The pastry box project baked by Wilson Miner

When I was 16, I worked for a designer who gave me this advice: “If you don’t A-S-K, you won’t G-E-T.” Yeah, it’s goofy how he spelled it out like that, but it stuck with me.

He was talking about asking for money, getting paid for my work. The idea that I was doing work that had any value to anybody even though I was 16 years old and had almost no experience was hard to get my head around. But it was 1996, and I was building web pages for some of his local clients. I had as much experience as anybody else they could hire to do it.

Later on in my career I started to think about that advice in a different way. Sure, it’s about taking responsibility for valuing your own work, but it’s also about taking responsibility for the kind of work you want to be valued for.

One piece of advice I’ve given designers starting out is don’t put work in your portfolio that you don’t want to do again. It’s easy to feel pressure to “round out” your book, and make your skills look as broad as possible. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — the work you show is the kind of work people will ask you for. Typecasting is just human nature.

Recognizing that actually gives you a kind of power. By shaping the image you put out there, you can shape the work you do in the future. Tired of people coming to you as the “illustration guy”? Take the illustrations out of your book. Want to do more UI work? Put some spec UI work in. Pull out all the stops, write a case study, build your own app, push the details, make it thoughtful. If the work leaves an impression, it doesn’t matter who the client was, or if there even was one. As a designer, you always have the power to (re)invent yourself.

“If you don’t A-S-K, you won’t G-E-T.”