Graphic design is still one of the most competitive fields in the United States, despite the importance of design work across almost every industry.
Successful designers need to know their stuff and be able to market themselves and their work to a neverending list of potential clients.
Graphic designer and entrepreneur Serra Semi has managed to rise above the fray, starting her own successful creative studio, Lumens, based in New York.
On top of working with big brands like Medivol Wines, Tomorrow Networks, Neer, and Genoa Healthcare, Semi also penned a collection of insights titled 21 Lessons in 21 Years from a Single-Intent Creative Career.
These are lessons that had to be learned the hard way, through years of experience and occasional mistakes. While we weren’t able to cover all 21 lessons in our interview with Semi, she did highlight several that she has found especially helpful.
The lessons you’ll find below are helpful for all creative professionals and young professionals as a whole. Take a look and take them to heart.
Have you always dreamed big? Did you expect that one day you would be running your own company?
Being your own boss is the big dream, isn’t it? I have always believed in going after your dreams, striving for the ultimate experiences. But life has a funny way of guiding you from one dream to another.
When I was in high school, the dream was to study in the US. When that dream became a reality, then it was living and working in New York. When that happened, the dream became going to graduate school.
So starting my own company was definitely one of the next big dreams. I might have taken a little bit more time to make the jump, but my circumstances made me go for it.
Have you looked for things to learn at all of your past jobs? Does this approach extend past your work life? Do you just enjoy learning new things in general?
There is always room for growth. It’s a matter of perspective. When I started working at my first job after college, there was a lot to be learned in terms of how to get things done. And coming from a fine arts background I had a lot to learn to be able to support the design projects effectively.
Later in my career, I had to learn how to manage people, how to run a business, and how to grow as a professional. We all find ourselves in positions where we may not know exactly what to do. I don’t see it a problem but as an opportunity to learn.
It is definitely part of my personality, the need to learn new things and have experiences that require me to go beyond what I know. It’s not only exciting but also extremely rewarding.
Is self-promotion difficult for you? Do you have any advice for people who don’t enjoy or don’t know how to promote themselves and their work?
Self-promotion didn’t come naturally to me. I used to think the work should speak for itself. But I realized early on that I had to speak up to get the work the attention it deserves. I had to develop new skills.
The creative process is introspective for me. It was very challenging to switch gears to be outspoken and engaging in an effort to convince people to pay attention.
My advice would be to make peace with the fact that you have to speak up for yourself. There is no escape from it. No one is going to do it for you. The sooner you stop seeing it as an obstacle the sooner you will get out of your own way. You have to own your accomplishments and potential if you want to get the clients, the projects, and the opportunities you want.
How have you known whether to stay at a certain job or move on to the next one? Did you look for certain red flags or was it based on how you felt there?
I have seen this from both sides, as an employee and as an employer. At my first job, I was just grateful to have an opportunity at all. I went above and beyond to do better, no matter what the task was. I was ready to do the job and do it well. But after a couple of years, I started losing interest because I felt like I didn’t get the projects I wanted to work on and I wasn’t compensated enough for my efforts.
I was young and didn’t know to ask for what I wanted. I started resenting the job. Resentment led to doing the bare minimum. Eventually I left to go to grad school.
The same thing happened at my last job before I started my own company. After the acquisition, our new company didn’t manage us. I floated from department to department. Projects I wanted to lead went nowhere due to lack of management. I stopped caring because the company didn’t support me.
The feeling of walking into the office every day and not wanting to be there is when it’s time, whatever the circumstances.
As an employer, I have seen young designers start working with full enthusiasm but eventually getting distracted by personal circumstances or getting discouraged by workplace competition. It is obvious when an employee is losing interest in the job. Their behavior starts lacking in how they respond to conversations and how they contribute creatively.
I had the choice to find a way to engage them again or let go. It wasn’t an easy position to be in. In one instance I had to let the designer go. In another, she left on her own when I tried to remedy the circumstances. In another, we found a way to keep both parties happy.
Have you benefited from spending time with many different types of professionals? Has it had an impact on your work?
It is crucial to engage with all types of people in order to succeed. We cannot accomplish anything alone.
I had many challenges when I first started my company. Colleagues from different backgrounds came to the rescue. A friend who worked in HR helped me figure out how to navigate workers comp and DBL insurance for employees. She put me in touch with someone she worked with in the past who put together the policies I still use today.
As a creative, I operated alone and needed interactions with creatives to help me through the projects. I joined networking opportunities to connect with others. A colleague working in fashion shared his photographer contacts. Another gave me feedback on the copy used in our marketing decks. Some created spaces for me to reflect on the bigger picture of what I wanted to accomplish with my company. These types of stories of connection and collaboration are endless. It is the only way to succeed.
What convinced you of the importance of being a pleasant, friendly, and productive coworker?
We should all just be nice to each other in life, not just at work. But specifically within the professional context, from day one you are interacting with people every day and also making connections that will last a lifetime.
Unpleasant behavior on a daily basis creates an unpleasant working environment for everyone, not just the people involved in the conflict and it ends up hurting the projects’ outcomes.
No one will do their best when they’re dealing with stress caused by bad behavior. People you meet at any stage in your life all matter in the long run. The bridges you built will help you succeed in future endeavors.
When I started my company, I sent out an announcement email to anyone and everyone I had ever worked with. The reaction gave me a push right at the beginning when I needed it the most. Colleagues I have worked with in the past came to me with their design projects, recommended me to their connections that needed design talent, and helped me with getting the business off the ground. The reaction is a testament to my efforts of being a pleasant and effective colleague to them in the past.
Are you better at accepting rejection now than at the start of your career? How have you changed the way you respond to rejection?
Design is very personal to its creator. We put our hearts into our work. It’s hard not to let rejection and criticism get to you. It’s an essential part of a designer’s practice to learn how to not take it personally.
Ultimately it is part of life. Not everything is meant for you. It doesn’t mean you were not good enough. It just means it wasn’t the right fit. I had to learn early on not to have a knee-jerk reaction to negative feedback. I learned to listen to the client and read what their exceptions were. I learned how to manage those expectations and guide them through the creative process without getting defensive.
I had to learn that when I didn’t get the project I pitched or the job I applied to, that it wasn’t a reflection of what I lacked but just that I wasn’t the right person for the job. I just went on to pursue the next opportunity. You will not move forward if you see rejection as an end instead of a stepping stone in the right direction.