Always be

Do you know your ABC?

Did you just learn it or do you practice it regularly? ABC is an abbreviation for “Always be Conditioning”. This refers mainly to sports and it basically means that you should always try to improve your skills when you have the opportunity and not just the two or three times a week you are actually at your training grounds. Because in reality you can always training, no matter what you do or where you are.

This can also be transferred to our work as designers. There are always opportunities to train. Honing and improve your skills even when you are not actively in the process of applying them. If you are working as a full-time designer in an agency environment with around 40 hours of working time, then one might ask the question “But why should I condition my skills even further?”. This quite legitimate question also arises with athletes. And the answer is very simple: because you want to improve.

Intrinsic motivation

This of course assumes, that you enjoy the activity you are doing. This does not necessarily mean to actually enjoy every action or every day, but as a whole you should generally enjoy the activities you are doing and the overall direction you are taking in your professional life to avoid [[resentment]] further down your path. Because if you enjoy the majority of what you are doing then the improvement will come on its own while you work and as a bonus the time flies much faster then when you dread what you are doing.

Improvement comes on its own if you do something long enough. But when you do your job, unlike in sport, a lot of people assume that you don’t have to train any further, and so many working people remain at their level of knowledge for many years without improving significantly. This can lead to a stagnation in your skill set and if time passes and new technologies, techniques and workflows develop your skill set can become outdated.

For all activities, especially manual activities that involve dexterity, the more often we perform the same activity, the better we get at it, until we reach a plateau. This plateau is a type of stagnation that can last for years without improving significantly. The reason for this is very simple: learning new activities is exhausting. The body has to use a lot of resources to make this new technique possible for our brain and our movement processes. Because in the beginning we have to think a lot about the correct procedures and steps to take to accomplish a task. But what we find difficult at the beginning becomes easier with enough repetition until it finally becomes second nature to us, because it has been ingrained into the subconscious part of our brain, because sufficient repetition has helped us in [[forming-a-habit]].

But a habit that has become automatic no longer requires new training stimuli. And even though you can now perform the activity with various degrees of skill, it will take more and more time to improve any further. To overcome that stagnation, as in sports, you have to set a new stimulus and vary the training. (I think I can dispense with the sports analogy in the rest of the text).

Train your skills and synergise

Improving one’s skills does not have to mean only pushing a small number of skills to mastery. You are free to do so or to move into other, preferably related, fields to [[create-synergies]].

Synergy is a kind of magical word that encourages us to pursue different techniques, each of which can be a career in its own right, but combined it can be utilised in different ways in your main activities.

For designers of all forms, photography has particularly stood out as a complementary medium. Nowadays, everyone always has a camera with them and taking photographs the eye for space, composition, colours, light and shadow, etc. Basically everyone who does visual design of some sort benefits from practising photography. Even in [[the-age-of-ai]].

The list of activities is of course much, much longer and for great synergies with your work as a designer the following are nut a fraction of worthwhile activities: painting, drawing, calligraphy, model making, animation, music, writing, programming etc.

It is not at all a question of bringing these secondary activities up to the same skill level as the main activity. Rather, the goal is to provide new training stimuli in a related field. Those stimuli will again challenge the body and further improve your abilities. Thinking back to the headline: “Always be conditioning” means that we can learn anywhere and anytime.

So if you somewhere where you don’t have your laptop with you or the computer is not powerful enough to learn the new software you so desperately want to try out, you can always do something different. And by opening up your creative repository you discover new related, synergistic activity that benefit your main skill. Taking photos with your smartphone on the go, even in boring locations, drawing when walking your dog outside or in a waiting room, writing while riding the subway etc. The list can be continued endlessly.

But currently I don’t have my XYZ

The much-heard saying “but I don’t have my XYZ (insert special tool) with me” is in most cases a lazy excuse. I have used it myself a lot when I was longing for a faster computer, better hardware, fancier camera etc. But the advantage of working in the creative industries is that you do not need much to carry out a creative activity. For us creative folks training our ABCs is easy, because after all, pen and paper are almost always to be found in some form or another wherever you are. And paper is cheap.

And not having your usual utensils with you also has the advantage that you have to “get creative” and make do with objects from your surroundings. This can be an interesting challenge all in itself has already led to ingenious creative ideas for many people (Special Mention should be made here of Stefan Sagmeister, who deliberately travels to a completely different environment for his sabbatical, which takes place every seven years, in order to come up with new ideas off the beaten track._).

Besides, nothing is more satisfying than doing a new activity.

Mamba Mentality

The main inspiration to “Always Be Conditioning” and it’s connection to sports comes from the great Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant was probably one of the most famous human beings when it comes to this Mindset, because he was very creative as a player and combined that with a strong work ethic, often being the first one on the court and the last one to leave. [1] This last one is not really an advice for your work environment, because creative people are one of the most exploited employee groups in that regard because of their emotional attachment to the work itself. But it means that when you are working for yourself on your own creative endeavours it is always good to just do it, no matter what. If you really like it put in the work and the results will come.


[1] Kobe Bryant’s last great interview on the Jay Shetty Podcast