And why doing just client work can't make you better
Working in an agency is a great way to develop technical skills and perfect the craft. If you work hard enough, you can even end up winning the Awwward. But to become a truly great designer (think Jonathan Ive and Matías Duarte), you have to rethink how you approach design.
Most web designers start their career with promo fliers and logos and then graduate to websites. Early work is primitive and unpolished, but that’s alright because you’re still learning. Then you gradually grow as a designer: you absorb how others work, learn new techniques, start noticing details, develop an intuition for pairing colors, know which font to use, make an element pop, etc.
You really master the craft.
The more you work, the more ambitious you get and try to visually outdo yourself. But there’s a problem.
You’re focusing on the visual part. All you learn is to dazzle the clients with pretty mockups. You live in a world where design is an art and aesthetic experience is everything. You only pay attention to the surface: subtle animations, stylish transitions, golden ratios, perfect shapes, meticulous layouts, elegant patterns, glossy overlays, negative space…
And most are satisfied with that. Create a good portfolio and you can find work in any agency or win any bid on freelancing sites.
But you make disposable work that doesn’t evolve. Clients come and go and you’re always pressed by deadlines, trying to find inspiration and a new angle to present a product that’s been done to death. As you grow, your design’s can only get more elaborate, original, or minimal.
Once you finish a design and get paid, you rarely get feedback from the people that actually interact with it nor do you hear about how it performs. As a result, you can’t improve. It’s like making an app v1.0 and calling it a day.
You’ve hit the plateaux. You rely on your creativity and hope it’s enough. You stay in your comfort zone, completely insulated from real-world use. And clients don’t help: they write terrible briefs and hope designers know what’s best for the business.
As a designer, you never get to think about “Why?”:
- Why does the sign-up button have a different color while the log-in one doesn’t?
- Why is the form on the left?
- Why are the logos small and have low contrast?
- Why isn’t the full navigation included in the header?
- Why do we need Material Design?
- When you start designing, you need to know what kind of people visit the website, what they’re looking for, and what they have absolutely no interest in seeing.
It’s not a question whether minimalism is better than baroque. It’s about whether a user can find what they’re looking for, a client knowing the purpose of the website, and you knowing who’ll use the site.
Once you start asking yourself questions like that, you’ll start growing. You’ll learn about conceptual models, signifiers and affordances, business goals, usability tests, behavioral economics, etc.
You’ll start thinking:
- How the human eye moves across the screen,
- How we navigate in new places,
- What are our expectations and preconceptions,
- How we respond to different stimuli,
- How to structure information,
- How to persuade potential customer and sell,
- What makes a good copy stand out…
You’ll learn how to hack the visitor’s mind and nudge them towards your client’s business goals.
Once you start with objective-oriented design, it’s a whole new game with a different set of challenges.
You shift your mind from “How can I make this look great?” to “How do I capture viewers attention and make him sign-up?”.
For example, if you’re a luxury brand, it makes sense to focus on aesthetics — after all, your aim is not to convert but to provide a unique experience. But if you’re selling used cars, you don’t want your site to look nice and extravagant — you want to look cheap and visually communicate how you offer a bargain.
A good design always knows its job.