Nine Things I've Learned

I’ve been a professional graphic designer for fourteen years and for just under four of those a professional web designer. Like most designers I’ve learned a lot in my time, both from a design point of view and in business as freelance designer. A few of the things I’ve learned stick out in my mind, so I thought I’d share them with you. They’re pretty random and in no particular order.

1. Becoming the designer you want to be

When I started out as a young graphic designer, I wanted to design posters and record sleeves, pretty much like every other young graphic designer. The problem is that the reality of the world means that when you get your first job you’re designing the back of a paracetamol packet or something equally weird. I recently saw a tweet that went something like this: “You’ll never become the designer you always dreamt of being by doing the work you never wanted to do”. This is so true; to become the designer you want to be, you need to be designing the things you’re passionate about designing. This probably this means working in the evenings and weekends for little or no money, but it’s time well spent. Doing this will build up your portfolio with the work that really shows what you can do! Soon, someone will ask you to design something based on having seen this work. From this point, you’re carving your own path in the direction of becoming the designer you always wanted to be.

2. Compete on your own terms

As well as all being friends, we are also competitors. In order to win new work we need a selling point, preferably a unique selling point. Web design is a combination of design disciplines – user experience design, user interface Design, visual design, development, and so on. Some companies will sell themselves as UX specialists, which is fine, but everyone who designs a website from scratch does some sort of UX, so it’s not really a unique selling point. Of course, some people do it better than others.

One area of web design that clients have a strong opinion on, and will judge you by, is visual design. It’s an area in which it’s definitely possible to have a unique selling point. Designing the visual aesthetic for a website is a combination of logical decision making and a certain amount of personal style. If you can create a unique visual style to your work, it can become a selling point that’s unique to you.

3. How much to charge and staying motivated

When you’re a freelance designer one of the hardest things to do is put a price on your work and skills. Finding the right amount to charge is a fine balance between supplying value to your customer and also charging enough to stay motivated to do a great job. It’s always tempting to offer a low price to win work, but it’s often not the best approach: not just for yourself but for the client as well.

A client once asked me if I could reduce my fee by £1,000 and still be motivated enough to do a good job. In this case the answer was yes, but it was the question that resonated with me. I realized I could use this as a gauge to help me price projects. Before I send out a quote I now always ask myself the question “Is the amount I’ve quoted enough to make me feel motivated to do my best on this project?” I never send out a quote unless the answer is yes. In my mind there’s no point in doing any project half-heartedly, as every project is an opportunity to build your reputation and expand your portfolio to show potential clients what you can do. Offering a client a good price but not being prepared to put everything you have into it, isn’t value for money.

4. Supplying the right design

When I started out as a graphic designer it seemed to be the done thing to supply clients with a ton of options for their logo or brochure designs. In a talk given by Dan Rubin, he mentioned that this was a legacy of agencies competing with each other in a bid to create the illusion of offering more value for money. Over the years, I’ve realized that offering more than one solution makes no sense. The reason a client comes to you as a designer is because you’re the person than can get it right. If I were to supply three options, I’d be knowingly offering my client at least two options that I didn’t think worked.

To this day I still get asked how many homepage design options I’ll supply for the quoted amount. The answer is one. Of course, I’m more than happy to iterate upon the design to fine-tune it and, on the odd occasion, I do revisit a design concept if I just didn’t nail the design first time around. Your time is much better spent refining the right design option than rushing out three substandard designs in the same amount of time.

5. Colour is key

There are many contributing factors that go into making a good visual design, but one of the simplest ways to do this is through the use of colour. The colour palette used in a design can have such a profound effect on a visual design that it almost feels like you’re cheating. It’s easy to add more and more subtle shades of colour to add a sense of sophistication and complexity to a design, but it dilutes the overall visual impact. When I design, I almost have a rule that only allows me to use a very limited colour palette. I don’t always stick to it, but it’s always in mind and something I’m constantly reviewing through my design process.

6. Creative thinking is central to good or boundary-pushing web design

When we think of creativity in web design we often link this to the visual design, as there is an obvious opportunity to be creative in this area if the brief allows it. Something that I’ve learnt in my time as a web designer is that there’s a massive need for creative thinking in the more technical aspects of web design. The tools we use for building websites are there to be manipulated and used in creative ways to design exciting and engaging user experiences. Great developers are constantly using their creativity to push the boundaries of what can be done with CSS, jQuery and JavaScript.

Being creative and creative thinking are things we should embrace as an industry and they are qualities that can be found in anyone, whether they be a visual designer or Rails developer.

7. Creative block: don’t be afraid to get things wrong

Creative block can be a killer when designing. It’s often applied to visual design, which is more subjective. I suffer from creative block on a regular basis. It’s hugely frustrating and can screw up your schedule. Having thought about what creative block actually is, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually more of a lack of direction than a lack of ideas. You have ideas and solutions in mind but don’t feel committed to any of them. You’re scared that whatever direction you take, it’ll turn out to be wrong. I’ve found that the best remedy for this is to work through this barrier. It’s a bit like designing with a blindfold on – you don’t really know where you’re going. If you stick to your guns and keep pressing forward I find that, nine times out of ten, this process leads to a solution. As the page begins to fill, the direction you’re looking for slowly begins to take shape.

8. You get better at designing by designing

I often get emails asking me what books someone can read to help them become a better designer. There are a lot of good books on subjects like HTML5, CSS, responsive web design and the like, that will really help improve anyone’s web design skills. But, when it comes to visual design, the best way to get better is to design as much as possible. You can’t follow instructions for these things because design isn’t following instructions. A large part of web design is definitely applying a set of widely held conventions, but there’s another part to it that is invention and the only way to get better at this is to do it as much as possible.

9. Self-belief is overrated

Throughout our lives we’re told to have self-belief. Self-belief and confidence in what we do, whatever that may be. The problem is that some people find it easier than others to believe in themselves. I’ve spent years trying to convince myself to believe in what I do but have always found it difficult to have complete confidence in my design skills. Self-doubt always creeps in.

I’ve realized that it’s ok to doubt myself and I think it might even be a good thing! I’ve realized that it’s my self-doubt that propels me forward and makes me work harder to achieve the best results. The reason I’m sharing this is because I know I’m not the only designer that feels this way. You can spend a lot of time fighting self-doubt only to discover that it’s your body’s natural mechanism to help you do the best job possible.

About the author

Mike Kus is a web/graphic designer & illustrator. He’s based in UK and works for clients worldwide. You can see his work at mikekus.com.

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