Overcoming Perfectionism: Why Making Mistakes is a Good Thing

Whether it’s about not having enough art, enough time, or enough confidence – fear tends to be THE common denominator that keeps many artists stuck at the beginning of their surface design career. And the fear I hear most often in my conversations with artists is…

“I’m afraid to start my career because I don’t have enough knowledge of the surface design industry.”

What often happens is we get caught up in a cycle of procrastination: creating another pattern collection because we’ve convinced ourselves we need more art, taking another course to learn about another new program that launched on the iPad, or adding a “Following” comment to any surface design related post in the many Facebook groups we’re in. Sound familiar?


Now there’s nothing wrong with portfolio building, education, or community – I’m definitely not saying that! In fact, those are all very important ingredients to any well-rounded design biz.

But when you use them as an excuse for why you can’t get started, that’s when it’s a problem because you aren’t getting yourself any closer to a career in surface design.

Because here’s the rub: You’ll never truly learn how the industry works if you don’t immerse yourself in it.

And although I give out lots of advice and inject as much real-world experience into our surface design classes as possible to shorten the knowledge gap in our industry, the real magic happens when you actually put things into practice and start pitching your art to companies. Because THAT’S where you’ll gain the most knowledge of the surface design industry: doing the work and making mistakes.

I know that terrifies a lot of artists though.

Especially if you’re a perfectionist who wants everything you do and create to be flawless and feel 100% prepared for every scenario possible. That’s not realistic though.

Mistakes are proof that you are trying | Hand lettering by Shannon McNab

Believe me, I know. I’ve been a recovering perfectionist for the past 10 years, so I know the neverending struggle!

But you’ll learn FAR more from your own experience (especially what NOT to do) than you will from trying to learn everything ahead of time without doing any work.

So as scary as it seems, if you’re a designer who feels like you can’t get started because you don’t know enough about surface design, truly the single best piece of advice I can give you is: Just get started, sending out your art to companies and realize that knowledge will come from both your effort and time.


And with that in mind, I’ve got a little assignment for you: Choose 1 task that you’ve been waiting to do until you’re “ready” as a surface designer.

  • Maybe it’s registering a domain so you can finally start the website you know you need.

  • Or submitting the forms necessary to become an LLC.

  • Or sending your very first introduction email to a company.

Whatever that one task is commit to crossing it off your list this week!

And if you want brownie points, post the task you plan to complete in the comments below so everyone can see how brave and committed you are to building your career as a surface designer.

  1. Brianna says:

    Thanks for the push! This week my task will be finally starting my website!

  2. Renee Stramel says:

    My plan is to get my LLC, business license, bank account set up at the beginning of May. I really thank you for this. I think I’m more ready than I realize.

  3. Caro says:

    I have been watching you IGTV videos, lives and reading you newsletter. It has giving the confidence to start approaching companies to license my work. Thanks for being that Big Sister voice (in experience not in age haha), to all of us who are stating out 😀

  4. Judy Buskirk says:

    I hear you, Shannon. : ) My eagerness to get started is squelched because even though you said that we don’t need to use Adobe Illustrator, I have taken several classes and WANT to use it. However, I can’t do the first little thing, like make the "select" rectangle around my images on my artboard. Whatever I try just moves the artboard around. Aaargh. I can’t work on any of my designs. So, I’m on the hunt for personal temporary help. Do you have any recommendations? I have a budget for this.

    • Emma Sivell says:

      Hi Judy,
      I’m self taught with Illustrator.
      I paid a local graphic designer for 5 lessons spaced out, so I could play in between. It really helps to sit down with someone!
      For moving items on the art board don’t use the rectangle, just select by tapping with the selection arrows in the toolbar. If you want to move more than one item group them before moving. Ctrl. G.
      Good luck!
      Emma Sivell

    • Shannon McNab says:

      I totally agree with Emma’s suggestion of finding a local designer who’d be willing to sit down and teach you the ropes of AI – that’d probably be the fastest way to learn the program and be able to get immediate answers to any questions you have 🙂

  5. Anna says:

    I got my website up a year ago with children’s illustrations, then i added the surface pattern design tab. It felt liberating. Now i’m stuck at the fact that i need to expand my portfolio so i can choose quality pieces into the email to companies. But which companies, who do i send it to – i’m still researching…hopefully soon.

  6. Josette Blackburn says:

    Thank you Shannon! I really needed this right now!
    I’m taking classes, working on skills, and setting up my business. I will schedule my time with a planner to divide my time so I can do it all daily. I’ll have a start time and an absolute cut-off time which is needed. I will create a schedule. Breaking down the steps helps to climb the mountain. Thanks again Shannon! You rock!

  7. Trin says:

    wouu you read my mind!, thanks a lot for this note

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