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8 Designers’ Mistakes You Should Avoid for the Sake of Your Sanity

Hey, it’s not easy being a creative person! To be honest, it’s not easy being a person in the first place but that’s not what this post is about. As a creative person, you’ve probably always felt a little different. If you become a graphic designer, things get even worse. People look at you strangely when you stop in the middle of the street to point out bad kerning on a billboard to your friend. They don’t understand your Photoshop vocab. Or your weird fascination with gradients. Or why you get mad when the logo file you need is in JPG.

The point is, you’ve spent years learning and looking at so many examples of design. You know what you’re talking about, while others can only rely on their gut feeling. It’s only natural that conflicting ideas might appear here or there.

Whether you’re a freelancer or a regular company employee, you have to deal with people. After all, every design you make is ultimately for other people to use and enjoy. Or judge… but let’s not go there yet. While mistakes happen on both sides of the designer-client deal, I’ll focus on the ones on our end.

Dear designers: Hopefully this post will help you see aspects of your work you can improve. And, dear clients: Perhaps this post will help you understand your designer a little bit better, and make your cooperation easier.

Let’s go!

Every design has several stages it goes through before we get the final version. First, you get the brief, then you have time to come up with your propositions of tackling the issue. After that you get feedback, and the direction you have to take in your design is decided. Good!

You do your job, you export all the files and present them. There’s another batch of feedback, after which you add the corrections and, bam! you’re done with the task! Sounds easy. In real life, there’s a lot more work involved. Sometimes things like thefinalestfinal_thistimeforsure_v666.psd happen and we just have to accept that. But sometimes they can be avoided.

1. The Brief

Contrary to what you might think, briefing isn’t easy. Something that’s obvious to one person can be absolutely incomprehensible to others. As a designer, I learned it the hard way. I didn’t ask questions. I assumed I understood or that I knew better. Or I didn’t want to seem silly by asking obvious questions. That only brought on more problems. I ended up doing unnecessary work, and then had to spend extra time making up for the delay.

So that’s an advice for both sides: ask questions! Ask a lot of questions! You think you’ve asked enough questions? Throw in some more. What do you mean when you say “blue”? What format should the file be in? When exactly is the deadline? Will there be cake? See, the more information you get upfront, the less time you’ll have to waste later, waiting for answers.

Set priorities early on, so that you can organize your time accordingly, and don’t end up behind schedule. That’s especially important when you work on several projects at the same time, as I do. I know there’s not a lot of time, but you can work it out with your clients or team members. Some tasks can be planned in advance, or delegated, so that you don’t end up with an impossible deadline.

I know it’s very limiting to set a timeframe for a project but sometimes it has to be done. Be transparent about how much time you might need to complete a task. Remember about future corrections (which will happen!). They might take more time that either of the sides think. It’s no time to impress your team leader that you can draw a big, detailed illustration in one hour. Perhaps you really can, but most people aren’t that lucky. And while I’m sure you’re not that kind of person, I’m still going to say it: don’t drag it out indefinitely, either. Balance is hard to find but it’s possible.

2. The Concept

The next part of creating a design is coming up with your propositions. Dear clients: it’s not easy at all! It requires research and takes time, sometimes even more than creating the project itself. When I was studying, my logo design professor used to make us sketch out our ideas. Oh boy, did I hate it. Pages upon pages of doodles, ranging from good ideas to angrily crossed-out… things. He wouldn’t let us use the computer until we’ve fleshed out several useable concepts.

Turns out he was right. I spent hours letting my mind wander, and trying out tons of ideas, but then, once the direction we wanted to take was decided on, the work went much faster. If you show your design to the client at the sketch-stage, it helps eliminate “incompatible” ideas early on. It saves both sides a lot of time and nerves.

Another thing I’ve often had problems with was coming up with propositions to show the client. While the brief is the most important stage of the design process, it can be equally useful and constraining. So you spend hours drawing a dog because your client said they think it’ll really represent their product/service. You’ve tried out four different styles, and are pretty happy with the results but… Yeah, there’s always a but.

I’ve found that a really good practice is to follow the brief but with a twist. Say, you have to deliver three logo propositions for the client to choose from. They really want that dog, so you do two versions with the dog, and one with an epic dragon. In my practice, people choose the “crazy” version just as often as they stand by their original idea. Not only does it show that you’re solid and can follow instructions, but also that you are open-minded and super creative. It’s a win-win!

3. The Design

The time has come for step three — the final design. It is just as gratifying as it is daunting. And there are many challenges at this stage, too.

When I met up with my team leader for a 1-on-1 meeting to assess my work, I heard that one of my best traits is that I don’t complain. They meant it in the sense that I’m flexible and open to feedback/critique, and don’t get offended when someone tries to change My Idea™. First of all, life is learning to work with other people. That means different ideas and worldviews, which may often lead to conflicts. Whatever you design, unless it’s for your own gallery show, you do it for other people. And let’s face it, you may be a pro designer but you can’t know everything in every field. That’s why strong teams have members with different skills.

I’ve always preferred to work alone for many reasons. However now, working for a big company on many projects, I really appreciate working in a team. I simply discovered that not allowing any feedback or changes closes you off from reviewing your idea, looking at it from the point of view of an outsider. It actually really prevents you from learning, and getting better at design.

That being said, there’s also the issue of having your own style vs honoring the client’s needs. I think illustrators might have it worse than other creatives because what we make really has to fit specific brand or medium requirements. And while we are often recruited because of our unique style, we are later asked to abandon it to create things in a style that we don’t feel the most confident in. That’s a huge problem, and it’s very hard to overcome or balance.

Personally, I think when we work for a brand, we promote it, not ourselves. That’s why I usually try to change my mindset and follow the brandbook. However, would we be creatives if we didn’t at least try and add our own twist to the design? If you treat it like a challenge, it actually makes the work more entertaining and no one can say you’ve become dull.

And Another Thing

Also, we live in such a fast world. Everything is ASAP or not at all. Obviously, that doesn’t help to create great designs. What we all need to remember is that being creative rarely means coming up with the perfect design on the spot. It’s a process and an evolution. You have to try a million ideas, and tweak them until they become the best version of themselves. While the brain loves repetition, looking at the same design for hours on end won’t help, either. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t notice a typo or a silly thing I accidentally created just because I was so tired of looking at it all, and stopped seeing the design as a whole.

What we all need to remember is that being creative rarely means coming up with the perfect design on the spot. It’s a process and an evolution.

That’s why we all need to take breaks. It keeps us less bored, motivated, and helps us see the design in a new light. Just as with important decisions (don’t make them when: a) you are hungry, b) you are angry, c) it’s night) — sleep on it! Or “sleep on them” metaphorically: get up, get some coffee, work on some other project for a while. It really helps.

And another thing! (And it’s not just for designers to remember, but for everyone!) No, you literally can’t sit ten hours in front of your screen. It’s neither good for your body (hello sore eyes and huge headaches) nor your creativity. I understand ASAPs, but if you’re dead tired, you won’t be any good at work. It’s a fact, and it’s not as widely-accepted as it should be. If we respect our bodies a little, our minds will benefit too!

So, that’s all for today, class! The road to balance is long and winding, but I’m sure you’re already one step closer to achieving it.