Practical Advice for the Confused Designer

Design is pleasurable

No, it’s not ok to follow a set of guidelines—iOS or Material Design—and call it a day. Your product has to be usable, right. But does it have to be generic? Give your design character. A well crafted piece of design tells a story and creates empathy. Don’t lay your elements there flat and bland.

Advice: Find your own tone. UX designers: muscle-up your visual skills. Aesthetics is user experience.

Have fun. Restrict yourself

Starting a design from scratch is not easy. Neither is working under constraints imposed by the client. The former is intimidating; too many paths, too much to choose from. The latter is frustrating, juggling with styleguides and pre-selected assets. Things would be more fun if you could play by your own rules.

Advice: Set your own constraints: “I won’t use circles”. “I’ll only use 2 colors”. “ I’ll only use one typeface”. Keep it for yourself. Your client doesn’t have to know. You will push yourself out of your comfort zone, and have to be creative to solve your designs. Constraints will make you more creative.

It’s not because you can, that you should

Beware of trends. Does the icon menu have to be that icon? Do your layouts have to use transparency? What about those long shadows of yesteryear? Trends are trends. They will be gone tomorrow. Using them is condemning your designs to obsolescence. Visual design relies on 3 rules, and 3 rules only: typography, visuals, and composition. It takes a lifetime to get them right.

Advice: Get your macro-design right. Then put emphasis on details. Have a quiet authority, don’t try to be the center of attention. Whisper, don’t shout.

Stay in the Groove

This advice is for the young designers as well as the old timers: practice every day. Not only the theory, but the craft. Reading books and curating a design board won’t be enough. One does not become a skilled designer by collecting books.

It’s far too easy for a senior designer to step into a career of morning reviews, lunches with the CEO, and afternoon meetings. The problem, as you’re drifting off, is that you’re losing sight of your craft.

Advice: this is not football, retirement is not at 30. Stay afloat, practice daily.

Ditch rejection, keep the praise

Ten years ago, I released my first major work. The piece provoked unexpected criticism and resistance during the first week. Until it eventually found its public, went big and got awarded. Since then, whenever I encounter resistance, it rings a bell. I might be into something.

Advice: Take criticism with a grain of salt. Better yet, pick your critic. It’s not about what everybody thinks of your work, but what the right person thinks of it.

Tip: keep a log-file of the encouraging feedbacks. The ones you feel are sincere. Read them on bad days, when you need to remember that somebody, somewhere, wants you to keep going.

Words matter

“My work speaks for itself”. No it doesn’t! Your work is the outcome of iterations, trials and errors, and fits in a context that must be explained. Tell the story to your Creative Director or to your client. Introduce the protagonists, the stage, the plot. Make it lively. Don’t throw the meat to the dog and move away.

Advice: Get prepared to defend against punches. If you are in an agency, request to attend the client meetings or pitch presentations. Watch the client formulate every possible questions that you would never think of. Learn how to reassure them. No, the logo “doesn’t have to be bigger” to be seen, and you gotta be able to explain why. Your client can understand. You will be surprised how thin is the line between rejection and approval.

Money matters

I’ve heard too many independents and small studios lamenting about clients that pay late. Clients that ask for non-specific work. Clients that try to reduce the costs mid-project. This is serious stuff. This can kill your activity. Late payments are the number one reason for freelancers to quit.

Advice: It’s your responsibility to set tight contracts, and get your down-payments. Be tough. No contract, no design.

To the employees, you must wonder, why talking about money? I get my salary every month, no matter what. Still. Be aware of the impact money has on your designs. Go get some freelance gigs. Understand how a business works. The strategic decisions, the compromises. Better money understanding means better client understanding, better validations, better work.

Get in, get out

Anyone answering design requests on a Sunday night? Stop, right now. It’s your client? Do not answer, resume on Monday morning. It’s your boss? Ask yourself if you’re in the right company. You need to rest. You need your off-time. Nobody wants to work with a team of zombie designers.

Similarly, all-night work sessions have no rational reason to exist. It’s either a misevaluated time, or bad client management. It has no added value; if you are given one hour and one hour only, it’s amazing how much you can get stuff done. But if your company starts to buy the pizzas and plan to stay the whole night, you will likely take the whole night to get the work done.

Advice: turn off emails and chat notifications during your off-work. For the most courageous: remove your email client from your phone. You will be surprised how much less noise leads to better design.

From the UI/UX Conferences in Shanghai.