It was the year that we’d gladly erase from memory. But now 2020 is firmly behind us, what can we learn from our collective experience?

We’ve spoken to creatives worldwide and draw out some common themes in the following article. Read on, as we bring you the biggest lessons of the last 12 months and the ways that creative professionals will be doing differently in 2021 as a result.

1. Let go and accept the reality

As designer, illustrator and animator Robert Lomas puts it: “Stop worrying about things that are out of your control! It’s completely pointless. What I’ll carry through to 2021 is this: Do what you enjoy doing. Be a good person. And make connections with like-minded people.”

Mike Walsh, creative lead at Uniform, makes a similar point. “2020 taught me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, as we never truly know what is around the corner,” he says. “But whilst our politicians bumbled, bluffed and blagged, it was the courage, kindness and creativity of everyday people who demonstrated that, when we come together (or stay two metres apart), we can find a way through the toughest of times.”

2. Be kinder to yourself

2020 was the year when simply by sitting at home and following some simple rules, you could help save the world. So why put pressure on yourself to achieve ‘great things’, when you already have? Instead, treat this year as one in which you’re kinder to yourself, you do work that you enjoy, and you stop worrying about what others think.

Designer Radhika Ramdihal is one creative for whom 2020 prompted a change in outlook. “After eight years, I’ve finally learned this year that I do belong in this industry,” she says. “Fuse, an inclusive platform elevating the voices and work from creatives of colour, has played a massive part in this. The sense of community and connecting with other creatives of colour has been something I’m so grateful for. In 2021, I’d like to continue to focus on my own practice by making fewer comparisons, putting less pressure on myself, and having more confidence.”

And here’s another way to being kind to yourself. “I’ve resolved to give myself more time,” says Pete Clayton. “Whether it’s been a personal or career-based situation, giving myself time to work it out, or even rest it out, is a massive lesson I’m taking into 2021.”

Being kinder to yourself can also be about doing more things you enjoy. “I learned in 2020 not to be too precious, to experiment more,” says Dani Molyneux, a typographic artist, designer and founder of Dotto. “Plus I focused on establishing better boundaries on my time. I’m a real ‘yes’ person, so I’ve been trying out some ‘no’s too.”

3. Take yourself less seriously

Should we also take ourselves less seriously in 2021? “The one big lesson I learned in 2020 is to leave your ego at the door, thanks to a chat I had with Tash Wilcocks of Hyper Island,” says designer and brand strategist Lovish Saini. “This year, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to teach at Shillington and help shape the future industry leaders in design. Over the course of my first three months, I’ve realised that once you let go of your ego and your past experiences and open yourself up to learn from your peers, it opens you up for personal growth.

“If there’s one word of advice, I could give anyone,” he concludes, “it would be to leave your ego at the door. Whether it be a new job, a new education, or in your personal life, always be open to learning from others, always be open to change, and most importantly, always be open to growth.”

Stepping away from your ego might mean a different way of approaching work in general. “In 2020, my practice shifted to focus on businesses and organisations that are serving their communities,” says illustrator and lettering artist Lisa Maltby. “Next year, I want to continue to work with companies who seek positive change. I want to use creative problem solving to enable them to communicate more effectively to the right people.”

For Harrison Wheeler, UX design manager at Linkedin, it’s also about meeting the responsibility we have as designers in general, given the influence our work has on the wider culture. “We can no longer sit by the wayside without understanding our design decisions’ consequences on marginalised groups,” he argues. “Advocating for people is the core of what we do, and activism is a skill set every designer needs to add to their ever-expanding multi-disciplinary arsenal.”

4. Switch things up

While most of us hunkered down in 2020, maybe 2021 should be the time to switch things up in our careers. “2020 has shown me that self-belief is vital, particularly when you are a minority championing for inclusion and equality,” says Sarwat Tasneem, a behavioural change expert and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. “It has also taught me that patience is a skill, and attitude exposes all when you have everything.” In 2021, she advises you to: “Change up your ‘norm’, and network; you’ll find support and allyship in the most surprising of places!”

Brand experience designer Eugene Ekuban offers some similarly upbeat advice for 2021. “Create the change you’d love to see,” he urges. “One lesson I learned in 2021 is that we as creatives have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to create the cultural discourse that surrounds us. So let’s embrace it, express our thoughts, feelings and shared experiences, and create a better tomorrow.”

5. Connect with creatives

Design is, in many ways, a solitary profession. But with our personal lives having shrunk so much in 2020, creatives everywhere have learned the importance of connecting with their fellow professionals.

“For me, the biggest lesson of 2020 was recognising the true value of people,” says Neil Sheakey, design director at Uniform. “The value of being sat together thinking and working, sparing and sparking thought, debate, and creativity. We’re wonderfully empowered by technology, but nothing beats the intimate experience of working physically alongside people.”

And it’s not just about seeking company, but advice and mentorship. “In 2020, I learned that there’s no harm in asking for support and guidance, professionally and personally,” says graphic designer and Fuse Birmingham host Neeraj Kainth. “2020 showed me there are people within the design industry willing to help students and grads, so I’m definitely going to keep reaching out to creatives this year!”

6. Connect with non-creatives

Connections with people outside the design industry, of course, can be equally fruitful. And that’s exactly the experience that 2020 brought Ben O’Brien, aka Ben the Illustrator. “The biggest lesson for me was to connect with people you have something in common with, outside of the usual illustration and design circles,” he explains. “Myself, I’ve been connecting with fellow music lovers: people from all over the world and from all walks of life, but still we have a love of music in common.”

Specifically, after a chance Twitter encounter with Charlatans singer Tim Burgess, O’Brien went from creating a couple of illustrations for him to building his new online shop and swapping prints with some of his favourite musicians. “I’ve been so focused on paying the bills and family life in recent years I’d forgotten why I first started in the creative industry… to work in music!” Ben reflects. “This year, I feel like I made connections, even friends, and all over music, all because of that one thing we had in common.”

His advice to others in 2021 is to: “Connect with the people you have something in common with: I can’t recommend it enough. Moving forward, I’m keen to work more in the music industry, keep making music-related art prints and keep on connecting with the music lovers.”

7. Embrace the unexpected

No one knows what 2021 will bring, let alone 2022. So we have to learn to expect the unexpected, and indeed embrace it.

In 2020, for many, a sudden lack of income was the unfortunate result of lockdown. Take graphic designer and illustrator Claire Hartley.
“I’ve always been fortunate in that I receive a lot of enquiries through my website,” she says. “But at the start of lockdown in March, they completely stopped. It was a slow year for business, but my existing clients kept me afloat – and that’s something I’m so grateful for. New enquiries are only just trickling in again now, but I’ll never take repeat work for granted again.”

Designer and art director Sarah Boris speaks for many when she notes how “nothing went according to plan in 2020. Everything that was planned was pretty much cancelled or put indefinitely on hold. I had a couple of trips planned across the UK and Europe to give talks and really exciting graphic design commissions booked. Pretty much all of this disappeared in the first few days of the pandemic.”

Like many, she chose to accentuate the positive and worked hard to pivot her career. “It gave me time to focus on my artistic practice and collaborate closely with wonderful printmakers, from East Sussex to Dublin,” she recalls. “It gave me a strong desire to pursue my artistic journey, which I have put on hold for too long, favouring graphic design commissions. 2020 allowed me to connect further with the print community, which is a true family and makes me feel welcome and happy. In 2021 I’d like to take more risks in pushing my art practice, and printmaking collaborations and balance more equally my practice as an artist and graphic designer.”

In other words, 2021 is a great time to be open to pivoting. “Disruption is unexpected, so we must be human-centric in our thinking and predictive in our behaviour,” says Phillip J. Clayton, founding partner of noTheName:PJC and judge of the PAC Global Leadership Awards. “Make assumptions from observation by turning data into absorbable information. Be critical, and always ask ‘can it be better?’.” In short, Clayton believes, “We should not need another pandemic to shove us into chaos.”

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