[What separates a professional from an enthusiast? This article is specifically about being a professional designer - incuding game designer - but many of the points are transferable to other professional occupations.]
Design is about providing solutions to problems. When I talk to engineers they say: "that sounds just like engineering" and when I talk to marketers they say "that sounds just like marketing". There is indeed a lot of crossover.
Design is a human endeavor, it isn't just for designers. Whenever you decide to do something one way instead of another, because you've determined that it is better, then you are engaging in the act of design.
Janitorial staff engage in the activity of design when they have a choice of several cleaning agents and several scrubbing utensils like a brush or a scour pad or a cloth. If they do not use their power of discernment, and just use the same solution to every problem, they will damage a surface.
When you do steps 1 through 3, just as your boss instructed you to do, you are not engaged in design but instead in menial labor. When you exercise your powers of observation and discernment you are engaged in design.
If everyone can design, then what is the difference between a professional designer and any person engaging in the activity of design?
It might be helpful to think about the difference between a professional athlete, an amateur athlete, and someone who is able bodied but not athletic.
Take a moment to visualize what the differences might be.
Taking tennis as an example; any able bodied person is capable of swinging a tennis racket.
An amateur or enthusiast tennis player probably plays with their friends every weekend for fun, they're so much better than the non-player but still the difference between them and the professional player is pretty big.
The professional player practices every day. They practice with the intent of getting better, not just having fun. They practice serves over and over again. They practice returning serves over and over again. They do simple drills over and over again. They are committed to their craft.
Their craft is burned into their muscle memory, and their perspective on life is changed forever.
A professional designer is just like this.
The difference between an amateur and a professional is their mindset. For the amateur the activity is fun, for the professional it is life or death. The professional has made a commitment to improve their craft every day.
If you would like to become a professional designer, or a professional anything, the first step is to change your mindset. Say: "I am a designer and I want to become a great designer", then set about practicing your craft year after year until you one day wake up and realize that you are a professional.
If you don't have this kind of passion or commitment for your current occupation — stop — pick something that you really want to become better at and throw yourself into that activity.
Of course one mark of being a professional is that others are willing to pay you for your services. It is hard to imagine a world where a non-professional tennis player can get paid to play their game, but people without this kind of commitment get paid to work as designers all the time. Tennis is perhaps more honest.
You can be a master at something without being a professional, but you still need the same commitment to continual self improvement.
You can be a professional at something without being a master, you just need to provide value to your client, customer, or employer.
There are professional monks who perform funeral rites. They may not be zen masters at all. There are zen masters who never perform services for patrons.
Professionals and masters both have high levels of skill. While mastery implies the highest tier of skill, it carries no financial or client satisfaction expectation. A professional is someone who strives to provide value for their services. They must look at the bigger picture.
My zen master (who is a senior consulting architect) once told me that design is the balance of form, function, and cost; three legs of a stool or table, if you neglect one the project will fail.
I've thought about this model for years and think I have an improvement to it: design is the balance of form and function within constraints.
The balance of form and function, this is the observation and discernment skill mentioned before. This is the core design skill. But what separates a professional designer from an enthusiast designer, more so than the commitment or the pay check, is the stoic consideration of a project's constraints.
Constraints are all of the issues that producers and project managers concern themselves with:
As a professional designer you can't just make the building or game or car or website that you want, because you think it is cool. You must fully take into account your proposals' impact on — and adherence to — the project's constraints.
I once read: "A designer's job is to ask for more and a producer's job is to say 'no'."
If you're designers are not professional, then sure, your producer will have to enforce the constraints, but good designers should have taken those constraints into consideration in the first place.
One of my best friends is the most talented designer that I know. He has been doing paid design work since he was 15 and has worked in senior and director level positions at top fashion magazines and international design thinking firms. He is a professional today, for sure, but as a youth he wasn't. He lost a huge client in his youth due to missing a deadline.
Talent isn't enough, you need to mature to become a professional. No one is going to hold your hand. You have to deliver value, which means you have to deliver the expected quality on time and on budget.
If you're young, you probably won't take this seriously enough, and it won't be until you lose your job or your client that the sting of failure teaches you. That's ok. Maturation is hard to force, so please focus on the rest of this article: commit to your craft, provide value, consider the big picture. Do this day after day until one day you realize you're already a professional.