I have given a lot of thought over the years about how to work as a designer. Designers are expected to design at least eight hours a day, every day of the week. It’s a lot. It’s a challenge to keep up our creativity for 40 hours of design demand a week. While I managed a staff of creative people, I developed my ideas about what helped people continue to be creative day in and day out. These five rules to design by draw from the wisdom of others, as well as my experience creating every day. There are many more rules but these are five that never vary.
It is extremely important that designers can create original imagery. Needing to rely on others for all of our imagery needs makes our work too dependent on others or upon stock. Long gone are the days when an art director could doodle on a napkin and hand it off to a “wrist” to create. Today, designers are hands-on. Pick your medium—drawing, photography, collage, code, illustration, type, motion, video, pattern, etc. —and develop it to a level of proficiency that you can sometimes incorporate it into your work. Of course, you won’t learn them all (as tempting as that may be). You will collaborate with lots of other creators and together you’ll develop the work. But I firmly believe that the best designers are more than just assemblers of creative assets. Having a vision for a design and being able to develop it with your own original imagery will ensure your work meets your expectations and makes your work unique.
When you need to design every day you can’t wait for the muse. How do you put on your thinking cap? How do you get your creative juices flowing so you can have something great to show for the upcoming design review? I recommend everyone consciously develop a way to signal your brain that it’s time to think. I want you to develop a ritual. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be consistent and you should do it every time you start working on a creative project. My creative ritual looks something like:
It is important that you do what works for you. Everyone’s process is different. You want to follow the same ritual enough times so it signals your brain to kick from the left into right side thinking. And you need to consciously recognize what works for you and choose to consistently follow it. Otherwise, you can flounder around and the temptation to see what others are doing will be too great to resist. You want to come up with your own approach first. Then you can check out what everyone else is doing.
When creating anything more is better—more ideas, more sketches, more concepts, more samples, more interactions—make more. If a project calls for two designs, I like to come up with six. Always develop more—make variations on each design, look for options, and develop different points of view.
I am still inspired by a study I read long ago, about kids learning to throw pottery. One set of kids was told to spend their class time on one pot, making it as perfect as possible. The other set was asked to make as many pots as possible in the class time. Of course, the kids who made as many as possible during the class time improved more and ended up with more perfect pots that those who spent all day trying to perfect one pot.
I like to get the expected, corny, obvious ideas out as quickly as possible. Holding things inside because they are stupid stops the flow; get it on paper. When you think you don’t have any more ideas, take a 5-minute break and then go back to it and make some more. I try not to judge any of my ideas while in the creation phase. Make it first; evaluate it afterward.
My first boss taught me this. It is critically important that designers get out of our bubbles. If we are going to solve problems for other people, we need to understand other people. Get out of the office. Travel. Read. Volunteer. We need newness— new input, new visuals, new interactions, new friends, new vistas. Otherwise, we regurgitate the same perspective over and over again.
I remember when I came back to work after my first trip to Italy and designed a new typeface treatment for the masthead of a poster I was designing. My boss at the time said to me, “You would never have designed this if you hadn’t gone away. This is why it is so important to get out of here once in a while.” She was so right.
This is the first rule from Sister Corita Kent’s Rules for the Immaculate Heart College Art Department, which were popularized by John Cage. These hung above my desk at my first favorite job. If you don’t know them stop reading this and go here.
We each need to find the place and space that works for our creative process and when we find it, we need to stay long enough to grow. This is especially true for young designers. Where you work and who you work early on with will help form your approach to working as a designer. When you trust (not necessarily like) the people you work for, you will learn from them and gain confidence. If you do not trust the people you work for, get out.
This post is also available on Medium.
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