Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

Six suggestions that can make you a better designer

Six suggestions that can make you a better designer
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Struggling with too many projects, and not sure where to start? Wish you had a few tricks up your sleeve to make things easier? While the following is certainly not a definitive list, it does contain a few of the things we do at smashLAB to bring out our best.

Find the problem

A large number of designers set themselves up for failure by trying to push the creative envelope. It’s not that the notion is inherently wrong; it’s just that it doesn’t provide anything firm to rail against. Ingenuity as a designer is best tapped when we are asked to resolve some kind of challenge.

Some will search for the ultimate creative concept, something wildly different, or perhaps an idea that shows just how clever they are. As a designer, this is all largely pointless. Instead we should look for the problem that design can solve. This narrows our focus and brings with it a greater probability of success. So, instead of trying to “push the limits of the web”, and that sort of thing, perhaps one has to instead concentrate on why the client’s current website isn’t building greater brand-loyalty.

If you haven’t found the problem, there’s a high likelihood that your creative solution is simply poppycock.

Don’t be so smart

Having worked as a painter for some time, I often found myself looking for a way to build something unorthodox. I wanted to cover new ground and this often meant mixing styles, treatments, concepts, metaphors, and anything else I could chuck at it in hopes that I’d stumble upon the next Cubism (or any of those other “isms”). While I aimed for something brilliant and inspired, I was typically left with a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas.

Your project doesn’t have to do everything. It doesn’t have to win awards, make you look good, or have a wry subtext. Getting something simple to work is hard enough. Concentrate on the basics, and see if your idea holds up when shown to the audience. Those brilliant concepts that need to be explained because they are so smart? They belong in museums, not in design projects.

“Sorta” stealing

There’s little I despise as much as a thievery of others’ ideas. That being said, no one creates in a vacuum. So, while I would never espouse copying the work of another, I do strongly believe in being a cultural sponge and carefully examining the work of others.

An example of this would be in our efforts to define a client’s business as being akin to a luxury brand. I asked our designers to research the treatments, themes, typography and the general approach of companies from other sectors with similar goals. From this, we learned a “visual dialect” of sorts that we later could apply or diverge from as it suited the project.

My point is that we don’t have to “invent” everything; instead, we should concentrate on building our visual literacy.

Set the bar higher

We often get so busy playing catch-up, that we repress our ability to do the spectacular. The best example I have of this is the “skiing analogy” that I’ve heard (and repeated) so many times over the years. If you are skiing with people who match your speed, you’ll stay there; whereas, if you ski with those a little better, you’ll improve to match their abilities.

Don’t try to be “as good as”; push yourself further than may seem possible. If you have to pitch for a local project, present as though you were aiming to land a national account. Trying to come up with one good name for a client? Brainstorm five-hundred and pick from the best. Want to be a good designer? Find a great one and start to think of her/him as your competitor.

Make, save, compare

Tunnel-vision is a deadly curse to all of us who create visual things. We typically start with a general idea, and as it comes to life, we become increasingly focused on the details. Of course, it’s good to pay attention to the small stuff, but it does tend to blind us to the pitfalls and obstacles around us.

Early in my career I found the magic of versioning, and it’s a powerful device. As early as possible, start to save copies of your work, numbered sequentially. Once you have enough of these, you can view them collectively. The ability to quickly scan them will afford you insight to what’s working and what’s not.

The beauty of this method is that it takes the permanence of your decisions out of the way, allowing you to move quickly and compare results. Unsure of how to crop the image? Make a few of them, place them side-by-side. I’ll bet you’ll find the answer is easier to come by as a result, if not completely obvious.


Until there’s something on the page, you’re nowhere. An enormous challenge for most creatives is the fear of the blank sheet of paper. Get over this as quickly as you can. Stop pondering and just get started.

Kinetic activity is infectious. Just moving, making marks, being active gives you the sensation of making progress. Once you have a dozen sheets of sketches (even if they are bad), the creative log jam is broken. You’ll have ideas to measure, assess and compare. New ideas will start to jump in your lap. Better yet, the project will become embedded in you subconscious, which allows the situation to percolate, potentially leading to one of those “Eureka!” moments in the shower.

Just get started and magic can happen.

Well, those are a few. Needless to say, there are many more, but if you are feeling a little jammed up, one or two of these might help.

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Comments & Trackbacks

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