In his guest contribution from last year, Simon touched upon Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory — that you need to spend 10,000 hours at anything in order to be great. There’s a reference to the same idea on johnson banks’ Twitter profile, pointing to Michael Johnson’s post from 2009, 10,000 hours of graphic design?

“A good 4 or 5 years after graduation is needed for designers to begin to find their feet.”
— Michael Johnson

Siobhan Keaney placeholderImage via

Malcolm’s book, Outliers (where he mentions the 10,000 hour theory) is available here:


One I’ve yet to read.

In his blog post, Michael also cites a quote from Siobhan Keaney who once told him, “Designers learn in their twenties, make their mark in their thirties, and consolidate in their forties.”

That’d give me seven years left to make my mark. But what if you’ve chosen to enter the profession in your 30s, 40s, 50s? You still might need those 10,000 hours, but if you love what you do, with enough energy, practice, and curiosity I don’t think it matters what age you are.

Or, maybe Siobhan was using age to put the number of hours into context.


October 19, 2012


I beg to differ. You’ve made your mark – all you need to do now is rubberstamp that bad boy! ;) No, it’s a very fascinating theory indeed and Siobhan Keaney’s quote. I may have to give this one read. Many thanks David.

I have heard about the 10,000 hours theory in the context of becoming a world-class pianist (10K hours of practicing).

Keaney’s quote is disturbing – I didn’t have the nerve to enter the design field “officially” until I was well into my 40’s. I’m not letting her attitude stop me, though.

No worries, Jamie. I’ve some way to go, but I’m on this road for the long haul.

Wendy, good for you. I like to believe there are always exceptions — always people to prove anything’s possible if you want it enough.

In fact, the main thing is not about spending 10 000 hours to training. Yes, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10 000 hours rule, but in fact if you think it feels spending the time, you will never become good enough. What you really need is LOVE. When you love something enough, you breath it and live with it. It will become a part of you. You will think about it every single second of your life. It makes you happy. It doesn’t feel spending at all, it feels living through it. And I am sure that 10 000 hours is not enough if you want to be good graphic designer. You want to learn more. Like Milton Glaser.

Just playing devils advocate here, because I tend to agree one’s skills improve with practice. But I also find that many people succeed and excel in their chosen fields far short of the 10,000 simply because they are passionate, lucky, or ambitious.

For most people, when they reach just 5,000 they are burnt out, over confident (careless), or bored… and though they continue to work at something and reach or pass the 10,000 mark, their’s is simply an exercise in mediocrity.

The people I know that are especially good and successful at what they do are driven (it’s not even passion). It seems to be something of obsessive compulsion that keeps them going. It is difficult to convince them that a slow Sunday morning, day dreaming over a cup of tea is a worthy endeavor. They are tenacious and relentless in their pursuit of success.

I will never be an outlier and that’s ok with me.

I find that, at times, I am easily distracted from my work by other things I enjoy or the day to day issues in life. I have to will myself back to my work. (Even though I love my work!) In addition it is not simply putting in the hours but it is remaining curious and intellectually engaged about ones work that makes one especially good at something.

I may surpass the 10,000 mark but with so much great stuff in this world to distract me I doubt I will ever be a Steve Jobs of graphic design… and quite frankly that is ok with me because my life is such a rich combination of interests and experiences. I take time to smell the roses and lay awake in bed just thinking of things to add to my bucket list. Just a devil’s point of view… lol. A happy little devil at that! :)

Meredith, I found a quote from the book that you might find interesting.

“It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage.'”

So there’s more to it than just putting in the hours, as you and Olli say. If you don’t love what you’re doing, those hours are wasted.

I had never been a fan of the concept of innate talent. On a matter of fact, I always believed the concept of talent is a social construct put in place by those who are fortunate with the goal of protecting their own advantageous positions. Sadly, I’ve seen many close to me falling into this trap, and that in itself was enough to stop them from shining. This 10,000 hours rule seems to better explain what I always thought to be true in a much simpler way. Thanks for the tip David, I’ll certainly be reading it soon.

Fantastic book, as are all of Malcolm Gladwell’s. Have you read Blink? It has a lot of support for what we do as designers.

I found this book both disheartening and encouraging in different ways.

It was disheartening in the fact that I’ve always been told I’m very ‘talented’ in the creative sense. That encouragement has spurred me to keep doing what I’m doing. Outliers stripped that belief away from me and forced me to recognize the events in my life that lead to my development of my skills.

It was encouraging to realize that I still have plenty of time to hit the 10,000 hour mark. Being fairly young (25) I can still hope to hit that expert mark fairly soon and if I want to try something new I can start developing that skill and still have time to use it! It’s an incredible feeling and I’m glad I’ve come to this conclusion.

@Andrew Ley

I’ve experienced something similar. People tag others as having “natural talent” and dismiss their years and years of failure and practice. This creates a comfortable barrier for people to not strive towards that, because you have to have that “natural talent” so it’s not worth trying if you don’t have it.

The problem is that a lot with that “natural talent” often don’t acknowledge the hard work that goes into achieving that skill (or don’t even realize they did it) so they tend to perpetuate the myth. It’s very pleasing when someone puts you on a pedestal by pointing out your “natural talent.

It’s very refreshing when someone does realize the work they’ve put in to their skills and tells everyone about it. That’s why I appreciate Ira Glass so much:

I come from a very artistic family, and have long loved and appreciated good design. When I lost my job eight months ago due to downsizing, along with job hunting I decided to look into the idea of teaching myself basic HTML/CSS and how to use the Adobe Master Collection, to keep from facing the depression that can sometimes come with a long period of downtime. It’s been wonderful; so wonderful that I’m strongly considering going back to college for design, but am struggling with the idea of accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt (I live in the US, where design school is obscenely expensive with few options for grants/scholarships). Do you think there is any space in this field for someone to start their 10,000 hours as an apprentice of sorts, or must everyone first get 4-8 years of education in the field before starting out?

Design is not like Law or Medicine, where school is essentially mandatory. I loved my collegiate design experience, however I was fortunate to be on scholarship. Unless you have this luxury, I would spend your time building an amazing portfolio, because at the end of the day that will take you as far as an education will. A client has never asked to see my formal resume or asked about design school. All projects come from word of mouth and reputation alone for me. Best of luck and never stop learning.

It can also take 10000 hours to go stale.

Like any complex field, I think it takes time to find your feet, and there are definite stages of development (and potentially “staging points” at which to plateau).

I’ve been involved in creative services for 15 years. As a creative practitioner in the “doing” sense.. if we ran a percentage grading from enthusiastic student (0) through to jedi art director (100), I probably hit my plateau somewhere around a 65, which, in fairness is a decent way up the scale – producing well received creative for household brands.. that’s where I was at the 6 -7 years in 10K hours stage.

Speaking on a purely personal level, by this time, I knew I was moving more into thinking and less in to doing but I also knew exactly what I was capable – I was never going to be the jedi, but I was in fairness an “expert” at delivering at the level I was working at. Recognising your own weakness is something that takes longer than recognising your perceived strengths. Granted some people get there more quickly and I’m sure others get there more slowly, but to me, that 10K hours is pretty fair. It works for most things in life – even relationships with the much vaunted “7 year itch”.

On the subject of education, I’m a firm believer that the “sweat equity” needn’t come from a formal education, but wherever you take your education from, the value of seeing and of reading cannot be overstated.

Really interesting post! I think it does take time after school to become a professional graphic designer. And I agree with that last comment – you don’t necessarily need design school to succeed. You just have to be hungry enough to make it happen.

I’ve read Outliers – it was a fascinating read and I’m inclined to agree that most designers (and other specialists) require 10,000 hours to truly hit their best.

I have worked with and employed young designers who are way ahead of the game in terms of skill and creativity, but who still need the hours to hone their workflow, time management, client skills and so-on.

Karl’s comment about going stale also rings true – as an personal example, after almost 20 years in the design industry, I’ve changed and am building my 10,000 hours in a new field.

‘Outliers’ is a great read. I think the 10,000 hours statement is like saying the more you put in the more you get out or practice makes perfect, in the context of the book its those who reach that level quickest who seem to thrive. Siobhan’s comments make a lot of sense too but I guess thats the typical pathway and we live in a world where more and more people change careers several times and still have successful, fulfilling working lives.

I’m in my 30’s and just starting out in design, I dont know whats going to happen, I may be behind the ‘outliers’ but for me the important thing is that I’m doing something I love and producing good work. The rest will sort itself out.

Anyone like me, check out David Ogilvy’s note to Bill Phillips for hope – he was 38 when he started in Advertising, with no experience and within 3 years he was the most famous copywriter in the world.

Share a thought