February 2, 2007

Fighting Off Design Stagnation

Design In-Flight: Issue 3: January 2005

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.

Remain Active

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.

Commentary (23):

1. Josh Pigford says… feb 2, 2007 | 4:34 pm

Great articles Jason. The past few months I’ve been thinking these same thoughts.

What’s even more frustrating is when you get stuck in a rut because clients like that rut. They like your “style” and you just can’t seem to get away from it.

I swear if I hear “web 2.0” one more time…

2. Ben Kimball says… feb 2, 2007 | 4:40 pm

Jason, you’re right on the money. This goes not only for design work, but also for web development. This is the reason I’m learning Ruby, Rails, TextMate, CodeIgniter, and AJAX (sorry, Josh). It’s not (necessarily) about improving my PHP skills—though it’s doing that—it’s about making myself a little less comfortable, in order to make my brain stretch in new ways.

3. Karl G says… feb 2, 2007 | 5:59 pm

I remember reading this in DIF. Could they not pull in enough revenue to keep at it?

@josh: I’ve always liked the MochiKit site, which is unusual because I’m not a fan of the current design fad.

4. Wilson Miner says… feb 2, 2007 | 6:05 pm

Right on. Personally, I also think the cycle of getting “stuck” is a necessary part of the growing process. I could never sustain the level of energy I get out of something like SXSW where the ideas are flying around. I also find that I need those periods of hibernation where I’m slowing down a bit, maybe even coasting a little and just resetting my gears. Or maybe that’s just my excuse for playing too much Wii this winter.

5. Sherwin Techico says… feb 2, 2007 | 6:25 pm

Thanks. I needed this.

6. Universal Head says… feb 2, 2007 | 9:36 pm

Young designers also don’t have two things: clients and committees determined to meddle with your work until they’ve leeched all the original juice out of it, and mortgages.

7. Cameron Adams says… feb 3, 2007 | 1:05 am

I remember the first time that I opened up Photoshop (nee Electric Cat), or tried to make something that looked half decent in 3D Studio.

I think that period where I knew none of the tools — nor what they could do — was one of the greatest periods in terms of growth and imagination that I’ve ever experienced.

Again, it goes back to solving problems that you’ve never solved before. You can’t rely on auto-pilot, so it makes you actually think.

8. Ephram Zerb says… feb 3, 2007 | 1:40 am

I would be curious to hear more about the taxonomy you use to organize your source material. The findability of such assets is almost as important as the material contained within. Do you scan print materials and catalogue them? What do your categories look like?

9. Charlie says… feb 3, 2007 | 3:08 am

Silly me, I thought I was the only one. I’m not even old enough to have a rut, but I still find myself looking over my shoulder.

Great post, mate.

10. Anthony Watts says… feb 3, 2007 | 10:44 am

The best thing that ever happened to my design work was hiring another great designer. Two brains are always better than one.

11. Dave C. says… feb 3, 2007 | 1:22 pm

Man, I can relate a lot to this. Being an art director for an niche automotive magazine whose customers are 40 to 50 something gearheads makes breaking out of the mold a bit tough because radical design changes are not only not allowed but also could turn off the readers. I’ve been doing the production of the magazine for so long, I sometimes feel like I’ve forgotten how to design. I’ve since decided that I need to find a new project on the side or else I’ll be stuck in my hole forever.

12. yani says… feb 4, 2007 | 2:02 am

Well written, and makes me want to read/write/draw/design/photograph, and just do something.

Great Work.

13. Matthew D. Jordan says… feb 4, 2007 | 2:10 pm

@ Universal Head

Very, very true.
That’s when young designers turn into… us.

The only hope is that they’ve graduated from the school of hard knocks with enough of that fresh design flavor to avoid opening up those old PSDs and just switching things around for each new client. I like to think I’ve still got the flavor, but the temptation is strong.

@ Jason Santa Maria

I was just thinking about this issue when I was doing some design work last week, resting back on some of my old trusty win-over fonts. How did you- wait… are you… no you aren’t in my… are you in my head? JASON ARE YOU IN MY HEAD?!?

14. Anthony Brewitt says… feb 4, 2007 | 3:01 pm

I brewed a fresh cuppa tea and read this post and the antioxidants and sweet relief of hearing about how I have felt on a few occasions eased my weary mind!

15. Eric Toledo says… feb 5, 2007 | 4:40 pm

Great article.

I am a young designer almost done with school and have started working in the field, design studios and also freelance - web mainly, and I felt the same way.

Working at what felt like a sweat shop. Where deadlines and canned ideas were encouraged, above time and exploration, doing things right. But the client wanted it so what do you do?

I have come to believe that there will be the design I do for work (money) and then design I do for myself and rarely the two shall ever meet.

I feel a bit sad that before I really begin my career I am jaded. But I guess I am not alone and know what to look out for.

16. melissa says… feb 5, 2007 | 10:45 pm

Oh, how you have hit the nail on the head with this. I am always looking for new sources of inspiration and techniques.

Clients hire me for the type of design and functionality that I have done in the past and I find I create similar styles of work without taking many risks.

Personally this is a bit frustrating and I really need to put more time into learning new techniques and learn to take more risks with my work.

Thanks for awakening this thought .…..

17. Universal Head says… feb 6, 2007 | 7:33 am

One thing I have found that has kept me sane over the 12+ years I’ve had my own business is to keep learning new forms of visual communication. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to design websites, corporate ID, packaging, book covers, postage stamps, a software interface, TV and film graphics, animation, 2 and 3D illustrations – even 3D environments for a computer game. Without that kind of variety – if I’d just done websites in all that time, for example – I definitely would have stagnated (and probably gone nuts!) Specialisation is all very well … but exploring new media is my key to avoiding stagnation.

18. John Nick says… feb 6, 2007 | 7:37 am

Here’s another method: leave “civilization” for awhile.

I just got back from two weeks in the mountains of Guatemala among people who’d never heard of New York City, and it completely defragged my brain.

Did I mention I had no iPod or Internet the whole time?

I always took vacations in places like San Francisco, Toronto, Berlin — but design-wise they offered variants rather than a full-blown upending of my regular aesthetic.

But this trip blew me away — I sketched and wrote constantly — and I’m back on the job feeling envigorated.

So next time you’re planning a getway, consider someplace without WiFi. Just for a little bit.

19. KJ says… feb 6, 2007 | 1:31 pm

Thanks for reposting this article. I’ve felt this way for quite some time now. When I first started working “real” jobs everything felt so fresh. Since then I’ve been stuck in the same corporate machine. Try working in the Pentagon for 2 years, then talk to me about your hands being tied.

Only recently, since I’ve started with a small start-up, have I had a chance to really reconnect with any kind of artistic freedom, but it’s still hard.

Staying up late-night and working on side gigs has really been my way of re-opening the door to creativity.

20. Blagoj Srbinov says… feb 7, 2007 | 1:40 pm

I’m very thankful for this text. Feels like I’ve been cured. Thanks again.

21. Rachel says… feb 7, 2007 | 8:57 pm

A really great article - thank you so much!

22. Stebbins says… feb 8, 2007 | 6:22 pm

Nice article and very important. Often times, if you are a busy designer, you get so bogged down in the day-to-day production of design that it is extremely hard to keep your ideas fresh. Being very busy and keeping fresh ideas coming often seem to be mutually exclusive.

23. Susan Lee Quee says… feb 17, 2007 | 12:29 pm

Great article. A serious dose of inspiration for a graphic designer living in Jamaica. I have been feeling alot like that lately, and sometimes it seems that we’ve taken the fun out of what we love doing. So we decided recently to put on a technology “mixer” called. Kingston Beta - Future. Trends. Profits. First of its kind in Jamaica. Sort of technology and rum and coke vibe. We are hoping to attract like minds and newbies, exchange ideas, and discover new ones. There isn’t much of a community of designers and web developers in Jamaica…this event may be the start.