Being an independent designer for a decade taught me a couple of things, that I find relevant to share with agency, studio and freelance designers alike.
Practical Advice for the Confused Designer
Transcript from the UIUX Design Talks in Shanghai.
Design is pleasurable.
No, it’s not ok to follow a set of guidelines –iOS or Material Design– and call it a day.
Your product has to be usable, but does it have to be generic? Give your design a character. A well crafted piece of design tells a story and creates empathy. Don’t lay your elements there flat and bland.
Advice: As versatile as a designer should be, you should still strive to find your own tone. UX designers: muscle-up your visual skills; it’s an essential tool in your design arsenal. Aesthetics is user experience.
Have fun. Restrict yourself.
Starting a design from scratch is not easy. Neither is working under constraints imposed by the client. The former is intimidating; too many paths, too much to choose from. The latter is frustrating, juggling with styleguides and pre-selected assets. Things would be more fun if you could play by your own rules.
Advice: Set your own constraints: “I won’t use circles”. “I’ll only use 2 colors”. “ I’ll only use one typeface”. Keep it for yourself. Your client doesn’t have to know. You will push yourself out of your comfort zone, and have to be creative to solve your designs. Constraints will make you more versatile.
It’s not because you can, that you should.
Beware of the trends. Does the menu have to be a hamburger icon? Do your layouts have to be ruled by translucency? Do your icons have to be long-shadowed? All of these, overused. They will be gone tomorrow. Using them is condemning your designs to obsolescence.
Visual design relies on 3 rules, and 3 rules only: typography, photography (or illustration), and composition. It takes a lifetime to get them right.
Advice: Get your macro-design right. Then put emphasis on subtle details. Have a quiet authority without having to be the center of attention. Keep the features to a minimum. Whisper, don’t shout.
Stay in the Groove.
This advice goes to the young designers as well as the old timers: keep practicing every day. Not only the theory, but the craft. Books and a Pinterest board are not enough. One does not become a skilled designer by reading books.
It’s far too easy for a senior designer to step into a career of morning reviews, lunches with the CEO, and afternoon of meetings. The problem, as you’re drifting off, is that you’re losing sight of your craft.
Advice: this is not football, retirement is not at 30! Stay afloat, practice daily.
Ditch rejection, keep the praise.
Ten years ago, I released my first major work. The piece provoked unexpected criticism and resistance the first week. Until it eventually found its public, went big and got awarded. Since then, whenever I encounter resistance, it rings a bell. I might be into something that’s worthwhile and dig deeper.
Advice: Take criticism with a grain of salt. Better yet, pick your critic. It’s not about what everybody thinks of you, but what the right person thinks of you.
Tip: keep a log-file of the encouraging feedbacks. The ones you feel are sincere. Read them on bad days, when you need to remember that somebody, somewhere, wants to keep you going.
“My work speaks for itself”.
No it doesn’t! Your work is the outcome of iterations, trials and errors, and fits in a context that must be explained. Tell the story to your Creative Director or to your client. Introduce the protagonists, the stage, the plot. Make it lively. Don’t throw the meat to the dog and move away.
Advice: Get prepared to defend against punches. If you are in an agency, request to attend the client meetings or pitch presentations. Watch the client formulate every possible questions that you would never think of. Learn how to reassure them. No, the logo “doesn’t have to be bigger” to be visible, and you gonna explain them why. That’s what they want to hear.
You will then be surprised how thin is the line between rejection and approval.
I’ve heard too many independents or small studios lamenting about clients that pay late. Clients that ask for non-specific work. Clients that try to reduce the costs mid-project. This is serious stuff. This can kill your activity. Late payments are the number one reason for freelancers to quit.
Advice: It’s your responsibility to set tight contracts, and get your down-payments. Be tough. No contract, no design.
To the employees, you must wonder, why talking about the money? I get my salary every month, no matter what.
Still. Be aware of the impact of money on your designs. Go get some freelance gigs! Come back fortified. You will gain a better understanding of how a company works. The strategic decisions they have to take and how you can respond to it. Better money understanding means better client understanding, better validations, better projects, better work.
Get in, get out.
Anyone answering design requests on Wechat on a Sunday night? Stop right now. It’s your client? Do not answer, resume on Monday morning. It’s your boss? Ask yourself if you’re in the right company.
You need to rest. You need your off-time. Nobody wants to work with a team of zombie designers. I certainly don’t.
Similarly, all-night work sessions have no rational reason to exist. It’s either a misevaluated time, or a bad client management. It has no added value; if you are given one hour and one hour only, it’s amazing how much you can get stuff done. But if your company starts to buy the pizzas and plan for the whole night, you will likely take the whole night to get job done.
Advice: turn off emails and chat notifications during your off-work. For the most courageous: remove your email client from your phone. I mean it. You will be surprised how much less noise leads to better design.
Be Bold, Be Brave, Sleep Tight.
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