Fighting Off Design Stagnation
I’ve only been out of school and working in the industry for a few years now, but I can already feel it. The feeling like my hands are getting tied. Like I am coming up with the same old ideas or dipping into my overused bag of tricks too often. I am left racking my brain for new directions and feeling like the design world will surely leave me behind to make way for today’s new design youth. You might laugh because it’s only been a few years, but this is where it begins.
When I see a young designer with a strong portfolio, I think to myself, “why the hell didn’t I think of that? I have a good design education and background, why aren’t ideas like this coming to me”? There is a constant swell of new designers arriving everyday, inexperienced and fresh from school, carrying with them a different spin on design you may have never thought of before. The second I see these people I get the fear. Is my work still relevant? Is it good enough? I love this kind of situation sometimes. There is nothing that makes me work harder than a little competition… that and a tight deadline.
Sure, their work is rough, but what about their ideas? Remember when you were young and all you needed was your imagination to make something possible? Young designers haven’t made all the mistakes we have yet. They haven’t found the same solutions and quick fixes we have. Sometimes our hands are tied by what we think we know and as we get older we only build up more and more pre-solved fixes to problems. It’s a tough balance; we tend to fall back on these as we carry a growing number of responsibilities with us.
There is a reason why fresh design graduates or the young designers your company just hired may have work like you’ve never seen before. Design students enjoy the freedom of unknowing experimentation. They don’t have the boundaries like pleasing a client and real-world project restrictions. Because of their underexposure to such things, their minds are free to experience the medium for the first time and see it without such time-earned hang-ups. How often have you gotten a project and immediately solved the problem in front of you based on an old solution, opting for the path of least resistance? I know I have. The first time I see a project, I immediately set to solve the problem at hand as succinctly as possible and the first things that come to mind are the ways I’ve done it before, or the way I always seem to solve things. It’s easy to fall into the habit of using specific colors, or grid structure, or your favorite fonts.
It’s true what they say; good design never goes out of style. Timeless logos and artwork still permeate the public eye and will continue to do so for a long time. But how long can you keep churning out good design. I am not talking about competent design; I realize you know how to kern your type like a pro and balance your layouts, but when was the last time you came up with something different? Something that was not only a competent design but a good design? Perhaps something that broke out of your normal style or conventional design tricks, or had such a strong execution and concept that you even surprised yourself? It seems as we grow older, those things become few and far in-between.
There are many ways to break this vicious cycle! The solution is to keep challenging and exercising your mind. You can’t keep the same computer throughout your career; you need to continue moving forward and adjusting to keep up with the industry. Similarly, you cannot sit on your design knowledge forever and expect to get ahead. You need to keep learning to maintain a sharp mind for designing and conceptualizing new ideas. Don’t let your design language deteriorate.
Read and Discover
Read often, immerse yourself in other art forms and free your mind to solve old problems in a different way based on a new, supplemented outlook. Participate in different design communities, local and worldwide, to learn from others. Take advantage of every outlet you have at your disposal. Don’t just read and learn about design techniques, but vary your reading habits to include design theory and history for background, and research artists you admire to discover their methods for breaking out of their own dead ends. Often some of the most inspirational things I see and read come from unlikely or unrelated sources. Good ideas can be universally applied to different mediums and disciplines.
Look and Listen
Surround yourself with things that inspire you and create a comfortable environment that allows you to relax and think. Grow your personal library, become a bit of a packrat, take lots of photos; do whatever it is that will help you to study the world around you. I collect many images of inspirational things like websites, posters, and photographs on my computer and sort them into aesthetic-related groups. I can then go back and reference these things when I need to educate myself on a certain style or to use as part of a design. I also keep lists of things that inspire me or that I want to learn more about; books to read, companies and people to research, or places I want to visit. Be open to absorb the world around you. Listen to others when they talk about your design because that inspirational spark can come from anywhere, even from those who don’t have formal art training.
Draw and Sketch
Remember sketchbooks? Computers are everywhere, and the more attached we get to them, the more sketching will become a lost art. The beauty of sketching is the ability to make lots of mistakes and the absence of undos. This is one of the best exercises to get anyone thinking of new ideas. It doesn’t matter if your sketches look good or not. The point is to shell out as many ideas as possible in a fast and unrefined visual medium. Often times you may find that your first few ideas are bad, or perhaps just average, and this is exactly the way to get them out of your system.
Break Your Crutches
When you encounter your next design problem, take at least your first knee-jerk idea and throw it out. This is usually the one that is rife with your usual problem-solving habits. Try to break your process down and rebuild it. Don’t settle for what you think you know. If you keep trying to challenge the most likely solution, you will force yourself to look at things differently. Perhaps it will lead you in a new direction that is more clever than before, or a new style you hadn’t previously considered.
Musicians regularly practice playing for a reason, and it’s detrimental to think that you shouldn’t practice your own craft to better hone your skills. This doesn’t even take much effort, because it’s all about finding ways to keep your imagination in tiptop shape. Sit down with a pencil and paper and attempt to redesign an object you see everyday. Maybe it’s something that you’re familiar with like a poster or billboard you see every morning, or perhaps it’s something you have only just discovered. The point is to look at something established in a new light. In what ways would you change the design of it? How could you better the design, or add some sort of functionality to it? What if the item was targeted at a different age or demographic group; how would you design it to gain greater appeal and awareness from them? What if the item could only be one color? These are just a few ways to flex your mind and shape new thoughts.
You can be your own most stringent and critical judge. Be aware of your style and know it’s strengths and weaknesses. This will help you know what your limitations are and how to work with them, or better yet, how to improve upon them. Don’t stagnate and fall out of touch with what you love. Good design is based on good thoughts and good concepts that should strive to be unique to a given project. The more you fallback on your tried and true methods, the more they will become routine, a routine that will be even more difficult to break out from. Put your mind and energies into something fruitful and your design will grow beyond the average.
This article originally appeared as the cover story for the January 2005 issue of Design In-Flight. Design In-Flight has since gone offline, so I am republishing it here for the sake of archiving and general compulsiveness.