When I first started learning how to design, I often compared my work to that of those I admired, and justly felt lacking about my own skills. I frequently asked myself, “Why doesn’t my work look that good?” Even now, as the title of designer graces my business card, this inferiority complex hasn’t completely dissipated, but I have found a few tricks to quell it.
The most successful one? Design by comfort.
What does that mean? It means that you have to be realistic about what you can and can’t do. There are some things that you are going to be better at, things that you’ll have a natural affinity towards. And that’s great. It is in this fruitful imbalance that your work can accentuate itself.
Don’t be afraid to use what you know. In fact, overuse what you know. Recycle solutions that have worked for you. Wheels come in many shapes, colors, and sizes, but all of them, at a fundamental level, are still wheels. There’s no need to reinv… well, you already know where I was going with that.
I’m not a terribly decorative designer. I profess (potentially falsely) to understand the value and appropriateness of contrast. I find designing with color extremely difficult, which is why I tend to gravitate towards black and white designs with one accent color, or monochromatic designs. By understanding all of these things about myself, I can start to develop an aesthetic that works as my own.
The Wrap Scene
Every year, the New York chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design, holds a holiday party. They commission a handful of talented individuals to create wrapping paper. For this year’s party, another outstanding set has been created, but one in particular caught my eye. Have a look at the one by Esther Mun.
Had I been commissioned to create wrapping paper, the thought of illustrating would have been my first instinct. Esther, however, takes a different approach. By combining a common task associated with gift-giving—addressing—she has created a beautiful piece of wrapping paper, as functional as it is beautiful.
The first of this year’s Layer Tennis holders another great example. This match pit Kevin Cornell against Shaun Inman, two of my good friends and great designers. Being an illustrator, Kevin started the match with a brilliant watercolor.
How did Shaun answer this strong serve? With his own strength.
Reading Shaun's subsequent write-up of the match, he says:
I am still primarily an interface designer. Rather than ignore that fact I embraced it with my return volley… [I] stuck to what I knew. Tabs. Rounded corners. Login forms. Oh my.
While it’s important to absorb and admire the work of others, don’t discount your own ability to be original. Challenge yourself to learn new things, but embrace what you already know.
The moral of the story? Play your strengths.