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Narrowing the Path of Design

posted by Matt Ward on Jan 10, 2011.

In this post, I will be taking a somewhat more meditative stance than what I normally write about. Looking back at key moments in my own career, we will discuss not only how these moments have shaped the path that I have taken, but also how they can help inform and bring guidance to where I am going. Perhaps you can relate?

The design industry is a funny thing. Through the connections that I’ve made in the community, it seems to me that there are almost more people who have somehow stumbled into design after starting out to do something else than those who actually graduated from high school into art school and made their way into the industry through that straight, predictable path.

Personally, I am one of the former. When it comes to the work I do as a designer, I am entirely self taught, having acquired and refined my skills through a process of trial and error, and a constant striving to get better. I’ve been at this, in varying capacities, for well over ten years now, and while I certainly feel that I have vastly improved, both in terms of execution and theory, I also know that there is still a long, winding path in front of me, with plenty to learn along the way. Ten years from now, I am sure that the best designs I do this year will make me shudder when I recall them.

That’s just part of growth.

Yet, as we stand here (still very much in the infancy of 2011), looking forward to the next decade, perhaps it’s also a time to look back the other way and trace the course that has brought us to the very place we find ourselves in now. Why? Simply because looking at where we’ve come from ultimately helps tell us where we’re going.

Choices

The choices and decisions that we’ve made lay littered like signposts along the trail we’ve tread. Some of those choices have been good, perhaps even wonderful. Others have probably been not quite as good. Either way, every choice, reaction and consequence ultimately tells us something about ourselves, both as people and as designers, and as we develop a stronger grip on this understanding it not only presents a clearer picture of where we’re heading, but also of how to get where to where we want to be.

It can also reveal that those two are not always the same!

For me, the path has been an interesting one, and in many ways I’m nowhere near where I expected to be. When finishing high school, my singular vision was to become a writer. In some ways, through this blog and others that I contribute to, I suppose I have realized this, but writing about design was not quite what I had in mind. Dragons, wizards and sword wielding heroes would have aligned more closely to my adolescent vision (that’s speaking rather broadly, but you get the idea). I was going to be a novelist and pursue a lifelong passion for all things fantasy.

So what does a would-be-novelist do when he reaches the end of high school and finds himself looking past the very brink of childhood and into the vast openness of the real world? Simple, he goes back to school. Right out of high school I applied to a few schools for journalism.

And was outright rejected. Turns out that the schools I applied wanted something called a “portfolio” (imagine that), and to be quite honest, I hadn’t done anything remotely resembling journalism and had absolutely nothing to show them, other than some (very non-journalistic) stuff that I’d written – most of which was really just particularly bad fiction. As an aside, let that be a lesson to all the young readers out there. If you do want to study design in college or university, start putting together your portfolio today!

So, with no schools open to me, I pretty much had only one other option, which was to work. So, I took a job with my parents’ company, primarily working on the web. I hesitate to call what I was doing actual design, since the quality was absolutely horrendous, but that was my first real introduction creating material that would actually be available for the entire world to see, trough the vast connectedness of the Internet.

Key Moments

I’ve written much of this story before, so if you want to read the entire thing, check out “A Coder’s Journey” over at SpyreStudios. Suffice it to say that it was this introduction that started me down the path that has brought me to where I am today. There’s certainly no need to cover everything that has occurred along that path, but there are a couple of key moments that I would like to highlight.

First, was the moment when I came to really understand CSS as a concept, which ultimately revolutionized my thinking. Second was my gradual realization that design is not about making something that looks good, but about making intentional and purposeful decisions that fulfill a particular purpose.

So, why should I highlight these? In fact, why I am I talking about this at all?

These are good questions, and the answers to them start with a certain broadness. Over the past decade, I’ve worked on a lot of different things as a designer (and most of it in the past four to five years). I’ve produced websites, logos, posters, letterhead, business cards, illustrations, brochures and even a book. I have a wealth of experience in a wide range of different areas of design, and in a manner of speaking you could probably say that the path I’ve trod has been quite wide.

Yet, as I look back along that path, I find that certain designs and certain types of design stick out more in my mind than others. Stationary, like business cards and letterhead is always good work, and posters can be a ton of fun, but the further I press on in my career, the more I realize that some areas of design captivate me more than others.

One of those just happens to be CSS. While there are times where it can make me want to explode in a fit of baseball-bat-smashing-destruction (usually as a result of my own idiotic mistakes), I still love it. There’s just something about writing code and seeing it coming together step by beautiful step that really appeals to me, and it all started with that moment, long since passed, when I was first (properly) introduced to stylesheets.

The same is also true of design theory. Though far more recent of an interest, it’s still something that I love to think, talk and read about. I still have a ton to learn, of course, but I am enjoying my forays into that area and look forward to learning more throughout the coming year!

Narrowing the Path

Okay, so I like CSS and design theory. That’s nice to know, but what’s the point? The point is that it provides an important framework for moving forward. In the past, I’ve done a lot of different things, and tried my hand at many types of design. I’ve done alright, I think, but by spreading my efforts and energies across such a broad spectrum, I may be in danger of becoming the embodiment of that old, silly saying: “a jack of all trades, and a master of none.”

It’s time to start changing that, by narrowing my path as a designer and focusing on becoming more of an expert in certain areas, rather than a general practitioner in all of them. I started to do this back in the fall when I redesigned my portfolio to focus on three key areas: websites, logos and illustration. I cut out all of the extra stuff like posters, CD covers and t-shirts that had been there previously, because I wanted to focus my attention in these three key areas.

That’s not to say that I won’t still make an occasional foray into other forms of design. I’m actually have a poster project on the go right now, and a bit of variety helps keep things interesting. Sometimes, these kinds of projects can also help pay the bills. However, by keeping the bulk of my attention focused on the areas of design that interest me the most, I can narrow my path and get to where I’m going much more quickly, following fewer fun-but-distracting rabbit trails along the way.

Conclusion

The key, however, is not make an arbitrary decision. It’s not a matter of looking at what I do, scratching off half the list and then moving on from there. It’s a matter of looking back, seeing where I’ve come from and ultimately recognizing those moments that have had the greatest impact on my development as a designer. From there, I can make intelligent choices which will not only help me become a more specialized designer with the knowledge to offer greater value to clients, but which will also lead to more fulfilling work, by focusing on the things that I find the most rewarding.

So let this be the year of CSS and theory for me!

And what about you? When you look back at your own career (however long or brief), what are the key moments that stand out? How have these moments helped to shape your path so far? How are they helping to give you direction for 2011 and beyond? Share you story!

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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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Comments

Jan 11, 2011

Sari says:

I just want to say that any school that rejected you, was beneath you…It is their loss not yours…Your depth & skill at writing keeps me coming back to read, even though your field is really a bit of a non-sequitur to mine…Your writing is probably the finest I have seen online…You have soul, which is rare…Many great writers had no formal schooling in writing…I am someone who has been to a long list of schools, & can honestly tell you that you are superior to the students I have met…
Carry on & maybe one day you will produce that wonderful novel you had hoped for…You are certainly capable & worthy…Schools are often bastions of conformity which is no good place for an imagination…

Jan 12, 2011

Andrey says:

I am self taught on most of the things I do. That would be web design and music. At school I wasn’t valued that much for anything except maybe for being good with computers.

Hard to say what I see when I look back. Seems like there’s almost nothing really worthy to look back to.

If I’d would have to say what I will focus on this year, that would be writing (blogging), communicating in any form and being myself.

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