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A Headful of Design

I’ve been a professional creative for quite a while now, a print specialist and concept guy, mainly working on business-to-business communications but with a fair amount of consumer-facing stuff along the way too. I was lucky enough to be trained by some amazing, award-winning creative folks who were also very harsh critics – an experience that can make anyone run home crying, but one that taught me some essential lessons.

The Beginning

Around 2007 small design and ad agencies started to feel the pinch of the UK recession; clients were spending less, and as a result I was made redundant from an agency of 13 years. I decided to freelance, which really opened my eyes to a more collaborative way of working with clients – cut out the account manager and work directly with the customer. This felt awesome, I was my own boss at last and I said goodbye to the often aggressive and stressful nature of the ad agency.

I was approached by ThoughtWorks for a couple of projects and soon realised that maybe there’s a place to be a creative designer and contribute to something bigger rather than selling another car or convincing someone to spend money they don’t have. The culture at ThoughtWorks is very different to my experiences of design agencies. My past was full of hierarchy, individual gain, 17 hour days, competition, secrets, and lies. Creative agency life can be tough. Not all agencies are like this, but a lot of them are.

The more hands-on, collaborative style of work I discovered in a freelance capacity is exactly the way ThoughtWorks solves problems for its clients. I started to share my designs often, share it all, even the embarrassing stuff, fail a lot and move on. This way of designing was liberating, it was more efficient and a lot more fun because you can ditch the rubbish and move on without feeling any shame. This is how a traditional agency creative department works, the difference is in an agency you share internally, not to the client. Most creative people get bored easily and only want to work on ‘the new stuff’ so a ‘fail fast and move on’ approach works well for creative people.

Constantly Designing

Most of us work a set amount of hours; creative types find it hard to switch off.

Design is everywhere, you can’t escape it. All designers see concepts and layouts everywhere. Recently the windows on a skyscraper gave me an unusual type grid for a brochure and spotting some cool earrings in a store was just the right inspiration for a logo. I had a nice pint of ale recently that was just the perfect orange colour for a job. Keeping our eyes open for all kinds of inspiration makes us more efficient designers. What we see builds a mental sketchbook of sorts to pull on when the next brief comes in.

Constantly designing in your head can really help when time is not on your side. All designers face the “urgent” prefix in the subject of a mail occasionally, and those urgent jobs need the same quality output as the non-urgent ones. Instead of feeling robbed of your creative time, draw on that cool thing you saw the other day, it might just dig you out of that hole.

Another great way to deal with a short deadline is to break down the job into its simplest form. Would this work as a purely typographic design? If so, we can concentrate on just the words, and forget the additional need to search for, or commission photography.

By contrast, too much time can be a great way to kill a great design or concept. If we spend enough time thinking about anything we always find fault in it, there comes a point when you have to stop thinking about it and just do it, or scrap it. The same can be said for over designing – constantly tweaking something can often end up in breaking it. This is the time to stop being the designer and put your art director hat on.

Designer or Art Director?

I was asked this 20 years ago, I had no idea how to answer the question, I didn’t even know what the difference was. It was explained to me like this: a designer may push a bit of Helvetica around the page for an hour trying to decide on the best place for it. The art director puts it at the top, and moves on to the next challenge. Make a decision, not another problem for yourself. Good advice and something I remind myself of every day.

An Idea for Everything

Designing something to simply look good is a part of what a designer does. If you’re obsessed with ideas, you’re probably more of an Art Director than you realize. Being a great creative isn’t all about a technical understanding of Creative Cloud software or doing exactly what a ‘Graphic Design Trends for 2015’ blog tells you. Being a creative of any kind is more about thinking. Everything we create must have an idea, or have a reason to exist. When a design has an idea it has a story, we can talk about it, get to know it, love it and we can sell it.

Hate Your Own Work

I try and hate everything I do – at least for a while. When you work remotely, and within a distributed team, it can be very easy to be excited about your work, and feel proud of your achievements during your creative process because there isn’t anyone near you to question your decisions. Learning to hate your own stuff is a great way to see it from a more objective viewpoint.

I constantly ask myself, “why is this no good?” “If someone else did this, how would I rip it apart?” More often than not, this leads to trashing the whole lot and starting from scratch, The point is, don’t be too precious about your design work, you’re a commercial artist, not a fine artist.

Finding the guts to hate your own work is very important. Try “the overnight test”. Upon reaching a point where you think something is decent, close it and don’t look at it again until the next day. Leaving it alone for a while instantly highlights the problems, it might be something small like the logo being too big or something far more important that you missed in your excitement like not including a call-to-action, or contact details on an advert. This is particularly important when designing for print. Designing for a digital space allows us to update it/tweak some code or release a new version. It’s pretty hard, and expensive to change something after you’ve printed 20,000 copies.

The following example highlights a lack of design understanding and also some suggestions of how we may (quickly) improve the situation

Designed at speed, possibly in an office application.

The 'Before' Design

Essentially the same design, but with more consideration.

The 'After' Design
  • Use image editing software to enhance the photograph, boosting overall flat colour appearance
  • ​​Flip the image to give a more natural reading direction (left to right)
  • Use a more legible typeface
  • Use ONE typeface and explore different fonts
  • Use the appropriate logo for a coloured background
  • Give the individual elements on the page a little room to breathe

Constraints Make Us Think

Having constraints makes us think harder and smarter to solve the brief.

For example: how do we create a household paint advert promoting a colour range when we have only a black and white newspaper to advertise in? Advertising colours in a black and white space might seem crazy, but when you nail it, it makes you love the constraints.

When Not Caring Comes Back to Bite You

Writing out 10 words in any font can be more complex than just typing it out in some popular word processing app. If you want it to look good, be easily read and to appear to be something worth reading we need to consider kerning, tracking and leading to transform the ordinary into the beautiful. We’re all attracted by how something looks before we decide whether or not to investigate further. Bad kerning (spaces between letters) is a big problem. It’s one of the reasons we should care about design. If you don't bother, it can lead to catastrophic results. A quick image search for ‘Bad Kerning’ will provide some alarming typographic nightmares. 

Looking at design and advertising pre-computer reveals more of a craft, a specialist skill, creating something beautiful to be proud of. Post-computer design saw the arrival of anybody “having a go”. Comedy typefaces used for text, choosing to only use the eight colours offered as a default set and the misuse of clip-art. I guess I’m referring to a popular suite of office applications that gave anyone the ability to design something. The sad outcome of that is how a certain presentation tool designed to replace the OHP became a tool for the untrained to try and design things and avoid the costs of hiring a professional and making themselves look like an amateur in the process. First impressions count.

Our visual world is important. Not all designers have had the luxury of traditional design education. So when you have the more traditional skills, try and pass those on. With any luck your work won’t be the subject of hilarious typography blogs.