Finding your own style as a designer.
I get a lot of emails from young designers often asking me on how they can find their own unique style.
And for some reason, most think that having a strong unique style goes hand in hand with being successful in the industry.
Today, I like to give the case against having a style. Or at least define what it means to find your own style. And please be sure to not confuse fashion or trends with style, these are two different things.
Generally we think having a strong style as a designer is good. If I can spot someones work already from far away, it can only mean good.
When I started out as a designer I always felt a little frustrated trying to find my own style. It seemed to me as if there was this pressure from bigger designers to find my own style, most of them with decades more experience than myself.
“Fashion fades, only style remains the same.”
— Coco Chanel
But here is the thing: Your own style isn’t something you can come up with from today to tomorrow. Usually your style will naturally evolve. Other people will tell you about your style first before you even recognize it yourself. It’s something that just happens.
The same goes for your style when it comes to walking, driving, dancing or the clothes you wear everyday. Style is what evolves out of years of practice.
On the other hand, I always prided myself for not having a specific style. Mostly because I’m a designer. I like to solve problems, usually for other peoples companies or brands.
I was always afraid to have my own “style” when it came to my visual design work. I don’t like getting pigeon holed into something I might not want to be in the future.
When working for clients or other brands, I always wanted to come up with the best possible solution for the client. Often whats best for the client isn’t whats best from my personal perspective. And this is where the conflicting thoughts are coming in.
“Style is a reflection of your attitude and your personality.”
— Shawn Ashmore
Having a unique visual style makes a lot of sense if you are an Illustrator, Photographer or a Fashion Designer. Clients hire Illustrators usually based on the visual style their portfolio represents.
So you would say having your own unique style as an Illustrator is good. And yes it is, until the moment you hate getting the same work over and over again.
Potential clients will look at your portfolio, point their fingers at a piece of work and say: “I want exactly this, but different.” — I’m sure some readers can relate.
That’s the result of having your own style. (at least when it comes to visual style, which is the one we talk about in this example)
The moment you commit to one style, even if not intended, you will find great difficulties changing it in the future. Of course there are exceptions, some people found their style and never moved away from it for many years.
As a designer such as myself, I always considered myself to not be part of the soul searching journey for “style”. I always liked to keep my portfolio diverse. I saw it as a red flag when someone pointed at specific work in my portfolio, wanting me to do the same for them again.
But ultimately, as much as I like to believe in “not having a style” — I know that I have a certain style, and it’s reflected in some of my projects.
You see, having your own style is impossible to avoid. But I like to see my “style” more as a definition of how I approach my work. How I work with people, how I deliver results, and how I solve problems.
We always like to say that if you work for a client you should take your personal opinion completely out of the work. You should do the best for the client, regardless of what you think.
In theory, that sounds great. But as a designers we are still human. We have opinions and these opinions will and should always influence the projects we work on.
The reason why I like to get hired is because someone believes in the same set of values that I believe in. I like to see these values as part of my “style”.
So here is my advice when it comes to your personal style:
1. Having your own style can be a blessing and a curse. Usually it’s a blessing right before it becomes a curse.
2. You are rarely the one who defines your style. Other people will tell you once you have a style. Take it as a compliment, but with a grain of salt.
3. Never fully commit to one “style”, unless you feel a 100% comfortable with it. Especially early in your career, try out a lot of things before you settle. But please, never settle.
4. If you notice that having your own style is getting boring and slowing down your personal growth, change it up, chose a new direction. It will be hard, but rewarding. I see it as a red flag if I work within one style for too long.
Even if other people like your “style”, it could mean nothing more but boredom for you personally. Don’t confuse commercial success with personal happiness.
5. Don’t try to hide your style. Your style will and should always come through. Even if you are trying to solve the hardest UX problems in the banking industry. Your personal opinion counts, it’s what differentiates the good and the bad designers.
As an example, let’s say two world class designers develop a branding for a company. Both do it with their best intentions based on the clients briefing and take their personal opinion completely out of the equation.
In the end, both branding solutions would still look completely different. But both are as good as the other one. And that’s because of their different approach & style.
Both solutions could serve the client perfectly, but only one will work slightly better. Why? Because design is still subjective, even on a high level where we would like to think it is objective, but it’s not.
But that’s a topic for another time.
Have a wonderful week,
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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a new portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify & Board of Directors AIGA New York.