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6 Things that Designers Can Learn from the Olympics

posted by Matt Ward on Feb 16, 2010.

Well, the Olympic games are now in full swing in Vancouver. I’ve been watching, and thinking about some of the parallels between the Games and my work as a designer. In this post, we will look at six areas that I think designers can actually learn from the Olympians.

I am hugely proud to be Canadian, and am thrilled with what I have seen the Olympic games these past few days. I was also completely stoked to see Alexandre Bilodeau win the first ever gold medal on Canadian soil. What a moment for this country!

Anyhow, as I have been watching these Games, I’ve also been thinking about some of the things that designers might actually be to learn from the Olympians themselves. In this article, we are going to look at six things that I think that we can take away from these games and apply to our own work and methodologies.

6 Things that Designers Can Learn from the Olympics

6 Things that Designers Can Learn from the Olympics

Work Your Butt Off

I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that every single athlete in these games has worked their butts off for years to make it to the Olympics. They train and practice, then train and practice all over again, working to hone their bodies and perfect their skills in a given discipline. I can’t even imagine the physical strain that many of those athletes put on their bodies, especially some of the skiers, who literally put their lives on the line every time they stand at the top of the hill.

As designers, I think that we can learn a lot from this. I’ve talked before about how important I believe it is to be practicing as designers, and how we all need to be pushing forwards and constantly learning. I think that the moment you stop learning you also stop growing. This can leave you work prone to becoming stagnant and boring, which is something that no designer really wants.

To prevent this from happening, focus on being the best that you can possibly be, and on being better than you are now. Fortunately for us all, designers also have one key advantage over Olympic athletes – that being that the fact that we are less impacted by our aging bodies. Most of the athletes are in their 20s to mid 30s. As designers, though, we can continue to learn and improve far beyond those years, which are often more formulative than prime (says he who is 28)! So never stop pushing and learning, stretching for your own designer gold!

Hockey players train hard to build up their speed and endurance

Hockey players train hard to build up their speed and endurance

Feedback is Important

Pretty much every athlete in Vancouver is also accompanied by a coach. These coaches help them train, and teach them to excel at their individual disciplines. They encourage them, push them, and probably sometimes even chastise them when not giving a full 100% effort. Ultimately, these coaches are a pivotal part off all they Olympic dreams and help them live up their fullest potential.

We can all use a bit of encouragement from time to time right? More importantly, though, we can also use a bit of criticism. An Olympian’s coach will let them know if there is a problem with their form or technique. The athlete can then make adjustments to correct the problem. As designers, we could use this same kind of attention! Is there some minor flaw in a design that we are just not seeing due to hours and hours of working on it? Is there an issue that is constantly repeating through a number of our different designs?

So am I suggesting that all designers should have coaches looking over their shoulders as they craft their works? No – that just doesn’t strike me as all that practical. What you can do is to build up a support network of peers and associates who you can trust to offer you both encouragement and meaningful, constructive criticism that will help you grow and become a better practitioner of your craft.

Foster Goodwill

For those looking to build this kind of a support network, the next thing that we can learn from the Olympics will also help. The Games are all about goodwill between the nations of the world, through healthy competition and sportsmanship. Obviously, there are a few grouches, but for the most part, I am constantly amazed by the friendly camaraderie that I see between the athletes.

I think that the design community is already very similar. When I first started doing freelance work and development of this blog, I was amazed at how willing many of the established designers and bloggers were willing to support me. Sometimes, I am still amazed. This support has certainly helped me to develop and become a stronger designer.

So, I think that as a community, we can certainly learn from the goodwill and sportsmanship that we see in the Olympic games! Actually, I think that the community does a really great job of this already, but it never hurts to remind ourselves of the benefits of supporting each other.

There is a ton of sportsmanship and goodwill in the snowboarding events

There is a ton of sportsmanship and goodwill in the snowboarding events

Value the Experience

The Olympic athletes obviously all have lofty dreams, but many of them also have to be realistic. Many of them stand virtually no chance of making the podium. With many of these athletes, what we hear over and over again is that these Games are a great learning experience for some of these lower ranked competitors, a chance for them to stretch their proverbial legs on the world stage. Many of them are extremely young and just breaking onto the world stage, and some of them will also be the stars of the future.

We can think about design in a similar fashion. Now, I’m not talking about those clients who want you to invest hundreds of hours of work into some (ridiculous) project, all on the promise that it will be good experience. In fact, I would strongly advise against those kinds of projects. Unless you specifically decide to work pro bono for a worthy cause or organization, you should always be compensated for your efforts.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some projects that aren’t good experience-gaining jobs. For instance, designing the logo and signage for Uncle Vinnie’s Local Pizzeria (or something similar) may be the most glamorous project. It probably won’t win you too many awards. That doesn’t mean, however, that it cannot prove to be a valuable experience. You may learn something about client relations, or about designing for print. It may afford you the opportunity to strengthen your skills in a particular area of design, or with a certain style.

Moreover, the experience could be enough to gain you another project with a higher profile client. So, try to avoid turning away work just because it may not seem like the most glamorous job, or because it might not net you an award. Instead, try to look at every single project as an opportunity to grow.

All The Small Things

Let’s face it – that guy who flew down the alpine skiing course with the worst time of all the contestants could probably mop the floor with you or I when it comes to their sport. The slowest Olympic speed skater could probably get around the entire track before I really got off the starting line (assuming, of course, that I ever did get off the finish line). In many of the Olympic sports, the distance between first place and last can be surprisingly minuscule, which means that it is really the small things that separate a champion from the rest of the competitors.

The same premise can be said to apply in design. All good designers will generally understand the basic rules of their craft, drawing circles around the many amateurs that download a pirated copy of Photoshop and think they can just start making websites (though we all had to start somewhere). It is, however, the small things that separate the proficient from the masters.

A truly great design rarely achieves its status because of basic structure. Rather, it’s the little things that allow it to transcend to greatness. Just like one one hundredth of a second can be the difference between a medal and nothing at all, those tiny, carefully crafted details can make all of the difference in a design.

The slowest skier on the hill is probably twice as fast as you

The slowest skier on the hill is probably twice as fast as you

Cheating Sucks

As wonderful as the Olympic games really are, there does always seem to be some sort of doping scandal. For Canadians, the most memorable has to be the Ben Johnson scandal of 1988, when the sprinter captured the gold medal, only to have it stripped away when he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.

All comments on the IOC’s drug policies aside, I think that most of us will be in agreement that cheating sucks. It sucks in sports and it sucks in design. But can you really cheat in design? Absolutely! It happens whenever someone steals a layout, pirates software, or grabs a design element and uses it without proper attribution. All of these actions are morally (and legally) wrong, and should be avoided entirely!

It’s just like athletes who use steroids and other drugs to help improve their performance and win their competition (quite unethically). They might get away with it the first time, or even the second, but eventually they are going to get caught. And when they do, the consequences are going to be far, far worse than simply not winning a competition.

So, though I’m sure I don’t have to stress this for my readers, be legit. Don’t cheat in design.

A Sobering Conclusion

Well, there you have it – six different things that designers can learn and take away from the Olympic games. I hope you enjoyed reading them!

I would, however, like to leave you with one final, and somewhat sobering thought. This year, the games have been somewhat overshadowed by the terrible tragedy that was the sudden death of Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. I don’t want to get into a discussion about the safety of the sport or the track. Rather, I simply want to underscore the way that his life was so suddenly, so abruptly ended. We never know how much time we have left. Hopefully, it’s a long time, but we should always avoid living as though tomorrow is a guarantee, because it isn’t.

So, I guess that this can be the seventh lesson that we can take from these Olympic games, sobering though it may be.

What about you guys? Have you had any revelations in watching the Games, or learned something that will have an impact on the way you design and/or approach your career? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this one!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Feb 16, 2010

Jon Phillips says:

What a great article! (not saying that cause I’m Canadian too hehe)

I especially liked the ‘Foster Goodwill’ part of your post. It’s so true! Most people in the design community, even though it’s a pretty big community, seem to always be there to help and land a hand. And that’s priceless imo.

Feb 16, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks Jon! It’s so true. The design community has been (and continues to be) really great to me. And I totally include you in that too, and working with SpyreStudios! It’s been a blast!

Oh and Go Canada! :)

Feb 17, 2010

Josh says:

Great article. It puts things in perspective on how we as designers can learn from the big social ceremonial events like the Olympic Games.

The social values inherited through design is just as important as design itself.

Thanks for the enjoyable read.

Feb 17, 2010

Lam Nguyen says:

What a great article, Matt! I love your “you stop learning you also stop growing”. Yeah, you are totally right!

Feb 17, 2010

Robert Anthony says:

Good post, while I am not much into sports, you made a good connection with the olympics and design.

Feb 17, 2010

Hein Maas says:

Great read, all points are so true.

Never thought about it this way. Thanks Matt

Feb 17, 2010

Callum Chapman says:

I’ll visit Canada one day, along with the rest of the world! :)

Great article, Matt. I love how you come up with your ideas, it’s truly inspirational! Keep up the brilliant work, and I’m glad to see featuring you on SixRevisions has helped your subscriber count a little ;)

Feb 17, 2010

Michal Kozak says:

Great article.

You’ve got some really good points. Especially I agree with “Feedback Is Important”.

Encouragement is pretty important to me – and a value it a lot. My encouragement comes from my fiancée and I couldn’t have better support.

I couldn’t get where I am without here, too.

Feb 17, 2010

Chris Thurman says:

I’ve definitely been grateful for feedback from my “web coaches” and I would include you in that Matt. Great post but Go America! :)

Feb 17, 2010

Shurandy Thode says:

Great read Matt. You always come up with bright ideas. I love it keep up the good work.

Feb 17, 2010

Liam McCabe says:

Nice Matt, an image kept reappearing in my mind of working on a design whilst having a coach shouting insults at little elements. Wow that would be hell :P

Some great similarities found, thanks for giving me some perspecitve on design/freelancing. :)

Feb 17, 2010

Jon says:

Great post Matt.

I’m working with Canada CODE, an online public art project that is part of the Cultural Olympiad and the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

I would recommend that anyone interested in the interplay between design and the Olympic Games take a look at what we have underway at http://www.virtualstadium2010.com

Feb 17, 2010

fred w says:

I am amazed you would write and article like this.

If a person who is a designer needs an article like this to inspire them then they should not be a designer..

Here is some lessons humanity can learn from the Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler:

1. Clean up your streets – East Hastings in Vancouver.
2. Do not lock down and entire region and expect people to hide for 3 weeks in their towns (oh yeah i live in the area this happening).

I cannot believe I wasted time reading this.

Feb 17, 2010

Alan Takushi says:

Great article and love the tie-in with the Olympics. Definitely put the “little things” in perspective when it comes to what separates the top dogs. I forget that the last place competitor is probably only separated from 1st by seconds… a great analogy when it comes to what separates the best designs from the rest.

Feb 18, 2010

Martin rivard says:

Another thing designers learned from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics:

Neo Sans Medium is a very nice, modern, cool font.

Feb 19, 2010

Ted Rex says:

Great post. I had a feeling those athletes had some kind of discipline!

I made this one of my three links on my Design Thought for the Day:

All the best, Ted

And thanks for hosting the Games, Canada

Feb 19, 2010

Benjamin Rama says:

great post – very creative I see you like sci fi – have you read The Lathe Of heaven ?

Feb 19, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks for the comment! No I have not read The Lathe of Heaven. I’ve never even heard of it actually. Who writes it?

Feb 20, 2010

Kevin Kelly says:

Very interesting blogpost. I have to admit that these are very good points that need to be resonated to designers/developers of all levels.

Feb 21, 2010

Anna says:

Wow! Very insightful #not

Feb 21, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks. Seriously.

Feb 22, 2010

Bret Bouchard says:

It’s really true. The olympics is one thing that stands out world wide as the high point for a large number of “careers”. I don’t know why this paralell wasn’t obvious before.

Mar 4, 2010

Prepmium Flash Templates says:

Oh this is awesome collections. I liked your Olympic pic very much.

Mar 8, 2010

Jason says:

Great post and so true.

It’s a great comparison to make especially to those starting out in the design industry.

Thanks for this!

Mar 8, 2010

Web Design Maidstone says:

Nice analogy!

Sep 1, 2010

Renate Solle says:

I had to read your post twice to get the full impact of it. I enjoy reading what you have to say. It’s too bad that more people do not understand the benefits of coaching. Keep up the good work.

Sep 9, 2012

Steve says:

Matt this is a superb post!

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