February 17, 2014

Dream by the day and make it real

By Sana Rao

I have had the fortune of being taught by, collaborating with and learning from some of the best designers in the industry; also hearing them talk about their journey from being a new designer to establishing successful careers. Every one of them has had unique paths. For some success was sudden, for some it was meticulously planned. Here I attempt to distill lessons from all their journeys (and mine) into patterns that I saw were repeated. This is what I have found:

Collect and curate the kind of ideas that excite you. Be it through Pinterest, Tumblr, a physical scrapbook or whatever works for you, but put all the design projects that excite you, that you wish you were a part of, in one place. Keep that space active and updated with the ‘whys’ attached to each idea. See it often, every day if possible.

Every day, write your views on design or on life. Make it the first thing you do when you wake up or the last thing you do before you sleep, build it into your routine. Using something like 750 words has been incredibly helpful to me, but for this purpose I would suggest writing in public at least once a week.


Define your core

Once you’ve done the first two steps for a few months, go over them obsessively and you will start to see patterns emerge. Now comes the most important step – figuring out your core. This is the point around which all of your most fulfilling work has revolved and originated from. There may be other projects that fall as tangents but the ones you have loved being a part of, will always fall on the orbit.

Take time with this one, it took me a lot of second guessing and soul searching to find my core. After examining the nature of all the projects that I had done, be it connecting people through poetry on postcardsconnecting musicians to their fans in a subway or understanding the value of sound in creating memorable experiences, I realized there were three things that were at the centre of each of them- human connection, communication and empathy. It gave me a remarkable amount of peace and clarity that immediately put a lot of my future plans in perspective.

Create projects you love 

Once you have recognized your core, that is your place of passion, create things from that place. Bring your ideas outside the notebook and actually create them. If you can’t do it yourself, reach out to people who can help you build them. These need to co-exist with your job; these are your side projects that give you joy, that will lead to creative fulfillment.

Show and tell

After completing a project, the other half of the battle is creating conditions for people to discover your work. The earlier you put it out in front of people the better it is. As designers we are always stuck in the mentality of perfection and in this process a lot of our projects never see the light of the day. What is more important is proof of concept, see if it interests people, see how they react to it. Reach out to your design idols, show your work to people, take it everywhere with you. Talk about it incessantly. One of my projects Postcard Poets started as a whimsical idea, but as soon as we put it online, we were surprised to find other designers blogging about it, other poetry enthusiasts writing to us to find out more. It was no longer relegated to a forgotten folder; it had to be made into a reality.

This is easier now than it has ever been. The internet is democratizing and streamlining the process of starting a new company or a project, with literally no financial investment. It is easier to be exposed to different kinds of design, follow someone that inspires you and be able to reach out to them. Trouble is that most of us don’t think of it as an option. Most design leaders that I have come across have been some of the most humble and approachable people in the industry, I suspect they would not have gotten to that place if they weren’t.

There is no secret formula to a successful design career, no magic potion. If there is some magic, it is in taking time to think about what excites you on a daily basis, it is in designing from an honest and passionate core and it is in persevering to make your ideas a reality, every single day.


“All men dream, but not equally.

Those who dream by night in the dusty

recesses of their minds, wake to find that it was vanity;

But the dreamers of day are dangerous men,

for they may act on their dreams with open eyes,

to make them possible.”

– T.E. Lawrence


Sana Rao is part interaction designer, part storyteller and a poet at heart. She currently lives in the sunny Silicon Valley and continues her love affair with words by being a designer at Twitter. She tweets as @sanarao and you can see her work here and read her poems here. She has also written about her experiences of studying design abroad, and about storytelling in design.

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