comfort zone. — Jack Canfield

The question then is how to become uncomfortable as an experienced designer. The answer? Look past your niche. If you are a print designer, look into digital design. If you are a traditional brand designer, look into marketing and advertisement. If you’ve always been working with 2D assets, maybe it’s time to look at 3D creations. You get the point.

However, merely looking at a different niche isn’t enough to make it a valuable learning experience. When you look at the work in other niches, keep an open mind and always think of how to bring the best practices or implement what these niches can create into your work. For example, if you are a traditional brand designer, look into the work of marketing and advertisement agencies to see how the brand’s message and personality are conveyed. This way, you can figure out how to further refine how the brand’s message and personality are defined to give more freedom for future implementation. Or, if you are a print designer looking into 3D works, take notes of 3D’s possibility in creating different types of assets, be it product visualization or motion graphics. With the new-found knowledge, you will be able to come up with better concepts the next time you are tasked with creating a banner for new product launches.

Looking past your niche also doesn’t mean you should only confine your vision to design-related fields. If you aspire to launch your agency or hoping to jump to a managerial position, or if you are simply working in a strategy-drafting job, learning how businesses are structured and operated can also become very handy.

Turning learning into a habit…and committing to it

For learning and exploring to remain an effective countermeasure to stagnation, we must turn it into a habit and stay committed. Unfortunately, working in the design industry means we are constantly under heavy workloads and tight deadlines, making it difficult to squeeze in additional learning, much less make it into a habit.

The good news, however, is as a working professional, learning doesn’t have to be the same as in classrooms. You have complete control of what you want to learn and how you want to learn. It’s up to you whether you want to start from as small as 15 minutes a day or go full-speed at 8 hours a day. It’s also up to you whether you want to study from a traditional textbook or just casually skim through your smartphone’s screen.

If going back to learning seems like a daunting task for you, try to set your initial goals small. Start by squeezing in 15 minutes of reading every day during your lunch break or during your commuting time. The aim is to make learning a habit. Through easy-to-achieve small goals and by achieving these goals continuously, you can slowly turn daily learning into a habit, and it will also be gradually easier to crank up the dial on the learning intensity.

There’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right. — Charles Duhigg

If you’ve successfully taken your first step to making learning your new habit, congratulations. However, there will be times when even 15 minutes can seem like a luxury. If this is the case for you, then it’s time we visit the last approach in this article: communication.

Talking and becoming vulnerable — sometimes the answer is closer than you think

If you have felt stagnated for an extended time or are under constant stress, you may feel that you are at a dead end and it’s impossible to make any changes. You may tell yourself that the only way forward is to accept everything as is and carry on with your stressful daily routine. This is one of the most extreme ends of stagnation.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sometimes, the answer to a problem may be closer than you think. Sometimes, all it takes is just one simple conversation with your family, friends, and colleagues. By sharing your concerns with others, together, you will be able to come up with solutions that can help you to get through stagnation. The solution can sometimes be as simple as a small change in schedule or workload or can be as complicated as switching to a new opportunity. And even in the worst case where talking doesn’t give you a concrete answer, the act of talking alone can diminish your stress level over time.

But talking can also be a scary thing, especially when it’s coupled with anxiety and fear. When stressed, it’s natural for the brain to enter its fight or flight response, which could create a barrier to talking to others.

The goal, then, is to lower this natural barrier created by the brain and start meaningful conversations that could help you get through stagnation. While there is no definitive method to achieve this, a few tips below could be a good starting point for you:

  1. Write down your concerns prior to your conversation: writing down your concerns prior to conversations can actually lower your anxiety while helping you to organize your thoughts, ensuring that your conversations will be more meaningful than just simply a chain of complaints.
  2. Choose the right person and the right time for your conversation: while talking to many people can help to lower your emotional burden, you also want your conversations to be productive.
  3. Don’t put too many expectations on your conversations: while conversations could lead to potential solutions for stagnation, don’t expect conversations to solve it immediately. Keep an open mind and remember that just having conversations alone can already bring significant improvements to your mental stress.

Of course, talking isn’t always a linear process. Even if you approach it in a methodical way, emotions can always take over and lead your conversations astray. However, even if that’s the case, it’s okay to allow yourself to open up and be a bit more vulnerable. This, in turn, makes you more approachable for others to reach their hands out to you and can help you to create bonds and relationships that could last for a lifetime.

Some last words

Stagnation can be a scary thing for experienced designers. While a little sensation of stagnation can become a source of motivation, a lethal dose of it can severely affect your mental health, damage your creativity, and can lead you to make undesirable decisions. As a result, if you feel that you are stagnating and the feeling is affecting your mental health, you need to take quick countermeasures to cure it. Taking a step back for self-reflection, going back to learning and exploring, or having simple conversations with your loved ones could all be the starting point for a great solution.

There are many other methods for curing stagnation, and the approaches shared in this article are just some of those. Do you have any other tips? Don’t hesitate to share it.

Published on
January 3, 2023