What ten years of design teaches you

Posted April 23, 2014  /  Reading time: 6 minutes

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I started designing young, at the naive age of 16.

I remember getting paid for my first logo design—a respectable $1,000— and all I could think to myself was: “This is it, I’m a designer for life.”

More than a decade later, I wouldn’t consider myself to be a designer today. Though design continues to be a large cog in the work I do. Over the past few years I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two about being a designer and what it means to do quality work.

Trends hurt effectiveness, but strengthen knowledge

Trends are peculiar things; they garner attention when followed well, and they exemplify ignorance when followed poorly.

But trends do not make good design, they never have. And there’s plenty of examples of this in the real world.

Some of the most timeless, trend-free designs are still around after dozens and dozens of years. Helvetica, fore example, has existed since the late 1950s—more than 57 years ago— and it is still a go-to typeface for elegant design (as much as designers and typographers love to chastise its use). Helvetica is still around today not because it follows cyclical trends, but because it’s so effective at doing what it was designed to do.

Good design is much the same, whether it’s type or branding or mechanical: good design is effective, not trendy.

What makes a design effective, however, is entirely relative to a number of things; and I believe it’s much too easy to forget that fact. You have to find the most elegant use of the work in order to determine whether it’s effective or not. It’s only by removing what is unnecessary that design can shine, but it’s identifying exactly what’s necessary that makes the design effective.

Trends are not about effectiveness, they are about exploring possibilities and honing skills.

As a designer, you shouldn’t look to incorporate the latest trends into your work unless that work is for experimental purposes.

All good design takes time

Nobody has a stellar idea willynilly. A remarkable idea may start-out as a flash of insight, but ultimately it takes years of tinkering and delicate thinking to turn even the most hopeful ideas into worthwhile work.

It makes sense in this context as to why so many designers continuously re-design their websites, year-in and year-out.

If we had it our way as designers, we would spend decades re-designing and re-re-designing all of our work. We would adjust kerning, try new colors, experiment with weights, and destroy everything we’ve ever done in an effort to improve on it. Because we know that even the best ideas can improve, and the only way to improve them is to work on them over time.

After all is said and done, the best designers understand that perfection is a myth. Our only hope of improving ourselves and doing the best work is to dedicate ourselves to continuously putting work out the door, and finding the time to keep working on it even after it has gone out into the world.

Many designers don’t follow the path of continuing to work (or at least think on) their designs after they’ve received a stamp of approval, and they are notably worse-off for it.

To be a good designer is to know that the best work takes time, and when that time is cut short (by deadlines or fatigue) it only makes sense to come back to the work at a later time, of our own free-will.

Fame does not equate to fortune

Of the dozens and dozens of professional designers I personally know, only a handful could be labeled as “famous” or even well-known.

Yet, even the designers with relatively small profiles continue to exist and produce remarkable work. They don’t have Twitter accounts or Behance profiles, but they bring-in new clients and maintain existing relationships thanks to diligence and excellent account management skills.

Something I wish I had realized many years ago is that there is no better way to grow or improve your list of clientele as a designer than by keeping your existing clients happy. It’s remarkably easy to make them mistake of letting a little fame or recognition destroy your ability to treat smaller clients well. And when that happens you lose clients, your ego gets in the way of building new clients, and you essentially ruin any hope for a respectable career in design.

Do not pursue fame or awards. Instead, pursue a honed skill, the ability to do work in a timely and respectable fashion, and (most importantly) to treat all of your clients with respect (even if their budget is only $1,000).

Doing so will allow you to grow naturally, as people will talk about you and your work...not about the awards or recognition you’ve received.

Of course, if you do it right then awards and recognition will come anyway. Do not bathe yourself with them, accept them respectfully and then move on; get back to the work.

You can’t really talk about your work

You can certainly try to explain your process or the thinking behind your reasoning, but ultimately people will see in your work what they want to see.

Even when it comes to creative directors or over-the-shoulder-looking clients, all of the explaining in the world isn’t going to convince the person handing you a paycheck that your way is the best way. The only thing that can convince anyone that you know what the hell you’re doing is if it performs effectively (see the previous section on trends).

In the end, effective work comes from years of experience and hard work. Professionals and veterans in the industry know this, which explains why it’s hard to get anywhere as an amateur and why designers who explore creative concepts are often on the butt-end of the most harsh criticism.

The only way to show the world that you’re a worthwhile designer is to design, and keep designing, and dedicate as many waking hours of your life to designing and re-designing and re-re-designing as possible. Only once your portfolio reaches thousands of designs (thousands of which have to be scrapped because they are too poor, too noisy, too bland, or too trendy) will anyone take you seriously.

More so for design than any other field of work: the work has to speak for itself, you can’t speak for it.

Design is a window to the soul, not mere aesthetic

Oh please. This type of huff-n-puff slang is cheesy. But it’s oh-so-true.

Design teaches you one thing above all, and it’s not about how to decorate a room or what color makes people feel more inclined to click a button online. No, design teaches you how people see themselves and what they value most.

While one person might see an encouraging message in your work, another could just as easily callout how blatantly racist your work is (even if it’s not).

People see in design what they hope to see, and there are too many aspects involved in that process to make everyone happy. Instead of trying to make everyone happy with your work, let people be upset or offended or confused by it. Yearn to hear all of that feedback (good and bad) and learn from what they tell you.

When you understand that design is communication not only to the person on the other end of your work but also back to you, you can learn from all of your work (good and bad) and become a better designer and, arguable, person from it.

If I had to give one tidbit of advice for new designers, that last paragraph would be it. Write it down, print it out, and hang it up somewhere if you have to.