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Design by Comfort

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.

Here’s a perfect example of design by comfort. From the looks of her site and her work, Esther is a very accomplished designer. However she doesn’t seem to have a proficiency in illustration.

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.

Volley

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.

Snowflake

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.

Comments

Jeff Croft said:

Wondeful post, Dan. As someone who is in the same boat as you (good with layout, type, contrast, and hierarchy -- not so good with color, decoration, illustration, etc.), this rings really true.

Athletes call it "playing within yourself." Great advice for designers, too.

Posted on December 9, 2007 02:51 PM

Tom Watson said:

Echoing Jeff's comment, great post. I'm currently working on a design and told myself to just go with what I like, what I know, what I'm good at and make that even better. I've been loving the results. It's not that I don't want to push myself and try new techniques but keeping that "core" style has been something I wish I'd have done a lot longer.

Writer's call it finding your "voice" and I guess it just took me a while to find mine.

Posted on December 9, 2007 03:42 PM

Dan Mall said:

Jeff and Tom: Thanks for the affirmation!

Posted on December 9, 2007 04:47 PM

Wilson Miner said:

My wife and I were just talking about this the other day. You said it right.

Posted on December 9, 2007 05:26 PM

Ephram Zerb said:

The graphic design heritage of web design informs the value system where illustration and decorative components are held in high regard. Thankfully, with web design being an amalgamation of various disciplines, one can also refer to the sensibilities of HCI, information design, typography and architecture which dictate an approach closer to the strengths you describe.

Great post.

Posted on December 10, 2007 01:38 AM

Tim Van Damme said:

As someone who'll be going freelance in the next couple of months, this post really is an eye-opener!

Thanks Dan for this superb piece of advice!!

Posted on December 10, 2007 03:36 AM

Ken Seals said:

Perfect timing. I needed that. Thanks.

Posted on December 10, 2007 10:00 AM

Garrett Dimon said:

I've definitely found myself doing this recently both with the redesign of my personal site as well as the issue tracker. It's been the most enabling realization I've ever had.

Posted on December 10, 2007 10:08 AM

Lea said:

Awesome post, Dan. This is definitely something people should always keep in mind and strive to do. Classic specialization... Better to be great at some, than mediocre in all. Good is the enemy of great. :)

Posted on December 10, 2007 10:24 AM

Keith said:

Great post, with a message I generally agree with. I was very happy you added that bit at the end though, the bit about not discounting the ability to be original.

I think there is an important message there. I think playing to your strengths is a good idea, however, it's also good to get *out of your comfort zone* from time to time so that you can expand on those strengths. Even if you fail miserably, you'll be reflecting back on what you know and over time I think you'll grow as a designer.

You need to pick your spots, certainly, but under the right circumstances I know I push myself and my designers towards taking some risks and trying something new as I think only good things can come of that.

Posted on December 10, 2007 11:26 AM

Joshua Lane said:

I've been doing this for the past couple years (found my "voice" towards the end of our PW days). Getting comfortable with what I'm good at and what I like doing made the design process much easier for me. Who doesn't love a nice white border/frame around their website!?

And I echo Keith's point about stepping outside your comfort zone every once in a while. I did that a bit at Urban Outfitters and I definitely think it's made me a better designer. It didn't affect my style much, but it did improve my grasp on typography... which is, honestly, not one of my strengths.

Posted on December 10, 2007 01:39 PM

Kevin said:

Very nice post Dan. The real gem is at the end: Play to your strengths but don't forget to work on your weaknesses.

Posted on December 10, 2007 01:44 PM

Rob Goodlatte said:

Reminds me of Paul Rand — "Don't try to be original. Try to be good".

For client work, I always play to my strengths. Design is about solving problems, and if you've got a specialized way of solving design problems there's no reason to produce poor work for the sake of branching out.

That said, I try to move outside my comfort zone on personal projects whenever possible. Trying something and failing miserably at it is the best way to learn.

Posted on December 10, 2007 01:48 PM

Sean S said:

Late to the party, but I'm glad I came. Great thoughts, Dan. I might print this out and keep it in my sketch-/idea-book.

Posted on December 11, 2007 05:33 PM

Jermayn Parker said:

Yeah love the message of excelling in your own limitations, thanks for the insight and inspiration!

Posted on December 13, 2007 01:36 AM

Dan Mall said:

Thanks for the great feedback, everyone!

Keith:

Even if you fail miserably, you'll be reflecting back on what you know and over time I think you'll grow as a designer.

Great point! Self-awareness is a dangerous and glorious thing.

Rob:

Design is about solving problems, and if you've got a specialized way of solving design problems there's no reason to produce poor work for the sake of branching out.

Couldn't have said it better myself!

Posted on December 13, 2007 09:16 AM

Oliver said:

I think you put it perfectly :)

Posted on December 15, 2007 02:19 PM

Jason Armstrong said:

Thanks for the post. I'm a newbie and the encouragement helps!

Have a great '08!

Posted on January 2, 2008 11:09 PM

zeldman said:

Great post, Dan. Some of the greatest art of the last century was created by people who learned to love their limitations.

Posted on January 10, 2008 10:26 AM

Josiah said:

This is brilliant.

You've inspired me to stop trying to create something new and jaw-dropping, and instead try to take the design I love somewhere new.

Heck, maybe even somewhere old.

Great post.

Posted on January 14, 2008 04:34 PM

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