Let’s go ahead and get this out there—everything you’re about to read makes me cringe. Not like in a shoulder-shrugging, bottom-teeth-exposing cringe. Like in a full-on gag-reflex-inducing, eyes rolling out of the back of my head, onto the floor and across the room, head retracting into the space between my collar bones, deep into my chest cavity, turtle-style cringe. I. Hate. These. Quotes. But I have to admit, they actually translate into something refreshing and entirely true when I look at them through the lens of design. And I hate to admit it, but I often do. So here’s the horrible Top 5 countdown of the worst “life quotes” in the world and how they honestly and frequently help me be a better designer.
5. “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn.”
Oh, yuck. I hate this one. And I hate not winning. Most people hate it. But unfortunately, it’s the reality of life, especially for a commercial designer. It’s inconveniently inevitable that not every design you create throughout your entire career is going to be your best work. Some work isn’t going to make the client happy. And some work isn’t going to make you, the designer, very happy either. And that’s okay. The creative process is a lot like the scientific method—it’s built on ideas, experimentation, and learning from mistakes. And trying, trying again.
Sometimes, we don’t get the perfect solution to a design-oriented problem before the deadline smacks us in the face. Sometimes, the design process demands us to be something different than the deliverer of the perfect design—it demands that we, instead, deliver our best effort without the level of perfection and portfolio-readiness we always hope we’ll achieve. Times like these demand that we have the confidence in ourselves to continue to push the work as far as possible (whether on an extended client timeline or on our own, precious time) and remain calm and confident enough to present our best effort as our best work, even if sometimes, we know it’s not.
4. “Keep calm and carry on.”
Vomit. Seeing this one in ubiquity makes me physically angry. However, that’s not to say it’s not good advice, especially for a commercial designer. As a commercial designer, particularly one in an agency, there’s plenty to not “keep calm” about. Timelines, budgets, unsuccessful collaboration, the imminent danger of having your work relentlessly critique – those are enough to make you panic.
But before you start to panic, STOP. There’s no need. Freaking out won’t help anything. Sure, plenty of expectations are being placed on you. But that’s because you’re good at this. I would dare say, as the designer chosen for such a daunting task, you must be the best at this. In that, you should be bold, confident, and reassured that no matter how stressful the ask, you will pull through.
The best way to pull through is to simply keep going. When you think there isn’t an answer, keep looking for a solution. When you think you’re burned out, keep trying. When there’s nothing left in the tank, floor it. Keep calm, never, ever doubt yourself, and carry on towards the finish line. You will make it. You will pull through. And you will finish strong.
3. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Gross. Overused, often misused, and a sports analogy? Not a great combo. However, this is great advice for designers. It’s easy to feel boxed in by a brief, a timeline, or even the perception of your own technical limitations. But if your project timeline allows (and sometimes even if it doesn’t), try something new. Something crazy. Change up your process, deviate from the assumed medium or visual style, or just dare yourself to be better than you’ve ever been. You just wow yourself and your client. Try. Shoot. (Insert other sports verb.)
2. “Everything happens for a reason.”
When this phrase isn’t being insensitively applied to people in vulnerable moments who would probably rather hear anything other than that, it’s a great way to think about your creative process. Ever wonder what happens to all those unused thumbnails, discarded sketches, saved-over artboards, invisible layers, and deleted files that are sacrificed to the almighty final concept? Well, I’ll tell you.
Nothing. Nothing happens to them. They rest peacefully at the base of the mountain you’ve just risen from the ground with your own hands. Everything—every coffee ring, eraser smudge, and crossed out idea—is an integral part of the process. All ideas, used or unused, bring you to your best solution. And the solution after that. And the solution after that. (Another yucky idiom that comes to mind is, “There are no bad ideas.” Which in the creative process is true and totally untrue in pretty much any other situation.)
1. “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
Woof. But perhaps the truest of any of these idioms thus far. This is the one (personally and professionally) I have to most frequently re-acquaint myself with.
Client-based design work is the output of a totally collaborative relationship. The designer tasked with the client brief often immediately gets a specific mental image in mind, and the client working with the designer also has a specific mental image in mind. The two are very seldom the same. Sometimes, the two aren’t even comparable.
It’s in this phase of the design process, that the true, hard work begins for you, the designer. In order to successfully work with clients or in the agency model, you must be humble enough to meet the client halfway, even if the halfway point is positioned staunchly outside your comfort zone. That is to say, not every project will please the client and designer equally. And because of that, it is the designer’s responsibility to value the design process over the final design and the work done over the work delivered.
If the work isn’t portfolio ready, you can still be proud of the immense amount of work you’ve done, valuing the integrity of your work over the flimsy aesthetic of it. Your client work is representative of your greatest abilities—to collaborate, compromise, push, and eventually surrender your own personal ideas, expectations, and artistic expression (which is never easy work). In overcoming this discomfort, being willingly collaborative, and having the grit to persevere and deliver your best work, you’ve embarked on a difficult but rewarding journey that you must value despite the final output. It may not be your greatest work but it shouldn’t be. You are your best work. And you must always be an improving work-in-progress.