Setting our own standards.

The finish line is wherever you set it.
“This is the characteristic of how how great people think. It’s not that they find failure in every success. They just hold themselves to a standard that exceeds what society might consider to be objective success. Because of that they don’t much care what other people think: they care whether they meet their own standards.” — Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

After reading those lines, I wrote in the margin, “what are the standards? Our standards, that is?” How do we measure success? Likes? Awards? Internet fame? Speaking requests? It’s all pretty much valueless — subjective and unpredictable. It’s so easy to seek our value and validation from the opinions of others. Holiday’s right, we need our own standards.

It’s with that in mind that we created the following standards to gauge the success of our work. We practice graphic design and group facilitation; but we think these 5 measures are applicable to any discipline:

1. Have we attempted at least two other solutions (three total)?

It’s easy to go with option one. More often, it’s easy to force option one. It’s unrealistic to expect ourselves, or anyone else, to nail the solution on the first try. Yes, it happens, but it’s by no means the norm. Instead, we explore and test differing options, cross-pollinating ideas and allowing various approaches to inform one another. That doesn’t mean we present three options to the client. Rather, this approach gives us an internal gauge reminding us that our earliest attempts are rarely the best ones.

2. Have we attempted at least one option that scares us?

Bold, left-aligned typography looks so good, especially when it’s set in Helvetica or Din. Often, that’s our default. While this approach is seemingly fail safe, it rarely pushes us past our comfort zone and certainly limits opportunities for discovery. What if we break the grid? Use a google font? Neon orange? Design a symbol, instead of a logotype? An image of a cat? Are we above these options, or just scared to try? We’re learning that the craziest direction may inform the right direction.

3. Have we channeled historic inspiration?

Sherlock Holmes studied historic crime cases because he believed that cases often repeat themselves. By looking backward, he was better at moving current cases forward. Design professor George Founds taught his students to study historic design for the same purposes. On top of that, he said that everyone else is looking at contemporary design and copying it. No wonder so much design looks the same. In our work, we’re constantly referencing history, finding forgotten heroes and studying their approaches. This usually means finding old design books hidden in local libraries stacks rather than scouting images and content on the internet. This approach give us the ammunition for a unique solution, one difficult to come up with simply looking at Pinterest or Dribbble.

4. Does something like it already exist?

Okay, yes this seems counter to the previous bullet. But hear us out. Google “logos in [insert clients field].” Does one like it already exist? Start over. Google “logos [insert client’s name].” Does one like it already exist? Start over. Google “logos [insert clients initials].” Does one like it already exist? Start over. We do this at the very beginning of a project and share our findings with the client. It’s like an unspoken accountability agreement. We’re not going to create anything like “this.” We’re showing you all of the benchmarks so that if we do, you can call us out. Simple.

5. Are there any lingering questions?

This is perhaps our favorite measure. Since writing these standards we’ve started to ask ourselves and our clients “Are there any lingering questions?,” before we consider each project milestone complete. Why red? No particular reason? Find one. Can’t? Pick another color with purpose. Does the space between those two elements feels unbalanced? Yes? Balance it. Does this feel a little too “tech” when we said from the beginning that wasn’t our target? Yes? Go back and review. Fix. Iterate again. Work until there are no longer lingering questions. That’s the ultimate finish line. People outside the process may still have questions. That’s okay. This applies to stakeholders around the table making decisions — our clients and us. As long as we’re good, we’ll make it through any storm of questions that comes from outside our creative cohort.

Simple right?

The internet makes it easy to copy, (even inadvertently). We all get lazy sometimes and want to cut corners. Often, we fail to put the time and effort in to push our work to the next level. Worse, we’re afraid to explore the deep end. Because it’s dark down there. And scary. And unknown. These standards are a reminder to keep going. The finish line is just a little further; right where you set it from the very beginning.

“ A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way someone who lets applause dictate success.”

— Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

Further Reading:
Ego is the Enemy
The Obstacle is the Way

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