It was about a couple months ago, when during a long talk on the phone with my mom I dozed off and started to wonder what it is my mom actually thinks I do for a living. So, I asked her. The answer was surprisingly somewhere in the neighbourhood of this: ‘You’re very creative, you make beautiful things, like that website I saw last week. I really liked how the pictures changed every couple seconds…’. As you can guess the response went on a bit longer, you know, moms.
But one thing hit me. She doesn’t really get what I do, she just sees what I create.
So how can my own clients? My mom’s been hearing me talk about my job for years. She should know it a bit better by now.
I started to think and zoom in on the first real words she said: ‘very creative’. I think for starters, we can leave the ‘very’ out. So, ‘creative’ it is. There’s something about the perception of that word, and it’s bothering me a little.
After a while I started looking for the definition of ‘creative’ and came across a lot of interesting articles. And this remarkable piece of history:
In 1815 the General Music Journal published a letter by Mozart describing his ‘creative’ process as smooth, gifted and as if not a single struggle was ever involved. He simply showed up, and he was ready to create a masterpiece and make history.
The letter was a fraud.*
Most designers start out in an Art & Design Academy. So did I. They pretty much taught me everything about myself and a healthy dose of art & design history / culture, every Wednesday for four years. I was also taught how to formulate and achieve good ideas. Iterating upon those with a clear goal and vision.
As a sidenote, we also went from party to party, so I guess that stereotype is pretty accurate.
It’s there that I learned that inspiration comes from a good work ‘habit’—and the problems that can come with that in return, more on that another time—, but also to question everything. Of all, the most important thing they taught me was how to teach myself new things and to always be curious and inquisitive. To read as much as I could and experience ‘design’ mistakes (and their fallbacks) by myself.
This to me, seems as the exact opposite of the ’creative’ stereotype.
“Why do people think artists are special? It’s just another job.” — Andy Warhol.
Everyone likes to think of creatives as the lucky few, gifted, unpredictable and always inspired, meeting-free, self-expressive, drop in at 11 A.M., do what feels right today, kind of people. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all? But does it fully apply to me or us? I don’t know.
So, I asked myself. If design is not about being creatively gifted and all those things written here above. What is it about?
The word designer implies a purpose and let’s not forget that it’s an actual job — I don’t mean that in a negative way, there’s nothing wrong with absolutely loving what you do and making your money with it, worrying over semantics is for the lucky few that have time to burn. As a designer you create products that help people live better lives, in all sorts of ways.
The word ‘creative’ might be implying the wrong thing for our field. In real life, designers solve problems, are a friendly bunch for the most part, listen to our guts, do research, work our way up to smart solutions, are punctual and inquisitive. We use methodologies, testing, audience targeting, a good brief, the right questions, and of course we sketch and translate ideas to visual communication.
Besides all these things, designers should never ignore that ‘gut’ feeling that spices up our work. Now a new question arrives: is this gut feeling based on a hardwired collection of experiences and cultural upbringing or does it come from some place else? I’m happy to incline towards the first.
I genuinely believe we should put our ‘hearts’ into our designs. And also validate through some testing When it doesn’t work, we kick it out or adjust. We should however realize, that a box full of analytics and / or data can’t design, people do. Every designer has a ‘base’ and all of their design solutions are inherently build on an understanding of (visual) culture, knowledge and inspiration that they’ve accumulated over the years. Even with the same data, the same brief, the same problem. Every designer will come up with a different result. Just as good, maybe not, but different. That is why we should never forget to put our ‘heart, gut, sense, history, understanding, research, etc.’ into our work. It sets it apart.
So for me the ‘gut’ feeling is very much a part of becoming or being a designer. Or in fact, a human being. Trust it, listen to it, it’s there for a reason and it works slightly different for all of us.
What does the world think.
For me, the most important reason I’m bothered by the word ‘creative’ is not because of how we (designers) use it but of its meaning in the real world.
Clients and colleagues—even friends—don’t understand ‘creatives’. They think you don’t operate under the same rules as them. Some even think you can just do what you want all day: come in late, check Twitter and what not, for ‘inspiration’ and generally you’re considered to sort of ‘float’ through the day. Which sounds really nice by the way.
But should this really bother you? — if you actually have all of these perks labelled above — definitely not. The designers I know start at the same time as everyone else (btw, I’m an avid believer of flexible (work)times, I believe too strictly set hours will become to repetitive. It will make you feel imprisoned and will effect work moral, motivation and quality), work their asses of, meet requirements, host presentations, research metrics, follow their heart, pour in all of their passion and test their products.
When clients think you‘re just making ‘creative-ish’ things, they will not only keep asking for big or small taste centered ‘make it more dark blue-ish and prettier’ iterations, but they also fundamentally don’t understand design and what it can do for them.
From my personal experience I found that this is mostly because of bad communication, not because a client has a certain prejudice towards the field. I’ve learned that engaging more people and clients into our process has reduced these kinds of situations and created a sense of co-ownership that has elevated the work and work moral on many different levels.
Don’t blame your client for bad communication. It’s your job as a designer and guide, to involve them in the decisions you make, to explain why you choose to include those elements and what that means for the impact and achievements of the resulting design. To sell your design, bluntly said.
Never forget that your client is not a designer, don’t treat him or her like one. If you set real goals you don’t have to teach them typography, but explain your decisions clearly and enlighten on the six powerful questions: Who? What? Where? How? When? Why? (in no particular order, although I’d start with ‘Why?’).
As designers or design shop owners we have the best trick in the book right up our sleeve, communication. Mike Monteiro has written an accurate book that covers the subject; Design is a Job. The following part in this chapter is based on his ideas and believes.
We generally have a hard time communicating to clients what they can expect from us. Never should you give them the opportunity to roam free in the realm of infinite possibilities. Explain your service.
Introduce them to your workflow. Explain that you solve problems within a set of constraints — you can’t solve all the problems in the world at once, start with one and work your way up. Ask yourself why you’re doing this? Get that answer as clear as possible! Set the goals that you have to to achieve. Before setting those goals, we need to gather information and research. We can’t just define that stuff out of thin air. Who? How? Where? When? What? and Why? Research your way through.
Start by asking for honest and real feedback, let them critique the work and listen to your arguments as to why things have been chosen or rearranged in a certain way. Baffle them with your (visual) research. Stay on top of your game, sometimes you’re misinformed or the research is a bit off. Start again. These are the fundamentals.
After you have all the right answers—Tip: it’s probably not reasonable to expect to hit gold on the first try. Keep calm, and check where you made a wrong turn. Put the information in the right order. Sketch, sketch some more and build something. Use you habits to create good work.
A designer imposes balance. In every design there must be a balance between the conventional things that are familiar (like a shoreline seen from the sea) and the delightful new things that make you stick around (the unexpected sea storm that almost knocked your socks off). Last but not least, you’re responsible for the suff you put in this world, so choose carefully. It’s all about improving lives in the end!*
A personal sidenote:
I also would like to add a couple personal views to extend this advice. Culture will more and more act as the root of design and will become an integrate part of the future workplace. Learn from other designers, read a lot about everything, know about history, build a base for a vision and an opinion. Accept that opinions change as you learn. That’s ok.
Good work is derived from a combination of short term gains (usable products, appealing interfaces, understanding goals, design trends) and long term gains (graphic history, visual culture, ethics and vision that account for that ‘gut’ feeling). The goal of all design is to build culture and achieve effective results, as well as being easy to use, appealing and it has to solve (a) problem(s) or be anticipatory for future events. It mustn’t only be a reaction to a short term problem, as that won’t lead to change in the long run. Think big, and ahead.
It doesn’t really matter what job you have. The best road to becoming a good maker is staying open-minded, stress-free, happy, positive, being inquisitive, asking for help (is harder than you might think), simply doing the work and research. The best solutions are always a result of good work habits.
Tools and skills will come with time and dedication. They’ll give the designer a deeper understanding of the possibilities of the field and let you get the job done within a shorter amount of time. Lastly, communicate clearly and set boundaries beforehand. Everyone wants to know what they’re getting into.
*If you want to know more on this subject please pick up a copy of the books listed below. Or check the internet, there’s plenty to read on the subject.
Mike Monteiro — Design is A Job
David Burkus — The Myths of Creativity
Victor Papanek’s — Design for the Real World
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