Designers, Don’t Go It Alone

On the long list of foolish decisions I’ve made, opening my own design shop right after receiving my design degree is right up there. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had a desk. I had a computer. I had big dreams. Open for business.

As time went on, I started seeing a sameness to my designs that I didn’t like across my short list of clients. As stand-alone pieces, I was proud of them. But if all these business owners came together for a client appreciation day, they’d quickly see I was a one-trick pony.

Within a year, I knew I’d made a mistake.

When I started out as a designer, I loved working by myself. No noise. No interruptions. No one over my shoulder. Just me, some good 80s hair metal, our cat, and way too much iced coffee. Perfect.

Mmmm… no.

What I gained in peace, I lost in feedback.

What I wanted was people around me—fellow designers—to look at what I did and tell me it was horrendous and to start over. I wanted to see what great work other people were doing and feed off it. I also needed to find a way to give and accept constructive criticism and not take my work personally. 

We all need this. We may not like it. We may get frustrated by it, sometimes. But when the day is done, we remind ourselves that someone saw enough potential and took the time to tell us that our idea didn’t work. You may not love everyone on the team. There may be heated debates, dysfunction, awkward silences and even a few curses words.

Families have that, too. (Just sayin’.)

That’s the thing about working on teams, especially in the creative space. No matter how many times I consider the alternative, I keep coming back to the benefits of being part of a team because it keeps being true. I’m just not as good a designer without people working beside me to cultivate ideas and round concepts into form.

So, if you’re an in-house designer and you are, at times, challenged by the critiques or the ideating or a certain person’s view or the direction of your crew, what follows are two nibbles of advice from a designer who’s been defensive, stubborn and flummoxed (sometimes all in the same day) about many of the same things you are.

First, don’t wait to show people your work until you’ve tweaked and massaged and finagled it to death and now, after days of hyper-focused concentration, you believe it’s genius. It probably isn’t and that letdown is steep and sad and sometimes requires a moment alone with a few tissues. Don’t deny it. It’s happened to you.

Start involving the crew early in the process. Like, at the “this-is-what-I’m-thinking” phase. You’ll save yourself much time and aggravation, especially if you’re missing the mark. And, let’s be honest, the more fine-tuning you do, the farther off the reservation you tend to go because now you’re swallowed by your idea and not the mission. You’re also going to look silly if the idea is great but winds up being something completely different than what the client requested.

Second, especially if you’re having trouble seeing eye-to-eye with a fellow designer or, perish the thought, your creative director—invite them for coffee (not liquor) to hash it out. Chances are, they see the same trouble. Neither beer nor bourbon is welcome when someone doesn’t like how you do something.

I know how cliché this suggestion sounds. That’s why, if you’re going to do it, you have to lay out one important ground rule—flat-out honesty. In other words, they have license to serve it chilled. And vice versa. Your coffeehouse sit-down may not end in a hug, but now you know where you both stand and maybe, just maybe, you’ll both think first before poo-pooing an idea. Maybe you’ll find a way to be constructive or, wait for it, supportive.

Better than rockin’ out to Mötley Crüe mid-afternoon in your jammies.

Not that I’ve ever done that.

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