Nope, that’s not a trick title. What follows isn’t a list of things you shouldn’t do because it’s what amateurs do. Those kind of articles are cute the first time you read one, but then after that they’re kind of … awful.

See, the thing is, I honestly want you to stay an amateur.

Though, not not in all regards, just in the ways that matter.

I want you to know your craft well. I want you to be able to deliver beautiful work in a professional manner, to a client that has had their problems solved, for an audience that’ll appreciate something special. That’s why I’m here – I truly want to help in all those ways, however I can.

But that doesn’t mean I think it’s worth giving up some things that make us amateurs.

We see turning pro as filling in the gaps in our knowledge – of learning all the tricks so we can deliver a solid end product. We want to get good at solving problems so that people may pay us to solve theirs.

An amateur is someone who does something because they love it, not because of money. So of course we want to know everything there is to know about something we love.

But in doing so we often let go of the traits that brought us to our creative paths, and I honestly think we lose something great because of it.

We Lose Passion and Ignorance
When we’re amateurs we didn’t really know what made something good or bad.

We didn’t recognise bad kerning, or mismatched colours, or an imbalance in visual weight. Half the time we probably wouldn’t even notice that the poster or website that had us leaping from our chair didn’t even have a solid call to action.

All we cared about was if the work was exciting or boring.

If it was exciting we looked, if it was boring we ignored it.

When we start to learn what the “correct” way of doing things are, we shift our lenses so that “exciting” becomes “good” and “boring” because “bad”. They overlap pretty well anyhow, so we don’t really notice what we’re missing.

Then one day we forget that there are other things than the small details. We can easily dismiss a beautiful piece of work because of a small detail, like a bad typeface or poor colour choice, because now, we notice when the little things are wrong. Then it isn’t long before the passion for what we’re looking at is gone because, well, it isn’t about passion anymore. It’s about looking at work that checks a series of internal boxes.

Of course, one of those boxes is bound to be “exciting”, but it’s way down the list, after things like “visually balanced”, “appropriate typeface”, and “harmonious colours”.

Before we even notice the little details, when we are as amateur as amateur can be, our ignorance reinforces our passion. There’s nothing that gets in the way of our experiments, let alone our excitement.

Alright, so it’s all well and good to talk about how being an amateur has it’s benefits, but what do you do when you’re a professional? How do you start to revert back to the excitement of amateurism?

Seek out work that isn’t ‘good’, but is exciting.
We can start by curating. Start collecting work that is exciting. That is the only checkbox it has to tick. Look for work with only this in mind and add it to your Pinterest board, your bookmarks, or Evernote, or whatever it is you use.

“Exciting.” That’s the only thing it needs to be. The work can be a photo, an illustration, a painting, a book cover, a poster, a website, an app, or a movie trailer. It can be a song, it can be a poem, it can be a play. Just start collecting things that excite you.

You’re collecting because you’re trying to find a forgotten path.

I remember I was once having trouble writing an article on branding. It seemed horribly difficult at first. I spent days trying to think of a topic, an angle, a point to cover. I read articles and books, looked through galleries, broke down branding style guides. But still, no topic stood out as worth covering.

Finally an idea came to me. Then a second… then a fifth… before long I had a sheet filled with them.

That’s when I realised that you have to prime your thinking. A new way of thinking is not something you can turn on with the flick of a switch – you have to develop the thought patterns that lead you down a certain path.

If you want to do work that is exciting, if you want to be excited, if you want to have the rhythm you did when you were an amateur, then start by priming your thoughts by looking at, and more importantly, curating, exciting work.

Stay ignorant.

Perhaps the most charming trait of the amateur is ignorance. It’s no different to how we learn to walk – we throw our limbs out and see what lands. Sometimes there are huge mistakes and some bruises, other times we find ourselves a little further ahead than we were before.

An amateur doesn’t know what they don’t know – they don’t know the limits, how something should be done, how things are often done. This is why learning happens so quickly, and it’s how a personal style is established. Mistakes are made and the curious ones that are worthwhile stick around.

It’s perhaps the most brilliant thing about an amateur – they don’t know that what they’re doing is “wrong” because to them it’s just exciting.

So what do you do if you’re a professional and you know your craft?

Find something on the edge of your craft, or even outside of it.

Look through design history and you’ll notice a near constant change. There has always been something new to learn – be it a technique, a style, a new and novel way to communicate.

As we find ourselves in this incredibly deep pool of technological advancement, I’m not sure we will ever know the edges. I don’t think it’s possible for a designer to know everything worth knowing, and for me at least, this is an incredibly wonderful gift.

The most successful designers I can think of also happen to be the ones who are constantly venturing out into new areas. If they started in print, they go to web. We’re even seeing web designers go to print for the first time and do brilliant work.

Everything we did as amateurs was an experiment, so go back to doing things that you’re not sure will work. Bring in those exciting elements, but don’t refine them down. Make the project fit the element, not the other way around. It might not always work, but it can just be your first draft idea.

This isn’t a jack of all trades thing – this is simply a call to follow what intrigues you. And please, whatever you find when you go venturing, please bring it back to us.

Surround yourself with the right people
Ever heard the idea that you’re the average of the five people you surround yourself with the most?

Add up their incomes, average it out, it’s probably what you’re making. Same goes for IQ, EQ, and a heap of other traits.

Point is, you are who you surround yourself with.

So surround yourself with passionate, amateurish people. Find yourself some hackers. People who don’t wait around for things to be better or interesting, they do take care of that themselves.

You got spot them because they don’t let anything stand in their way. They don’t wait for the boss to proclaim a new application can be used, they just use it. They know about new software and technology before it’s released and know how it’s different to what came out yesterday.

To me these are the professional amateurs. They seek out what they don’t know, they challenge their limitations, they never take opportunities for granted.

Most of all, they love to share what they find. They’ll call or email you and point out something cool, and you’ll start to do the same for them.

You’ll feel as if it’s normal, but then one day you’ll be having a conversation with someone who you use to think was a peer, and you’ll realise they’ve started to fall behind. Luckily you can help them catch up. That is, if they’re ego will let them play the amateur.

The TLDR version? Just keep your eyes open.
Notice what all the above comes down to? Looking.

That’s it. Subscribe to some newsletters, follow some cool people on Twitter, email someone whose work you love but don’t really understand. Spend hours on Pinterest and Niice.

Don’t dismiss any piece of work you don’t understand or think is bad. Look at it, closely, and ask yourself, is it exciting?

Your turn.
I’d love to hear from you!

I’d love to hear what you do to stay an amateur. What keeps you excited, how do you stay curious? What did you like most about starting out?

Or even cooler, what are you doing to stay an amateur now?

Oh, me?
I’ve got a few things coming up that I’m very excited about and I’ll be an amateur in all of them.

  1. Very early next year I’ll be launching a podcast. It’s scares me a little, but I’m looking forward to it. More details soon!
  2. I’ll be starting up a Retinart Store, specialising in beautiful letterpress pieces. I have a gorgeous Heidelberg Windmill, and it’s about time I started using it.
  3. Online Editorial Design, mixed with a deeper-than-media-queries understanding of Responsive Web Design practices.