posted by Matt Ward on Jul 12, 2010.
Am I really any good? It’s a question that I think many designers come up against at least once in their careers – and probably more often than that. In this article, I want to consider this by looking at the design community, my own experience and ultimately proposing a means for getting past this difficult question.
The design community is a wonderful thing. I really mean it. Despite the fact that some aspects of it can occasionally seem a little repetitive with the reams and reams of pointless lists that I have seen over and over again, the community endures. Despite the fact that there are literally hundreds, and probably even thousands of sites and blogs screaming out for our attention, most of us still manage to forge relationships.
Personally, I know that I am very grateful for all of the relationships that I have established and seen grow since I really became a part of the community. Some have taught me. Others have inspired me. A few have even displayed a certain keenness for challenging me and calling me out (you know who you are). A small handful have even become my personal friends.
Yet, like so many great things in life, the community can be something of a double edged sword – though not necessarily in a conscious or deliberate way. As much as it can help, there are days where, at least for me, it can also be a painful and uncomfortable place.
That’s what this article is about.
I’m sure that I really don’t need to say this, but the internet’s a big place – I mean it’s really big. Billions of people can come together and share information in a nearly instantaneous fashion. It takes the idea of community far beyond anything it could ever have been conceived to mean even twenty years ago. Granted, the design community is but a microcosm within the larger population of the information superhighway, but even that relatively small fraction of that population still ends up being a pretty significant number of people.
Today, I took a venture out to Smashing Magazine to look at their numbers: 207,622 subscribed readers and an even higher number of followers on Twitter! Obviously, we can’t assume that these numbers in any way reflect the fullness of the community, but I think they do help demonstrate that we’re not just talking about a few hundred people here.
The community is big, and in many ways that very size is part of the source of my discomfort.
A Big Measuring Stick
So the community is big. Why does that matter? For me, it matters because, the bigger the community, the more people we have to compare ourselves to. And make no mistake about it: we do compare. Even the most detached, non-judgmental designers out there are secretly (perhaps even unwittingly) comparing their own abilities against the abilities of those with whom they interact.
It’s just human nature.
And thus do we reveal the secondary edge of the design community – the one on which we can occasionally cut our own precious egos. For, not only is it a large community; it’s also an accessible one. In some form or another, I see the work of my peers almost every single day. Some days (when I find myself being somewhat less productive), I actually find myself seeing more of their work than I do of my own.
The result of this is, of course, entirely predictable: I start to compare and weigh myself against them. Sometimes, it’s not such a big deal. Sometimes I see work that I feel is on par with my own. At the risk of sounding a bit arrogant, I confess that sometimes, I even see work that makes me think that I could do better.
But, then there are those other times, when I come face to face with work that is painfully better than my own. I may marvel at the layout, be struck by the colour choice, be transfixed by the typography or sometimes just stare in ultimate amazement at some simple yet perfectly executed element that pulls an entire design together (but which I know I would never have conceived of myself). I feel a knot in my stomach, and find myself thinking:
“Man, I suck at this design thing!”
A Certain Lack
To make things worse, I don’t really have anything formal to fall back on. As some readers might already be aware, my post-secondary education was not in the field of design. It was in English Literature. While others were studying grids, reading about typography, and learning the finer points of kerning, I was dissecting Shakespeare and Milton and writing term papers trying to explain what it was all about. Instead of theories of design, I was reading theories about culture – modernist, postmodernist, postcolonial and even feminist.
I don’t regret the five years I spent working on my BA and MA. In fact, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and I do think that some of the critical thinking that I learned during that time has been beneficial for my work as a designer.
However, literary theory is not design theory, and when those difficult moments strike and I find myself coming face to face with my own apparent inadequacies, I simply don’t have the degree or diploma in design to fall back on. I can’t walk into my office and look at the papers on my wall and be reminded that I have the foundation of a formal education in design.
Of course, I know I’m not all that unique in this respect. I’m not the only kid in the community whose education wasn’t actually in design, and some of the people I respect the most are actually in this very same boat with me (figuratively speaking, of course).
Now, I want to be clear: though it may sound like it, I’m not whining here. I’m not building this big melodramatic, woe-is-me kind of plea for attention, based on my own insecurities. Instead, I’m merely acknowledging that those insecurities exist and that sometimes they get the better of me.
I also don’t think I’m alone in this. The more I consider it, the more I’ve come to believe that a lot of other designers probably go through this exact same thing – though of course, in the context of their own unique experiences.
The Salvation of Retrospect
I want to be clear: I’m not saying all of this to be overly negative or depressing, which is exactly what this article would be if we stopped here. Instead, I would like to move towards a more positive conclusion. While recognizing that there are times when I (and others like me) may feel somewhat inadequate in the face of the work of other designers, I’ve found that the important thing is to not linger on those feelings. Dwelling on them for too long will invariably lead to discouragement, and a weakening of your own self-confidence (trust me).
That’s never a good thing. Designers needs to be confident in the choices they make, and assured of their own abilities. Without that particular confidence, I can only imagine that the process of design would become far more difficult and tedious.
So, in order to avoid this unseemly fate, the next time you’re looking at somebody else’s work and feel that you just don’t measure up, take a moment to pause and embrace the salvation of retrospect:
- First, understand that being a designer is like being on a journey. You’re always growing, transforming and moving forward.
- Next, admit that you haven’t reached the end of that journey, and that there are areas of your craft that you may still need to work on, or in which you want to improve.
- Last, and most importantly, look back at your work from 3 months, 6 months or a year ago (maybe even further) and look at how far you’ve already come.
To paraphrase the words of a friend of mine: you may not be where you want to be, but as long as you’re not where you used to be, you know you’re moving forward. That, dear reader, is progress, and if you’ve come that far already, just imagine where you’ll be a few years down the road. For me, it’s that kind of thinking that really helps keep me going.
Nor should there be. Despite their relative fame and influence within the community, I’m sure neither of them just woke up one morning, decided to become designers and immediately started rocking of the kind of quality material that we’re so used to seeing from them these days. It almost certainly took a lot of time, hard work and dedication to refine their skills to the point that they’re at now.
I wonder if either Jason or Elliot still have their very first designs in their portfolios?
The point (if you haven’t caught it), is to find strength and validation in your own work, whatever level your at. If you know you’re getting better, and if you can actually and visually trace the course of your own development, then stand firmly on that. It will help establish a strong foundation of confidence, so that when the storms and torrents of insecurity come back again, hopefully they won’t have the strength or force to topple you.
Beyond that, just keep working at improving. Last year, I wrote an article about the one thing that everyone needs to do to become a better designer (and the answer is: practice), in which I offered some practical steps for those who wanted to make a very conscious and deliberate effort to improve. If that’s you, please feel free to have a read.
Otherwise, I simply hope that you’ve enjoyed this article, and that some of you may actually be able to relate to what I’m saying here (if not, do I ever feel like a fool). If I’m really lucky, maybe a few of your will even benefit from it!
As always, I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to share your thoughts, reactions and experiences by leaving a comment below. Looking forward to reading your responses!Post A Comment
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