The Work That Only You Can Make

Finding your unique style as a designer

As a writer, I’ve spent most of my career honing my voice. That is, while I may admire Stephen King, and acknowledge that he’s a millionaire and infinitely more successful than I’ll probably ever be–I know the key to my success is not to write exactly like Stephen King.

The greatest and most successful writers have always had their own distinct voice or style. Those of us who follow in their footsteps often find it tempting to imitate the greats, and while that’s not a bad way to learn an art, it can only take you so far. In order to grow and become the writer I want to be, eventually, I had to step out on my own and shed the security of imitation.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about design, and what it is to be a designer. As a writer, design matters to me. I’m a strong believer that design and content have a marriage that should be held in high esteem and treated with great respect.

As a writer, I sometimes have to moonlight as a designer, but truthfully there’s no greater joy than working one-on-one with a Real Designer. One who identifies as a Designer as strongly as I identify as a Writer.

I think that just as I’ve developed my voice as a writer, a true designer must have gone through a similar process.

But what is the designer’s equivalent of “voice”? I think it’s more often referred to as a designer’s unique “style.” And style is a tricky subject. Some will tell you that it’s vital to have a strong, distinctive style, to make yourself stand out. Others will argue that you need to fight the urge to put any kind of unique style on anything, to make yourself more flexible, adaptable, and attractive to a variety of clients.

I fall somewhere in between those extremes. While I believe it’s very important to adapt and be responsive to client needs, I also think that the product of any artistic endeavor will always have the indelible mark of its artist about it, somewhere.

Designer and author Frank Chimero had this to say about style:

I think it’s okay to have a style, as long as it represents what you believe…If you’re comfortable in your own shoes and making work that reflects what you believe in the best possible way, it’s not a style any more. It’s just you, making the work that only you can make.

So how do you get to that point? As a writer, here’s how I’ve found my voice, my style. I think the process is the same whether you’re a writer, a musician, a painter, or a graphic designer.

Educate

First, know the rules. In writing this means understanding the mechanics of language and storytelling. In music, it’s understanding time signatures and pitch. As a designer you have certain standards and principles that constitute “good design practices.” Whether or not you have a design degree, you must educate yourself on best practices and design standards. This isn’t to say you’ll never break any rules or branch out of what is considered “correct.” But you should always know what the rules are and, if you choose to break them, have a reason.

Imitate

As a teenager, I read lots of poetry. I had a thing for Jewel. It was the ‘90s, ok? Then I wrote a lot of things that sounded like…well, like lyrics to Jewel songs. Musicians do the same thing: they learn how to play their favorite songs before they begin to write their own. What budding guitarist hasn’t tried to learn “Stairway to Heaven”?

This is how artists learn technique: by doing. By imitating. And that’s ok. As a young designer you should be exposing yourself to lots of great design, and challenging yourself to use the elements and techniques you admire in your own work.

Experiment

Part of imitation is feeling safe to find inspiration in anything and everything around you. Branch out beyond your favorite designers and try to imitate styles outside of your comfort zone. Take elements from different styles and see if you can meld them into something new. Don’t be afraid to fail.

The more you experiment, the more fearless you are in approaching your work, the more you’ll begin to find your own groove. Take risks and make mistakes; then try again, and do better. And again. And again.

Evolve

Remember that your style is always changing. Ideally you should be able to look at your work over a period of months or years and see definite growth and change. You’ll see trends, like that period when you were really into retro, or when you were obsessed with Jony Ive (or in my case, Jewel). And as your portfolio grows and your body of work accumulates, you may also see some common threads, some unmistakable evidence, that this is your work, “the work that only you can make.”

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