Growing as a Designer

I’ve been designing in varying degrees since 2003. But it’s only since around 2012 that I feel like I have grown as a designer. These are my observations from how I’ve grown and how I’ve seen other people grow around me.

Design is more than face value

Good design is not just about what something looks like. Good design is about how something works, and about how appropriate it is for the problem it is solving.

Form over function is never the right approach. If you’re designing for likes on Dribbble, you’re doing it wrong. Your 3,000 followers on Dribbble and Twitter aren’t the audience you’re designing for, so don’t design for them.

Think big

It’s easy to get trapped in a bubble of ‘oh this will be on Device X or Screen Y’, yet it’s impossible to know where, when, and how someone will be viewing your interface.

Imagine your design being seen on a projector in a movie theatre. Imagine that new brand piece you’ve created being blown up to the size of a billboard. It might be one day, so consider those scenarios.

Avoid the best case scenario

Making assumptions when designing is bad, and often means you’re designing for the best case scenario. Don’t make assumptions on what images will be used in a promo area, how much text will be in a column, or that the people writing the blog on the site will have access to the most expensive photographs from Getty.

If you’re designing a promo area which has white text over an image, consider what would happen if that the image below it has a light background. Come up with a solution that works for both light and dark images and you’re onto a winner.

Don’t be selfish

Other people are working on this project before, during, and after you’ve finished on it. Consider them. I’ve gone from being a selfish designer, to thinking about how what I do affects things other people have done or are going to do. Fuck your ego.

For example, I might see an interaction in a prototype I’m polishing that I don’t like the look of. A few years back, I would just redesign it to how I wanted it… Now? I’ll go and have a chat with the interaction designer who worked on it to understand how it works… Then we would redesign it together so that functionality remains.

I also consider the costs on development. Is this module I’m designing going to have significant impacts on page speed, and is it a reasonable module to expect the developers to code? They might not have time in the budget to create it, so don’t expect them to.

Fight your corner

As the designer who is being paid for his set of skills, it’s okay to be confident in what I believe is a good decision, and it’s okay to fight my corner when it’s an appropriate time to do so. Sometimes it’s okay to be selfish and push back on decisions from others.

For example, A developer might abhor the idea of adding development time for a module, or it decreasing the page speed, but if I have solid rationale and it is necessary for the best user experience, then I will fight for it.

Have solid rationale

If I have an idea or have come up with a design language, then I better have some good rationale behind my decisions. Why have I chosen this colour palette, this font, and this tone of imagery?

If I don’t have solid rationale behind my design decisions, the design will fail when critiqued. This has the added benefit of making you think about every little bit of your design when you’re coming up with concepts and future designs.

When you start a design project, spend some time with your customer to come up with some design principles. Follow these throughout the project, and you’ll be onto a winner.

Have some humility

If you achieve success in this industry or within your organisation, then stay humble. Nobody likes the person in the corner who thinks they’re the bees knees. You’re not Jony Ive or Dieter Rams. Even the most famous web designer is only as famous as the most famous SEO expert. Matt cuts what?

Everyone has been published or has written a blog post that has been RT’d by Jeremy Keith. Anyone can speak at a conference. Anyone can get 10,000 followers on Twitter. Don’t let it get to your head.

Design is an important job, but it doesn’t make you important. Any number of people can do what you are doing, so feel privileged that you can work in this industry without acting like Don Draper. Be nice to people and try to have fun.

Be consistent

I try to be consistent in every little detail. I develop a typographic hierarchy during the concept phase / initial designs and I stick to it until it fails me.

Consistency is better for everyone. We can hand patterns over to developers that they will understand, and new designers can see how to design new elements or modify existing ones. Most importantly, users will find, understand, and learn patterns, making the site easier to use.

Avoid new patterns, and don’t over-design

During a project, I try and come up with a series of patterns. This could be panel styles, form elements, or even blocks of text. Once I’m happy with the design, I re-use patterns within the project and refer to them in the future.

When I get a new idea, sketch, or wireframe to work on in that project, I ask myself if it is a new pattern or if an existing pattern can be used. It’s often the latter. I avoid new patterns where possible.

It is possible to over-design something. Too many effects, too much white space, too much colour, etc. It’s a cliché, but good design is about taking stuff away, not adding things.

Fuck your comfort zone

But when you’re coming up with a design for a new project, step out of your comfort zone. Don’t get stuck designing the same thing for different clients over and over again. Try and do something interesting, exciting, and different with your next design.

It’s okay to have a style. Some of the best designers do. But, if you’re using the same font for everyone project because you like it, then stop! Go for some interesting font pairings. Use a bright colour where you would usually choose a muted colour. Go big with some images or video. Do things wouldn’t expect yourself to do.

Transparency is important

You’re only human. Stuck? Ask someone else to critique what you’re doing. Their input might be what you need to get the project going in the direction you want.

Transparency inspires confidence.

It’s not healthy to shield yourself away from the eyes of others. Be transparent about what stage you’re at in the design, be transparent about what you’re doing, and be transparent about your processes. People see the work you’re doing, and see how great you are at doing it. The best part? People will chip in and give you little tips and you’ll become a better designer because of it.

You’re never as good as you’re going to be

Don’t ever be content with where you are right now. Feeling content is not a good place to be. Always be critical of your work and strive to be better. This doesn’t even have to be ‘better design’ it could be ‘better design rationalisation’ or ‘better design thinking’.

Today, I’m a slightly better designer than I was yesterday, when I stepped out of my comfort zone and worked I took a different approach to a project.

Drop bad design, iterate fast

Even if I’ve spent 2 days working on a concept, it isn’t the one I’ll deliver until 5 minutes before the deadline. At any point in that process I may drop the design and start from scratch.

It is easy to become attached to a design. Don’t worry about it. If you lean back on your chair and the design you’re looking at isn’t good enough, consider scrapping it. 9 times out of 10, you’ll produce a better design than your original idea.

Be yourself. Have a sense of humour.

People take themselves far too seriously. Not just in this industry, but in many. Humour brings people together, it makes people happy, it is fun. What isn’t okay is being in a drab office staring at a screen all day.

Be yourself. Inject a bit of humour into your daily life and have fun whilst you work. According to Forbes, humour means people will enjoy working with you, it will help bust stress, it is humanising, and it boosts morale!

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