Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

Six suggestions that can make you a better designer

Six suggestions that can make you a better designer
Email to a friend Comments (40)

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.

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

Comments & Trackbacks

  1. esin says:

    Hi Erik,

    Today especially was a track for me, it is evening now and I read your article. I am very hopeful for tomorrow :)
    Thanks for the help

  2. Able says:

    Great advice! I also practice versioning.
    I file them as 001, 002, etc. If I am not changing the file drastically, I just save it as 001b, 001c, 001d... That way I can also view my mockups as versions, and, I guess, sub-versions.

    (I've never really explained that before, I'm sure there is a better way)

  3. Evan Meagher says:

    In a market in which it's so important to keep up, these tips will definitely help you remain competitive. Good post.

  4. Wolf says:

    I've been doing designs for a year but only recently my boss pointed out we need to start by sketching again, and it helps tremendously. Especially with simplifying ideas.

  5. Naomi says:

    These are really excellent points. I think for Make, Save, Compare, I'd say it's sometimes also helpful to take a break from what you are doing and come to it later when you feel like you are having tunnel vision. Sometimes you miss really obvious things when you are looking at all the small things and stepping back gives you gain perspective.

    I'd also add for the Start section that for me, it's good to have something in mind before I open the blank canvas. If I just open it and stare at it hoping that something comes to me, it never works. Good brainstorming and research can help a whole lot before you actually put anything on canvas.

  6. One thing that gets me through a lot of times is to jot down a quick sketch of the obvious answer first. Usually I'm in a rut when I'm trying to be too clever or over-designing. The earlier I make a quick thumbnail sketch (usually do this during brainstorming), the more obvious and effective the solution seems to be.

  7. Pingback: Michael Denny » mdenny: Six suggestions that can make you a better desinger. link:http://www.ideasonideas.com/2008/03/six_suggestions_better_designer/

  8. Wow! This is exactly what I needed! I am a Senior in school and am in a horrible creative block. Most of the time, I feel my ideas surpass what I can actually work with. Not to mention the dreadful self comparison to other work. This is a definite uplift to know others go through this and have ways to work it out. Thanks!

  9. Craig Hooper says:

    Watch Mad Men, and the seductive and passionate skills of Don Draper.

    Then go buy some Brill Creme, a pack of Camels, and a glass of Scotch.

    Don't forget that tightly-fitted suit, the thin black tie, and your typewriter...

    That should set the mood. Oh yah, lastly, throw on some Dean Martin records, and you should be cookin' with gas.

  10. Brad Sly says:

    Just wanted to pitch in and say thanks. This article was really helpful and inspirational.

    Second the Mad Men comment.

  11. Pingback: cultivate creativity » Blog Archive » Six suggestions from ideasonideas

  12. Erika Rathje says:

    "Set the bar higher" reminds me of Dave Olson's presentation at Northern Voice in which he emphasized the notion of "step it up!" It was in the context of blogging and creative work in general. I've taken it to heart.

    Great, helpful post.

  13. Adam Landrum says:

    "Sort of Stealing..."

    The "web 2.0 look" should be renamed stealing. It's a bunch of copy-cool-web-sites-off-of-webcreme.com...

    Sure, we get influenced, but when are web designers going to break out of the "sort of stealing" mode and be merely influenced? I'd love to see the web 2.0 fade to the back and be replaced with new creative.

  14. Mike Wagner says:

    I especially liked - Don’t be so smart

    It reminded me of one of the saying used in improv comedy, "drop your clever".

    Our efforts to be smart really get in the way.

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom...and stirring the pot,

    Keep creating,

  15. Pingback: nortypig » Blog Archive » Six Suggestions for Designers

  16. Pingback: Cybermagic » Blog Archive » Just make it Work!

  17. Noah says:

    I'd be interested to hear your views on the roles of Creative Director and Art Director on the web. The good designers are seemingly the ultimate hub of visual candy making and pragmatic usability. Not sure how the traditional agency roles will fit into the web model.

  18. Benny says:

    Nice post :-) thanks

  19. Pingback: Best Of March 2008 | Best of the Month | Smashing Magazine

  20. Pingback: Daha iyi bir tasarımcı olmanız için 6 öneri | Cnkt

  21. Pingback: Best Of March 2008 - juliomarroquin.com

  22. Pingback: Creative resources 07 April 2008 | David Airey :: Graphic and Logo Designer

  23. Szabi says:

    Hey Eric,

    Just found your site. You have created a brilliant post here.

  24. Matt says:

    Excellent post! It is defiantly a great way of looking at things.

    Thank you for the advice.

  25. Phill says:

    Excellent post. I often suffer from projectitis, i.e. so much to do you feel your creative 'tap' is already running at full blast. Good advice here I think.

  26. Romouz says:

    Thanks for the tips! especially the "Don’t be so smart" tip..you saved me so much time!

  27. mel says:

    Not sure if you've heard but I was just listening to the boagworld.com podcast and this post was mentioned on the March 19th show - they ALSO liked what you had to say... :)

  28. Hi Mel,

    Nice to hear that! Thanks for letting me know. :-)




  30. Pingback: Newsworthy Math » Blog Archive » Six Suggestions That Can Make You a Better Maker

  31. Hey,

    I really agree with the points you've stated here especially the part about finding the problems and providing a solution to the problem rather than just trying to use the project as an opportunity to show off your capabilities and show how clever you are. This is a good article and a good read for all designers like myself.

  32. Soumya says:

    This is a very good article. I totally agree and identify with all the points mentioned. It's very inspiring. Thanks! :)

  33. yes....every time we search for the "holy grale"

    good post. thank you very much.

  34. Pingback: Random Reading Round-up | elbowruminations | Graphic Design Trends, Tips and Reviews

  35. Great observations here, and understanding your problem is a critical step that many forget about, especially when busy or under a tight deadline. I have always tried to teach others to spend a good amount of their allotted time in research and ideation. I have found a great process inspiring work, sketching thumbnails of the elements that worked for me, and then turning the page. When I go back though my sketches I only have the key elements or thoughts sketched ou. From there it is very rare that my end solution looks anything like what inspired me.

    Anyway, great stuff. I'll come back.

  36. "those “Eureka!” moments in the shower..."

    That's is exactly where and how I get my best ideas, no joke. I seem to think clearly and profoundly in the shower.

  37. Jeff says:

    I love your term "versioning" and find that technique very useful. Thanks for all the insights!

  38. In the second paragraph under the last sub heading 'Start' you have written 'Kinetic activity is infections', shouldn't it be 'Kinetic activity is infectious'?

    BTW, I liked the article :)

  39. Pingback: Joe Ribaudo's 'This is a Blog' » Blog Archive » Six suggestions that can make you a better designer

  40. Pingback: Geek is a Lift-Style. »Archive » Best Of March 2008

Voice Your Opinion

Thoughtful and critical comments are welcomed, and we ask that you use your real name (just seems fair, doesn't it?). Offensive, derogatory, and dim-witted remarks will be removed or result in equally mean-spirited finger-pointing and mockery.


Not published