Some thoughts on design

I was recently contacted by a design student at Loyalist College looking to interview a designer for an essay she’s writing. Ego-bloat aside, I do really like it when young(er), just-starting-out designers ask me for a “worldly” view of the industry. (Amazingly, it’s happened more than once!)

I think I could have probably fleshed out some of my answers a little more fully, but didn’t want to fall into the trap of becoming overly verbose, which I have a tendency to do.

What enthused you to enter this line of work?

In school, I was always a bit of an academic, and I had a lot of troubles deciding between the arts and sciences. I love that design allows me to use my whole brain–some aspects are very creative and visual, and some aspects require more analytical thinking and problem-solving. It’s constantly challenging me, and I’ve always found that it keeps me striving to do better. I’ve always enjoyed visual arts but have never felt particularly gifted at them. A more typically “academic” line of work might not have been as much of a challenge for me, and I think that I would have lost interest at some point.

Is there anything you dislike about this career? What would you change?

Because its tools have become more widely available, more and more people are calling themselves designers because they can run a Photoshop filter or cobble together a website. And while it’s great that it’s become more accessible, it also means that there’s more semi-professionals undercutting those of us who are trying to pay our bills this way, and there’s a whole proliferation of really terrible design running around (especially online!)

I wish that the public perception of the industry were a little higher. The GDC is doing a lot of work towards this, and there are loads of people who do understand the value of professional design work, but there’s still a lot of people who think that their neighbour’s kid who knows how to use Photoshop can provide them with a valuable branding package for $50. I don’t mean to be elitist about it; having training or being a “professional” doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to create more valuable work than a self-taught amateur. But I do think that design is important enough to a business that people ought to be willing to pay reasonable prices for it! And don’t get me started on the Indian companies who’ll create an e-commerce site for 40 rupees, or the online companies that create you a “custom” logo created from clipart for $300.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

The easiest answer is “the client”, but that gives the wrong impression. Clients are an integral part of design, and it is their presence that differentiates “design” from “art”. Clients can be incredibly frustrating to work with–they ask you to do horrible, ugly things to a formerly clean and well-crafted design, they change their minds all the time, they change the scope of the project and complain about inflated costs–but they also foster good design by creating challenges and forcing a designer to think around, and for, their particular requirements.

When creating a design what do you feel is the most important aspect?

That it fits its content and message.
Being gorgeous comes second.

Did you draw as a hobby before your career choice? If yes, how has it affected your hobby?

I used to do a lot of drawing, painting, etc. I don’t do it as much as I’d like as often, but I need to do more and I know that doing so will help me with my digital design. I’ve often heard it said that designers don’t NEED to know how to draw, but it really does help. It adds extra dimension and understanding to your work, and it develops your “eye”, which is integral to good design.

Who are some of you artistic influences? What is it about their work that inspires you?

I’m a little all over the map with this. I love Georgia O’Keefe, I’m a big fan of David McKean, I love Aubrey Beardsley. I’m fond of Expressionism and Surrealism, as well as Russian Constructivism. I’ve always really enjoyed well-crafted, finely detailed work in general (bottle labels, book covers, websites). And I really like dark, stylized illustrations (a lot of graphic novels have some stunning examples of this).

I find that when something really strikes me as beautiful, it inspires me to make something equally lovely. Usually it’ll help me think in new directions, and consider things from a new perspective.

How did you get started in design and how long have you been doing it for?

I’ve been designing websites since I was about 14–I lived in the middle of nowhere and basically had nothing to do, so I taught myself how to design. I actually never considered it a viable career choice until I’d finished a year of university (philosophy & journalism) and realized that a degree might not actually translate into a viable career.

So I turned around and took a year of design at my local community college, NSCC. (It’s usually a two-year program, but I managed to get by a portfolio review in order to do it in one instead.) What had formerly been more of a hobby became a passion, and school is a great place to get really excited about something. I’ve always been more of an academic with an interest in artistic things, but I never thought that it’d be practical to pursue as a career, so it was really exciting to find an artistic endeavour that also had practical applications!

What is the best school to go to, and how long did it take you to complete schooling?

I don’t know what the “best” is. I did it in a year, but in hindsight, I wish I’d done more. From what I’ve seen, college courses tend to be more practically-oriented (tech-oriented), but university courses are more comprehensive (theory-oriented). I think it’d be best to have a mix of this!

What are the most important skills do you feel a designer needs to be successful?

Perseverance, determination, and the ability to stay up all night.

What is the salary like for this career?

Well, if you’re working for yourself, it’s variable. But I’ve been really lucky, and my first job paid $38 000 with tons of benefits. If you can find a copy of the GDC’s salary review, that’s a great source for salaries across the board–it really ranges depending on who you’re working for, how long you’ve been working, and what particular aspect of the industry you’re in.

Thank you so much

You’re welcome! I hope this has helped, and if you have any follow-up questions, do feel free to send them my way. (And this goes double for the rest of you, too!)