We all know that most design clients are fairly predictable in tastes and not exactly thrilling to work for. I am sure you are not clapping your hands in excitement when designing another site for a wedding photographer or online marketing company that needs to be “conversion optimized.” Nothing about the project itself stirs the spark of creativity that is lying dormant deep inside you. You want to get it designed ASAP, get your money, and never look at it again.
So you go into autopilot mode. Out comes our little banners on the module corners. Out comes Proxima Nova for the 14th time. Out comes that layer style you’ve used 33 times already because you know clients love “the Apple look.”
Idea-less designers have become the industry standard.
While there is nothing wrong with cutting some corners and borrowing a few graphics from other designers (even our past work), I fear that this unmotivated, “idea-less” design has become par for the course in the world, instead of a once-in-a-while exception for that freebie project for your Uncle Bernard.
We have let ourselves become mindless workers on a production line, not fountainheads of ideas. Everyone and their mom can tell us how to design and we don’t even have the energy to ask “why?” The modern web designer has become a follower, not a leader, because our work lacks the conviction of thought, research and imagination behind it. Our only motivation is the carrot of a paycheck dangling in front of us.
We have lost the sense of adventure that we had when we first began designing. There were no limits to what we could (or at least thought we could) do. No 960 grids or theoretical “folds.” No cross-browser compatibility or page load time. Just your imagination at the tip of your Wacomm pen.
Though all these technical concerns are of course, real-life issues that we must take into consideration to design properly, I believe that they can turn into crutches for a defeated designer. We are too afraid (or lazy) to spawn a design based not on someone else’s template, but on what a design should be based on: an idea.
We have lost our will to fight… and in turn: the desire to create.
But somewhere along the line we lost our will to fight for our ideas… so we stopped coming up with new ones. We became willing to just complain over and over about nonsensical feedback (“make it pop”) and being prodded at the point of a gun into designing ridiculous interfaces that make us doubt if we even want to continue in this profession. When this feeling of helplessness sets in, we find ourselves consoled by the fact that every other designer in the world is probably going through the same thing. In the end, we have a fresh chuckle at “How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell” and move on to the next destined-to-be-damned project. At least we have a job right?
However, if you as a designer are content to simply paint with Photoshop in a corner of the office somewhere, your role will become greatly diminished in value… and easily replaced by someone who can paint prettier pictures than you.
A successful designer is motivated by more than time and money. They strive for excellence. And in the design world, excellence is measured in ideas; that spark of creative brilliance formed in the human mind which finds its way to paper and screen.
You can start by treating every project as a fresh chance to create something extraordinary. Extraordinary in the sense that it is the product of your imagination and ingenuity, fueled by an idea. Creativity is birthed in your head, not in Photoshop. You can be more than a producer of graphics if you are not afraid to think for yourself and go with what you think. Your training, experiences and talent should be driving your mind, not just your mouse.
You are what you make others eat.
An employee at a fast food chain can’t get very excited about their product because they are not putting much thought or care into it’s creation. There is no originality or diversity, only the same set of combo meals over and over again. He couldn’t tell you much about the food he is making, because frankly, he doesn’t care about it.
How can a client be excited about a product that its creator is not thrilled to show?
If you want people to appreciate your work, then you need to put more work into its creation.
Think of a professional chef at an acclaimed restaurant. He is exhilarated by the food he prepares. He has chosen the ingredients carefully, testing out various methods of preparing and presenting each dish. He speaks of spices and sauces with an intimate knowledge, showing his keen interest and sincere passion for his craft. He is confident that his food is exquisite, because he knows the steps it took to make it the way it is.
In the same way, a design that is born from an original idea and honed to neat perfection will give you confidence and passion for it. There should be reasons for every “ingredient” in your work. You hand-picked Proxima Nova after scrutinizing its every letter, comparing them side-by-side with two other typefaces. You created that textured interface from scratch by photographing linen paper and pixel-by-pixel editing a carefully selected portion of it. Every aspect of the design looks the way it does because you intended it to be that way. You have no problem talking about your work, defending it from stupid criticisms and meaningless edits by the idea behind your choices. There are no accidents. No cop-outs.
Care more about your design than your client does.
I always like to say that a designer should care more how a design looks than the client does. Why? It is not your money that is paying for it. But it is still very much about you. It is your time, your energy, your thought, your emotion that goes into a design. Your name is on it, meaning that your reputation will be effected by it. Most importantly, your confidence, your self-respect, and your pride and joy in what you do everyday is at stake.
Even if your ideas are rejected or changed drastically, it is not you who is missing out. You have done your best and presented an excellent product that you can be proud of. You have grown as a designer and have gained valuable experience in your field. Eventually people will take notice and you will be given fresh opportunities to “idea-ize” for more appreciative candidates.
But it begins with you calling a halt to your own apathy. Turn off the autopilot by putting away the templates and starting with a clean white page where you can be free to create something new. Pay less attention to flash-in-the-pan trends that everyone is doing and more attention to the minute intricacies of type, color, and shape so that you can set yourself apart from the ordinary.
Most importantly, when you know you have a great idea: stick with it. Commit yourself to see it to completion and defend it against those who may not understand it yet. And if designing “combo meals” at a “fast-food” company is not giving your ideas a chance… then perhaps it is time to change restaurants.