Stefani Wilkens
Stefani Wilkens | Graphic Designer


Finding My Place


I think there is an unspoken idea that’s permeated the design world that says the most successful, admired, and authentic designers are the ones who work with up and coming hipster brands, drink buckets of coffee while wearing thick-rimmed glasses, and are highly accomplished in hand lettering / photography / illustration / whatever fine art genre fits the bill. In a way, I think we all aspire to be these people, but what happens when that picture isn’t true to who you are as a person?

When I first entered the design world in college I remember being envious of the designers who had their own unique personal style. There were three women who I particularly admired. Each of them had managed to cultivate a unique design style that seemed to ooze from their pores. It was as if they were walking advertisements for their own brands.

After graduating, I still aspired to be like these women. So, I followed their work meticulously – everything from Instagram accounts to portfolio sites – and tried to imitate their work and lifestyle as much as possible. I was trying to replicate their success, but for some reason, it just wasn’t working. I wasn’t attracting the same clients, didn’t gain the Instagram followers, and certainly had no hope of supporting myself the way they did.

It took me a few years of trying and failing to follow their example before I realized it – what worked for them wasn’t working for me because I wasn’t any one of them. I remember that this realization hit me like a slap in the face. Suddenly it all became clear! Trying to be someone else was never going to work. If I wanted to carve out my own niche and career path, I needed to focus on being authentic and true to my own unique talents, my personal interests, and myself.

Now, I did not become an overnight success. I’m very much still in the middle of the transformative process of creating my own niche in the design world.  But I’d successfully flipped the switch in my brain. I started making creative decisions based on my own gut and interests. Opening a Society6 shop. I rebranded my business and redesigned this website. I scrapped so much of the work I’d been doing in attempts to imitate someone else and started focusing on authentically expressing what made me tick. And guess what? Opportunities started opening up.

This shift in my mindset led to a shift in focus, and doors started opening.

I wasn’t attracting the hipster clients that would allow me massive creative freedom, but I was finding a huge opportunity with multi-million dollar corporations like Goldtoe and Stephen Gould. My work didn’t consist of soft blush tones and neutrals, but my bright and vibrant designs have created a very fulfilling side-hustle. I don’t get invited to beautifully curated feminist gatherings, but I’m invited to participate in live design competitions. I didn’t start a branding studio in an up and coming city, but I secured an amazing job at a digital/political/advertising agency in my dream location.

It took realizing that I can only ever be myself to carve out my current space in the design world. It took letting go of what I “thought” a successful designer looked like in order to get past my imposter syndrome and feel comfortable saying that I was a graphic designer. Most importantly, my decision to quit emulating others and start focusing on my own strengths was what allowed me to carve out my own corner of this competitive world of creativity.

Learning to accept myself, and to fully be myself within the design world is what has allowed me to flourish in the past year. So, that’s my advice to the rest of you – throw out the comparisons, find what makes you unique, and figure out how to capitalize on it.

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