July 20, 2017

Why is so much of design school a waste of time?

In response to the student question, former AIGA NY President Juliette Cezzar said, “Sure, you can leave, but you’re going to take your inability to use criticism with you.”

Critique notes

That’s the crux. I was a bad designer when I finished my formal education about 15 years ago. The difference in quality between my work and what many of today’s graduates are producing? Huge.

But my school years did, at least, teach me the importance of critique when it comes to learning, and for some time after graduating I kept posting my work in online forums, kept seeking the advice of better designers.

Slowly, my work improved, and that mindset has helped with every project since.

Design isn’t a dictatorship. Clients will sometimes push back against potential ideas, and when they do you can’t just believe you know best. If you think you’re always right, you’ll never listen, never improve.

Formal design school isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a successful designer. But if it isn’t part of your path, well, a little humility goes a long way.

Juliette’s post is part of the Dear Design Student series, which is excellent. Another good one of hers — 10 ways to manage yourself in design school. Catch Juliette on Twitter, too.

Somewhat related, from the archives: On designers critiquing designers.

April 19, 2017

“How do you storyboard a smile?”

Tootles the Taxi illustrations

If you’ve been reading my comment threads over the years you’ll likely be familiar with Lee Newham of London-based Designed By Good People.

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March 17, 2017

It’s okay to change your mind

“The way I express my thoughts the first time round is almost never the accurate reflection of what I believe.

“In journalism, though, if you say something the first time round and then you call [the journalist] the next day and say, ‘Actually I thought about it and what I really mean is this,’ the journalist will say, ‘Sorry, I got you.’

“What game are we playing? There’s a code of conduct among journalists which is completely out of step with what we know about human nature.”
— Malcolm Gladwell

Likewise, when you deal with a design client, don’t be afraid of contradicting yourself if you say something you later think differently about. There’s a stigma attached to changing your mind. But it shows that you’re thinking, and that’s what you’re getting paid for.

Malcolm Gladwell on criticism, tolerance, and changing your mind.

October 2, 2016


“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

November 4, 2015

Five things

Belfast-based designer Paul McNally asked me to submit to his Five Things project — a collection of favourite things from people of all ages, locations, and occupations.

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November 10, 2014

Ask me anything #2

Following on from part #1.

21/ How much time did you spend on your favourite piece of work? — Dustin Andrew

I couldn't choose just one, but there are a few that definitely aren't favourites. One should've lasted three or four months, but 18 months had passed before I was paid the balance. That taught me not to let a client change my working terms. The terms are there for a good reason, and when you give permission to change the fundamentals of how you work, it creates a mindset where you've already ceded control of the process before the project begins. Unprofessional — we're hired to design, not to be micromanaged.


22/ Where do you get your inspiration?Viara Trendafilova

Sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing. Getting out and experiencing life is important, because there's only so much you can sense when you're sat in a room. I try to stay curious about the little things that familiarity makes us forget. That's a bit vague, and probably unhelpful, so I'll point you toward this piece of advice from Bob Gill, relating directly to design projects and how to get yourself out of a rut.


23/ What style of design will be most popular in the future?
 — Michał Piwowarczyk

An enduring identity design is simple enough to remember after a quick glance, yet with enough detail to differentiate. That’s what I work toward.


24/ Did you have a specific client or project at the beginning of your career that led to more clients? If yes, how did you get that very first client?Frederik

My first client stayed with me for 18 months, which meant I could pay the bills and still have time to find other work. I stumbled through those early years, picking up new projects wherever I could, not having the intelligence or experience to say no to some ultimately poor client relationships. The projects I took on were hit and miss in terms of an outcome I was proud of, and there was no steady stream, so I can’t overstate the importance of bringing my old employer on board as I set up shop.


25/ How often should you re-brand/evolve your own identity? — Ed

Whenever you’ve learned enough to understand that what you have is no longer suitable or as good as it can be.

New Dawn Graphics
My first business card


26/ What do you do in your spare time that relates to graphic design? — Djordje Cupic

I do what most people do — spend time with family, friends, watch films, exercise. I have my work, then I have other things, and that separation’s important. “All work and no play...”


27/ Is there a state of ‘being a good designer’? — Dreszczyk

You'll need to rephrase that one, Dreszcyk.


28/ What design trends do you consider the most timeless in design?Benoit Taillefer

If a timeless trend isn’t an oxymoron, here's a fitting Dieter Rams reference.


29/ Is it right to ask a client if they know anyone who's potentially looking for design work? — Karl Gilmore

If you need to ask, you probably shouldn't. Delight your clients and they'll be your best salespeople without any prompts.


30/ I know not all work is interesting. The results might be but the process might not. How do you approach such boring tasks? How do you stay passionate while working on a something that’s important but uninteresting?Chaitanya Venneti

I agree to work with clients if I’m interested in what they do. That said, we’ll all work on projects that look incredible at the start, only to find something change midway through, and the process becomes strained. But we’re hired to do come up with ideas, and as professionals we should give it everything we can until the job’s done.


31/ After two years working in a design company as an account executive, it’s difficult to help the designers in my team to have a great brainstorming meeting to uncover ideas for each project. Can you give me some advice about the creative process in an agency? — Han Khuat

Having not spent much time in a design agency I’m not a good person to ask, but I’ve been in brainstorming meetings and they always seemed forced. For me, a meeting is where questions are asked and answered, not where the best ideas are formed. Instead of taking designers to a meeting room, why not take them to the client’s place of business? Or give time to create something at their desks then sit with them individually. But don't force it.


32/ What's your best experience with a client? And what would be the project of your dreams? — Voytek

I'm not sure about the best, but here's a good one. I finished a client project a couple of months back. This week I got an email from one of my client’s new employees whose job involved working with the identity design I put in place. She said my work made her happier that she decided to accept the job. That made my day.

An ideal project? Currency. Someone asks, “What do you design?” Then I pull a few coins from my pocket. The work of Matt Dent is a stellar example.

UK coin design by Matt Dent
UK coin design, by Matt Dent


33/ When hiring a new associate fresh out of design school, what is the first thing you look for in a portfolio?Arthur Fields

I’ve not hired a designer. If I decide to, I’ll look for good ideas. Technical proficiency can be picked up along the way, but if the idea isn’t right, no amount of gloss will make a project a success.


34/ What’s the best advice you’ve been given?Gemma Ellen

I finished my second book with a relevant paragraph.

“Let's say our lives span a maximum of 100 years. If 33 are taken up with sleep, 10 years in childhood, and 20 years lost in old age, that leaves just 37 years to create something meaningful. Don't waste that time with sorrow, complaints, or unnecessary negativity. We create our best work when we're in a positive frame of mind. We have no idea if, after death, we'll ever experience anything again, so most importantly, enjoy your profession, appreciate your surroundings, and love using design to make things better.”


35/ How do you deal with people who underestimate you in terms of your work and pricing? How do you make people realise that if you don’t have a big setup or agency it doesn’t mean that you have to sell your work cheap? — Vikas

It’s difficult in the early stages of business. You’re much more likely to attract higher paying projects if you’ve already completed a few. So how do you get those first ones? There’s been a continual progression in my ability to do my job, and in the value clients place on my work. That said, I still receive enquiries from people who want cheap design. It’s a matter of prioritising my time to deal with the clients whose valuation matches (or exceeds) my own. If months of self-promotion go by and there’s no interest in my services, it’s probably a sign I’m charging more than I’m worth, and my pricing should be lowered until I improve.


36/ Time management... how you do it? Customers, books, etc. And how many people are on your team?Angel Reyes

I use Google Calendar and its email reminders for events, calls, or meetings, but day-to-day it’s more a matter of putting my clients first, blogs second, and everything else afterward.

Just me, in a room on my own. There are things I miss about an office environment, but I’m in a good place and can’t complain. Get in touch if you're ever in town and we'll go for a drink of your choice.


37/ How do you tackle a lack of inspiration when it comes to logo design? You know, when you only loop your original idea, and it’s no good.Peter

Sometimes I’ll spend too long at my desk and I need to get outside, even just for a walk. That break from technology and from sitting still can help me think differently.

Clandeboye Estate
On a walk through Clandeboye Estate

Here's an interesting image from Boston.com (below).

Brain after walking


38/ Is extreme simplicity and minimalism a trend, or the core of good design? — Lou Ruiz

Good design is a focus on what's essential. That doesn't necessarily mean minimal. Think of the use of pattern in design. Repetition can be complex in appearance, but lots of strong identity work incorporates patterns.

Function Engineering cards
Function Engineering identity, by Sagmeister & Walsh


39/ How can you be sure you’re being original? I am always worried my idea isn’t my idea, that I may be accidentally repeating something I have seen somewhere. — Kellie Bridges

You can’t, so it’s important to include an indemnity clause in your terms. Your client may choose to hire a trademark lawyer. That’s bringing a completely different profession into the mix, one you shouldn’t be expected to specialise in.


40/ What’s the best methodology to design logos for small companies that prefer make their corporate projects in a bureau?Emilio

I think you’re talking about selling your skills over those of a larger design studio. The size of your business can be a selling point if you explain how there’s no one in the middle — a client talks to you, and you do the design. Your conversations aren’t passed to someone else. It’s your work in your portfolio, so your potential client is able to see exactly what you’ve created.


I hope that was of some use. In case you missed it, here's the first part.

October 31, 2014

Things I’m sent

Now and again people send me products to review. A lot of what's sent isn't worth sharing. Some things are.

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September 25, 2014

Ask me anything #1

The first in a series of answers to your questions. Thanks very much for having an interest.

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March 12, 2013

Alan Watts on the dream of life

“Everybody is fundamentally, the ultimate reality. Not god in a politically, kingly sense, but god in the sense of being the self – the deep down basic whatever there is. And you’re all that, only you’re pretending you’re not.”
— Alan Watts

From the late Alan Watts’ Out of Your Mind sessions, available on CD from Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk.

Video edited by Tragedy and Hope, via Chris Glass.

January 18, 2013

A new flag for Northern Ireland

The Union flag flew above Belfast City Hall every day of the year until 3rd December 2012 when politicians democratically voted to fly it on 18 designated days. The Confederation of British Industry said the ensuing riots have cost local businesses £10-£15 million in lost revenue.

Union flagThe Union flag, representing Northern Ireland

Irish flagThe Irish tricolour, representing the Republic of Ireland

Some political commentators have suggested that one way to diffuse the situation might be the creation of a new flag for Northern Ireland. The country hasn't had its own flag since the Ulster banner was used by the old Northern Ireland Government between 1953 and 1972.

Ulster bannerThe Ulster banner

There's the older St. Patrick's Saltire, said to pre-date the tricolour by 150 years. It's been flown at the Edinburgh Tattoo to designate Northern Ireland, seen as less contentious than the Ulster banner.

St Patrick's SaltireSt. Patrick's Saltire

So here's my idea.

Northern Ireland flagNorthern Ireland flag

Hardly innovative, but it doesn’t need to be.

Northern Ireland's footballers play in green and white. So does Ireland's rugby team (with players from both sides of the border). No need to use blue and red.

Turns out there's an NI Flag Facebook Group that's been going for a while.

December 27, 2012

Wild Geese Skydiving on the north coast of Ireland

Not quite Felix Baumgartner, but trying something new at Wild Geese Skydiving was definitely one of the highlights of the year.

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July 7, 2012

Designer headaches

I get headaches. A lot. Medication, physiotherapy, acupuncture (painful on the NHS), food diaries — no joy.

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April 1, 2011

Boycotting GoDaddy

I don't want to give my money to a man who glorifies elephant-hunting.

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