Breaking Through! An Artist’s Guide to Professional Work Ethics

Lets say you’re a designer and the following situation happened: “You have a busy life managing a serious relationship with your lover, a part time job at a restaurant on the other end of town, a few college classes and a freelance art career. You receive a commission to do spot illustrations for a publishing agency, but you have a 3-day deadline. Between juggling your multiple lives, you barely had enough time to work on the commission and reach the deadline.

The truth is folks, no matter how talented we are as artists and designers, we are constantly challenged to keep a balanced life and work with in tight deadlines. In this article I’m going to discuss how creating a work ethic to suite your needs will not only improve your ability to produce work and time manage, but also to better establish yourself as a designer in the art community.


What is a work ethic?

A work ethic is the steps and manner in which you take to execute a goal or project; that is the time spent researching, idea planning, goofing around and actually working that makes up one’s process. Whether you’re a student or professional, a work ethic helps maintain the balance of your multiple lives.


Humans are creatures of habit, we have a morning routine and periods blocked out for work and free time, and however time management becomes a constant challenge because of keeping up with social obligations, distractions and daily life. Time management is an important skill that any budding professional should learn. A good way to establish a schedule is to consider what needs to be done within your calendar. Aside from plotting time for work and friends, seriously consider breaking down a project into tasks and allocating time into your schedule to execute them.

Time Management

Now that a schedule has been established, its time to get crackin! But here’s the thing, what exactly are you working on? A good practice is to have a to-do list tracking what needs to get done by today as well as future projects. By doing this, you not only stay on topic, but have less moments of daydreaming and trying to figure out what to do. Another great advantage is that you can track your progress and understand the next step.

Again, this is a simple but handy tool.

Know thyself

As a child growing up, I remember watching old reruns of the GI Joe cartoons that would have the following inspirational PSA, “Knowing is half the battle”. Well, this phrase is no truer when it comes to how you work. To better understand what kind of worker you are, you should ask yourself the following questions:

-Are you a night owl or early bird?

-Are you a designer that likes working on multiple things at once, or do you prefer focusing on one thing?

-Do you work better by getting a project done ahead of time, or do you prefer working to the last minute?

By figuring out the manner in which you work, you can effectively plan your schedule and work on projects. Now that I’ve discussed basic steps towards planning an effective work ethic, I’m going to outline a basic design process that I follow.

Contract Negotiation

Ever notice in crime dramas that in hostage negotiations, both parties explicitly describe what they want? Well, when it comes to handling contracts with clients, its best to first read the terms of the contract and discuss the clauses. For an example, imagine you were commissioned to do spot illustrations for a math textbook aimed at elementary education, but you missed the part about “work for hire”. If you understand legal terminology, “work for hire” means the artist surrenders all legal and owner ship rights to the client. Well guess what, you can forget the credit and royalties if you agreed to that clause. Before signing the contract, this would be ample time to discuss any of the clauses with in a contract. I highly suggest subscribing a membership to the Graphic Artists Guild, they have sample contracts and resources to help your professional career and they’re even available to students, faculty and professionals!

Project Start and Research phase

Congratulations, you’re working on a design project! This is really exciting because it’ll be you and possibly a design team working together to achieve the client’s goal. Since this is the start of the project, I highly recommend becoming familiar with the project since you’ll be designing it. If there’s a design team involved, getting to know your teammates may be beneficial because allocating tasks to according to your teammates strengths can help the project go smoother. In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he demonstrates how a good General understands his troops and how to employ them efficiently. Ideally, you want the folks who are good with web design to take care of website related stuff while the other teammates can focus on their strengths. Aside from researching your teammates, you should understand the subject as well.

If you grew up watching Batman or seen any of Showtime’s Dexter, you’ll notice how these two crime fighters don’t plow right into battle, they actually stalk and research their subject but this doesn’t mean you need to be dark and edgy. For the sake of an argument, lets say that you’re commissioned to art direct an advertising campaign to raise Ovarian Cancer awareness. A good designer would do research and compile information to make designs presenting Ovarian Cancer understandable to the target audience. Remember, as a designer you are communicating visually the client’s goal.

Work in Progress.

Like in my previous article, Sketchbooks: The Ultimate Escape, I pointed out the importance of brainstorming. The comp phase is very vital in a project’s development because this is where the heavy legwork in designing ideas happens. Due to time limits and budgets, it may be a good idea to produce three different versions of a project to a client, that way you and the client can mutually agree in a specific direction to take to the final stage.

Final Stage

The final stage is where the project is completed and presentation worthy so the client can use it. A completed project should never look sloppy, having missing files or be unorganized. Seeing the physical manifestation of your hard work is the beauty of the final phase. Regardless of your feelings for the project, the outcome should bring you pride and a sense of accomplishment. Remember, out of the multitude of designers around the world, you were chosen to contribute your talents towards helping the client accomplish his goal!

And lastly, here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re designing.


The Zone, Groove or whatever you call it is the state of mind when you’re balanced and focused into what you’re doing. For some, this is the ideal place to be when you’re creating.

A common method to achieving this heightened state would be through music. Rock, Instrumental, Hip-Hop, take your pick! A friend of mine is a huge movie buff and would play soundtracks from movies like Inception, Tron Legacy and Hannah to help the creative juices flow.  If you’re looking for a particular mood, a friend of mine introduced me to Stereo Mood, which builds a playlist based on an emotion or theme.

Aside from music, another good idea would be to work in an environment that inspires you. Grab your sketchbook and hangout with your friends in studio; sit at a café or even hole up at a community park.

Amidst the tactics that I previously mentioned, passion is the best motivation because enjoying what you’re doing shows in the final product of the project. Ever notice that folks who don’t like their job usually show low performance and sloppy work? Despite not liking or loving a project we’re commissioned for, we as designers are challenged to create the best work for the client. For an example, during my undergrad years, one class project was to create a rebranding campaign for a non-profit wildlife activist group. Even though the class may have had different opinions about the client’s mission, we as a class were challenged and encouraged to create a re-branding campaign for our client. I suggest learning more about a project and how it relates to your interests as a means of battling enthusiasm for a project. Who knows, you might find a new appreciation for the project or even an element to incorporate into the design!


While at college, a common sign of a hard deadline is seeing a friend’s work station littered with energy drinks: Star Bucks Double Shot, Red Bull, Monster, 5-Hour energy drinks. I’m guilty of this, and it’s a common misconception amongst college students that pumping your body with excess amounts of caffeine and other related stimulants can aid performance and allows the users to work with little to no sleep. However the sugar boost and mind-racing effects of stimulants will have your mind in overdrive and inevitably, you’re going to crash. Here’s a little tidbit I read about consuming too much caffeine related products, “The potential harms, caused mostly by too much caffeine or similar ingredients, include heart palpitations, seizures, strokes and even sudden death, the authors write in the medical journal Pediatrics (Associated Press). Also, if at possible please don’t do away with sleep. If you don’t believe that sleep is important, prove me wrong and check out this Sleep Study Info graphic. While, it may seem worth putting one’s health on the line to meet a deadline please consider your health.


Create a schedule and work ethic that helps you be the best professional you can be.


Energy Drink Article

Sleep Infographic

Images Courtesy of Shutterstock, James Thew [1, 6, 8] & yxowert [ 2, 3, 4, 5, 7]