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Jessica Dalton On Her Essential Advice For Emerging Designers

The Dr Martens footwear designer shares her tips on finding inspiration from home, developing a unique point of view and how to network during a nation-wide lockdown.

WORDS Jessica Dalton & Madeline Reid

Jessica Dalton designs with the contemporary zeitgeist in mind. Having already partnered with the likes of streetwear icons Palace Skateboards and fashion brand The Ragged Priest (and she teased an upcoming project with a high-profile illustrator), the young footwear designer has successfully carved herself a unique career path blending freelance collaborations with in-house positions at Kickers and Dr Martens.

The silver lining of the hellscape that was 2020 was the creators and makers who tirelessly continued innovating to produce new designs, DJ nights and digital content to keep us informed, entertained – and let’s face it, sane – at home during this tumultuous time. It also inspired many people furloughed with time to kill to finally pursue their passion project, providing new creative career opportunities for those ready to leave the corporate 9-5.

Now, in case you’re in need of some extra encouragement when it comes to your own ventures, Jessica reveals some of her tips for pursuing your goals in 2021.

Jessica’s portfolio on Behance

Finding inspiration during lockdown 

Try a digital detox – that means no social media, no news or outside influence – for 2 whole days. Our brains are constantly absorbing references and other peoples’ aesthetics, whether we are conscious of it or not. By cutting out the noise, it will allow you to focus on what really sets you apart as a designer. This is actually really tough – I tried it myself at the beginning of lockdown 1.0 and it made me realise how much I absorb when I pick up my phone just out of boredom. 

Remember, comparison culture kills creativity so after you have finished the detox and do start using social media again, ask yourself if the accounts you follow are helping you feel inspired and, if not – unfollow! 

Build an archive & leave your legacy

This is probably the most underrated design hack – nail your reference points and you will nail your design! I find it helpful to think of the phrase “going back to the drawing board” when you have a design that’s not working. Try and find another image that might inspire you or a different angle. If you’re not organised this can be a nightmare and you can waste hours wading through images trying to find that right one that will get you back on track again.

Get organised with your visual references and build an archive that you can rely on for years to come.

The quickest and easiest way to do this is to get organised with your visual references and build an archive that you can rely on for years to come. I use Pinterest because not only does it save the image but it also saves the original source link if you need to refer back to it. Make sure you follow relevant accounts that are in tune with your aesthetic/niche and start building clear, concise mood boards that are arranged for references to be easily found. The more specific the better! Once you’ve done this, Pinterest’s algorithm will do the hard work for you by suggesting additional pins. I scroll through Pinterest for 30mins each morning and add to my boards daily to keep them up to date so I always have the latest references. This is such a good habit to get into because it improves workflow so you can spend more time designing.

Develop your unique point of view 

Design is simply a series of choices, and point of view is how you make the right choices. It takes time to develop a keen editing eye. What you don’t like is equally important as what you do like because this is what makes up your unique aesthetic and DNA as a designer. If lockdown has got you feeling lost in your unique POV, make a secret set of personal Pinterest boards labelled ‘MY AESTHETIC’ MY COLOUR PALETTE ‘MY STYLE’ – keep looking back to these over time, editing and fine-tuning them until they become undeniably YOU.

Busting the drawing myth 

“But don’t I need to be amazing at drawing to be a good designer ?” I often hear asked and assumed. To be honest, no. Obviously, if you have a natural ability and desire to hone your drawing skills then that is great and it will no doubt aid you in your design journey. That being said, you shouldn’t feel disheartened if it doesn’t come naturally to you. If drawing stresses you out and you don’t feel very good at it but you love design, think of how you can hone your ‘communication style’. Some of the best designers I know use lots of different mediums to communicate their ideas, bold graphic sharpie, layering photos, Adobe programs, drawing in different colours. The most important thing is that your ideas are clear and they communicate what you want them to, but how you get there is entirely up to you. 

Some of the best designers I know use lots of different mediums to communicate their ideas, bold graphic sharpie, layering photos, Adobe programs, drawing in different colours. The most important thing is that your ideas are clear and they communicate what you want them to, but how you get there is entirely up to you. 

Embrace colour 

Something really easy to think about when trying to define your unique point of view as a designer is colour. Think of what your mind conjures up when you think of specific designers as default – Chanel has become synonymous with black and white, Zandra Rhodes with hot pink, Kenzo for its use of paintbox-bright colour-blocking separates and Delpozo for its milky pastel hues – what about you? What is your distinct colour palette and how can you use this to build consistency in your design language and set yourself apart?  Whether you’re working for yourself or a brand, it’s a really fun exercise as it brings you back to who you are and what you stand for as a designer. What colours do you want people to associate with you and why ?

De-stress your portfolio

Let me guess, you hate your portfolio ? Don’t worry, it’s completely normal to feel this way about your own work. The best way to de-stress the experience of putting a portfolio together is to put the content to one side and make your primary focus the layout. No one knows your work better than you, so don’t worry about focusing on the content for now.  The challenge comes from designing a good layout that you can just drop the imagery into and add to over time as your portfolio grows. If you nail this, it will take the stress out and help you to see your work in a streamlined format, making it easier to analyse and annotate.

Don’t include anything that you are not 100% happy with, it will be obvious that it has not been shown the same amount of love as other projects you are proud of. Another great portfolio hack is to include ‘one pagers’ these are simply mood boards that show another side of you. If you feel like your work doesn’t match an opportunity you are applying for but is still a good fit then ‘one pagers’ can show that you understand the brand’s aesthetic even though you don’t have a project in your portfolio that ‘matches’. This could be 1 x page to show you understand the customer, 1 x page to show your favourite pieces of the existing collection and how you would evolve them in the next season, 1 x page featuring a mood board to illustrate an idea for a small capsule. These small things show your scope outside your own work and are surprisingly easy and quick to put together! 

Milk your portfolio

Once you have that ‘master copy’ of your portfolio, think about how much you can use it to your advantage. Pull it apart, restyle it, re-colour it and diversify it to show your full skill set. Adapt it to different categories, what would an accessory range look like or a unisex version of your collection? By making all of these different ‘edits’ you are opening yourself up and mentally getting prepared for when a career opportunity might arise.

Networking in a national lockdown

Take the cringe out of the word ‘networking’ and focus on building meaningful connections with people who are in a similar position to you. Research people who are only a few steps ahead on your chosen career path and focus on connecting as a supportive peer first. You will have a better chance of receiving replies from people who can relate to you as they would have been in your shoes more recently. Focus on building a community that will turn into a network you can rely on one day. Don’t worry about quantity, focus on quality and find those people who are your ‘champions’. These are people that you know will go out of their way to mention your name in a room and advocate for you. These people are gems and they are rare so begin the hunt now!

Apply for jobs that are ‘out of your league’ and don’t get too fixated on the level.

Ignore the ‘level’ of job opportunities

The first-ever design job I got was originally advertised as a ‘senior’ but I applied anyway. Don’t underestimate the power of ideas vs experience, if you have strong ideas but are lacking experience you would be surprised at how many times employers will adjust what they are looking for, for the right person. If you have great ideas, the other stuff can be taught on the job but you can’t teach great ideas or frame of reference so that is what sets you apart. Apply for jobs that are ‘out of your league’ and don’t get too fixated on the level. You never know, they may invest in developing your technical skills and overlook your lack of experience because they want people that really ‘get’ the brand and embody it. This is where ‘one pagers’ can really boost an application and help you meet the right people that ‘get you’.

Focus on your own progression

As harsh as it sounds, nobody is ever going to care about your career as much as you. Unfortunately it’s true, the only person who can make your personal growth and development their no.1 priority is you. You have to make an investment in yourself and be self motivated, constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone even when you don’t feel like it. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it sucks and can feel quite lonely, but remember if you’re not doing it, someone else is. Take advantage of freebies to boost your skill set – there are so many great platforms like Skillshare that offer free trials. 

You have to make an investment in yourself and be self motivated, constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone even when you don’t feel like it.

Don’t give up

Every rejection is a re-direction even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. Timing is everything, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel like you are getting anywhere, just re-group and re-set. Social media can sometimes glamourise ‘overnight success stories’ but what it doesn’t show is all the rejections, setbacks and hard work it takes to make a creative career happen.

Being rejected from opportunities is completely normal, recently there have been a lot of students sharing work online for interview projects they did with brands that rejected them. I love to see it! They are taking a rejection and turning it on it’s head, using those projects to promote themselves as good designers (because they are!) and recognising the fact they now have an additional project to add to their portfolio. They are still proud of their work and putting it out there for the world to see and they are getting noticed. Sparking conversations with their peers and likeminded designers in the same position (this is how you build the support network, this IS networking!). Don’t ever be afraid to reinvent yourself as many times as you like.

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