The most difficult thing about being a designer

We’ve been talking to a few graduates this week, and I was asked what I thought was the most difficult thing about being a designer.

Interestingly, it’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that question. I had to stop and think, but when I googled, it’s been asked 125,000,000 times , so it’s not uncommon.

I’m curious – what would be your answer?

I said the most difficult thing about being a designer is maintaining the energy … I can explain.

Most design start-ups focus on the short game. Chasing clients and budgets, aiming for a quick response. Needing to make overheads for the week, the month, the quarter, then celebrating when we make the first year.

Life as a designer is a series of sprints.

But managing a creative business can be relentless … it’s a bit like a sourdough culture wanting attention every single day. Look away for a short while and you’re forced to work doubly hard to bring it back from the brink. Infact a sour dough culture is better because it delivers  predictable results whereas a creative business is far from predictable – all about the peaks and troughs.

Peaks are good because deadlines pump adrenaline through your veins, clients are engaged and projects zoom past. It’s easy to be swept away with the energy. But the problem with peaks is you can’t keep running uphill forever. At some stage most of us will run out of breath.

And then there are the troughs. And the troughs can be hard slog. I’ve written before about 30% mix of projects needed to be sustainable … that 30% transactional work is what pays the overheads, keeps the clients happy and maintains the momentum. Problem is trudging through routine work can be soul destroying if you don’t keep your eye on the long game.

So sometimes we’re sprinting and other times we’re slogging.

What a mix.

I think maintaining the energy is the hardest thing about being a designer.

The hardest thing about being a designer is maintaining energy

Being creative needs energy.
Presenting, negotiating and collaborating all need energy.
Maintaining enthusiasm during mindless iterations needs energy.
The business of design needs energy.

Maintaining energy

There is a myriad of ways to maintain your energy but my experience says they all distill down to:

  1. take regular breaks
  2. build a community to share your load.

Neither is brain surgery but it’s amazing how many designers fail to do either.

Take regular breaks

We’ve been guilty of not scheduling breaks for ourselves, even when insisting our employees take their breaks, and experience showed every time it was to our detriment.

Breaks from the business not only refuel your creative juices, they work as a reset — after a weekend away, molehills look like molehills instead of mountains.

The first step is to take a lunch break out of the studio rather than eating at your desk and sharing your sushi with your mouse mat.

The second step is to avoid working on the weekend. If it all turns pear-shaped and you have to (sometimes things turn pear-shaped and you do what you have to do) plan some sort of joy you can look forward to. A walk, a dinner, visiting family and friends – something so when you are asked what you did over the weekend you have something to share and you don’t feel like a complete failure.

Which leads to … community.

Build your community

Designers often work long hours, in isolation to deadline. Doing that relentlessly mines our energy source. Problem is, I’m pretty sure our energy is not an infinite resource.

That’s where being part of a community is valuable. Surround yourself with like-minded people so you can slipstream into their energy if yours falters. Being part of a community is one of the main advantages of working in a studio or shared space at least part of your week.

Being with others means you can can enjoy the momentum, the energy and enthusiasm of other people.

On a larger scale, there are many ways to engage in the design community.

You can do it online, not just ‘liking’ but joining discussion in forums like LinkedIn. If you are in Melbourne you can join our breakfast yaks once a month – an informal group of designers meeting for breakfast. Not in Melbourne? You can start your own. The value of breaking bread with other designers, sharing their challenges and wins is a pleasure. It’s amazing how often we meet at 7:30am in one headspace and leave 90 minutes later with a completely different mindset.



Building a sustainable design career is about playing the long game. Make no mistake, keeping an eye on the long game while being pushed and pulled through the peaks and troughs of life’s short games is tough.

That’s why I think maintaining yoiur energy is the hardest part of being a designer.

Two sure things will help keep your eye on the long game.

  1. Take regular breaks to keep the wins and losses of the short game in perspective.
  2. Surround yourself in a community that will help keep you grounded and supported.


Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol

After 30+ years running a design studio, I accumulated a pretty special network of fellow designers. One thing most have in common: a dislike for the ‘business’ side of design. Most are impatient with any task competing for time spent doing what they love – designing.

Not me. I love that intersection between design and business. I built a career working with Ombudsman schemes, the Emergency Services sector and the Courts. My special power has always been an ability to use design to translate the difficult to understand or the unpalatable message.

I now use exactly the same skills with creative business owners. I translate the indigestible into bite-sized chunks of information. I share insights, introduce tools and embed processes to help others build confidence business decision-making skills. More confidence makes it easier to grasp opportunities. More confidence makes it easier to recognise a good client from the bad.

Outside DBC I have mentored with Womentor, AGDA and most recently with The Aunties.
And I’m a proud board member of Never Not Creative. Ask me about internships 😉

Always happy to chat, I can be contacted here.


For a short while, an archive of my design work at
My current work can be viewed at and

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