Truth is, You Aren’t a Good Designer

…but it isn’t because you don’t know how to design

I haven’t been a designer as long as some (about 6 years to be exact) but in that time I’ve galavanted around the block a couple of times. I’ve freelanced, worked in film, at boring marketing agencies, “cool” product companies and even a shitty student magazine. I’ve exited a company, am one of the founders at a growing startup and have the privilege of being involved in mentoring several young designers that for some reason think I’m a role model. So when people ask me how I got here, they seem shocked that the answer never involves “designing.” Although, yes, I did and still do a lot of that, it’s only a small portion of what I believe has made me the designer that I’ve come to be.

You see, I don’t believe that being a good designer has anything do with the actual design part of it.

Design education does a great job of teaching you what good design is and isn’t. They teach that it solves problems, and how aesthetics work, and you learn gridding and colour theory and typography, and all of that stuff that makes up a good design. However, just because you’re good at design doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good designer. Every good designer has a strong handle of how to do all of the technical things, but what makes them great is their mastery over the stuff that goes on before you stare a blank canvas and after the final pixel has been moved to left.

Most young designers, typically right out of school, become obsessed with being the best at designing. And although that is admirable, if you’re spending all of your time doing tutorials and practicing design, you’ll eventually hit a ceiling.

It’s time to stop just practicing design and start practicing how to be a designer.

I believe this involves two main areas of study: pre-design and post-design, each with three components.


Steal like a artist

The one thing that makes a good designer is not that they don’t have design blocks, its that they understand how to harness inspiration from anything anytime. They also understand how to be inspired by someone else’s work without entirely ripping it off.

Tippy Tip: Have inspiration sessions where you spend a day looking at other designer’s work and mentally noting the things that inspire you. The key is to not design that day. This allows you time to absorb the general concept of what intrigued you and not the actual specifics. In turn, you’ll render an inspired design in your own style, instead of a copy.

Plan like a CEO

If there’s one thing I’ve learning working side-by-side with a CEO, it’s that planning is everything and designers tend to suck at it. So make a to-do list and a schedule and actually follow it for fucks sake. Estimate how long it’s going to take you to design something and work backwards to schedule when you should start a project. Then make sure you work in how long it’s going to take to do client communication and exporting assets and preparing showcases. Factor. everything. in. Leaving stuff until the last minute will result in mediocre work.

Setting Expectations

Truth is, no matter how good you are at sticking to your plans, none of us work in a bubble and sometimes things don’t go exactly as you’d hope. There’s always that client will always take too long to get feedback to you or ask why you can’t just slap together a website from the poster you designed for them last year. You must always make sure that you set expectations right from the get go that just as you’ve committed to hit your marks, the success of the project depends on the client or decision-makers actually following that plan as well. Also outline right away how to handle situations that attempt to change expectations.

Tippy Tip: To save yourself any extra unpleasant conversations: get anything that changes the initial expectations you set out in writing.


Selling & showcasing

“Work that can’t be sold is as useless as the designer who can’t sell it.”

Required Reading: 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations by Mike Monteiro.

Confidence & accountability

You know how to design, don’t forget that and don’t undermine that. If you’re not confident in your work, no one else will be. But remember there is a difference between being confident and thinking you’re the shit. You’re not the shit, and that’s okay. Be humble while loving your work enough to defend it. But before you do, make sure your work is worth defending — If you say you’re the only person for the job, you’re accountable to that level of quality. Most importantly, despite how confident you may be, always be prepared to take good feedback, admit you’re wrong and strive to improve.

Yearning for learning

This is important. You don’t know everything, stupid. Remind yourself of this every single day and practice, practice, practice. Seek a mentor. Better yet, seek many mentors. Read lots and write more. Get involved in side projects with other designers and writers and filmmakers and artists and everyone else. Do not, for the love of god, stay inside the bubble and pretend that all a designer does is design.

Over the past two years I’ve made it my mission to actually become a good designer, not just someone who is good at design. I’ll be damned before I let myself hit a ceiling. You shouldn’t either.

This is part of my quest to actually finish what I started, so keep up if you feel like reading some more of my nonsense every week.