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The certainties of being a designer

Written by Simon Leadbetter

As a designer you will learn that there are other certainties in life, some of which we will explore in this article.

This article has been assigned the following categories: Tips,

Computer monitor at a jaunty angle

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy which famously contains the idiom:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

Death and taxes hey. In the 21st Century, surely we have other certainties in life. Certainties like someone will use this trope as an opener to an article and that the author used Google to find the reference on Wikipedia. Guilty.

There are no original ideas

Don’t be alarmed by this fact. It is okay to accept that whatever you design it will look like something else and that someone will let you know that it does. If not a fellow designer, perhaps your mum.

Designers do not deliberately set out to plagiarise, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility for a design to resemble something else from the past or present. Sometimes uncannily so. However, before any aspersions are cast, it is important to remember that design has the same processes as art but with constraints. It is these constraints that have a profound ability to shape the outcome, which can lead to unwanted similarities.

That is not to say all design is deterministic, but without the shackles of a prescriptive brief, deadline, the client’s agenda, a ‘target’ audience and the decision maker’s subjectivity, the output will invariably be what an artist produces. A designer happily embraces all these influencing factors to create – through process and creative flair – a design that resonates with its intended audience. Importantly, it has to be approved by the client to sell their product, service or ideology, which means the design has to appeal on many levels – unlike art.

Every designer will, at some point in their career, inadvertently design something that has a strong resemblance to something else. As the designer, be comfortable knowing it was not deliberate. As the client, acknowledge that similarities sometimes occur, but it doesn’t mean the solution is not right for you or your audience.

It is easy to be critical of other people’s work

This leads on to the other certainty. The certainty that the design you have invested a large proportion of your time and energy, imbued with your design flair and training, and nurtured from conception, will be critiqued. It will be critiqued by your peers, your client and by anyone exposed to it. Do not fear this; use it as a tool to shape your thinking and ultimately your final design.

In big or small teams, peer review will happen. If not of your own work but of others. In fact, you may be the one dishing it out. The art of critiquing is to do it from an informed and considered position. For a designer, that informed and considered position comes from training, but a client is unlikely to hold a degree in design. It therefore becomes the designer’s job to ‘sell’ their design and educate their client about why this solution works.

A client can respond from a more informed position once armed with the reasoning behind a design decision. This will help avoid the scenario where a response is formed from a subjective opinion. For both designer and client alike, it is rarely a good starting point to say “I don’t like that colour” or “have you tried using 20 other typefaces”. There is every probability that the designer has gone through numerous different iterations of the design before deciding to submit this version for review.

From a designer’s perspective, the biggest challenge is to not allow their ego to get in the way. Be open to suggestions made by others, as they really could improve the final outcome, however, you are the professional who has had the training. If you can articulate why your final solution is the right solution then go for it. Design by committee rarely generates great results.

Here at Scaramanga, we hold a Friday morning Show & Tell. In rotation each week, a team member will present something they have seen (a video, a brand recently released in the wild, a new website etc.). Irrespective of whether they like what they are sharing, the idea is to open a discussion about the merits of whatever we are reviewing. This helps the presenting designer to ‘sell’ the idea and for everyone else in the team to learn how to formulate their opinion before sharing their thoughts. As a bonus, it also helps the entire team stay up-to-date with the current cultural zeitgeist.

Finally, the important thing to remember when dishing out your critique is that you consider the constraints the designer has been working under. Although you may not like the end result, it may perfectly answer the brief. Just think back at the reaction the London Olympics 2012 logo received.

You can not please all the people all of the time – especially yourself

Design is one of the very few professions where everyone is an expert without actually having any expertise. Very few people tell a solicitor or accountant, for example, that they should do their job differently.

As a designer you will produce a design that may be disliked by many but, conversely, liked by many more. You may even find that the final result ends up being a diluted version of your original concept and your original excitement is somewhat tarnished. Few designers look fondly back at all their work. We are all on a journey of discovery and are influenced by everything around us. And as everything around changes with time, so should your approach. Don’t worry if you do not like what you designed two years ago.

Acceptance of this certainty will help you realise that your goal isn’t to find the timeless design solution (although that would be nice) so you can be revered evermore, but to resolve the problem with a design solution that answers that brief at that time.

You will feel like an imposter

Imposter syndrome is real. We all have experienced at every stage of our careers. Only you can overcome this, by accepting we are all learning.

Absorb yourself in all types of design. When walking along the street, look up and admire the architecture. When watching a movie, revel in the brilliance of the opening/credit sequence. Train your brain and eyes to see more than the average Joe. Once you do, you’ll see the world differently and this will be key characteristic of why you are a designer and others are not.

There will always be someone who knows someone who can design what you’ve been asked to design for less money and in half the time

When you finally bump into this one you will realise it is unavoidable. There really is nothing more to say on this subject.

I hope something within this rambling provides some form of reassurance. Being a designer is not easy, but you do get to draw for living and get paid to do it.