Great Design

Five steps to being a great designer

When I was asked what I’d like to write about this week, I thought up a few options. Email campaigns, website design, or predictive science?

Known for being humble and modest, I instead decided to put together ‘Five steps to being a great designer’.

Great design is like great art. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and it’s not always to everyone’s taste.

To one person, a designer’s work might be the best thing since sliced bread, but to another, their portfolio seems distinctively average. So who’s correct? Well, neither and both. Design either draws you in or leaves you cold.

And designers, much like artists, are known to be precious and stubborn. And that’s only what’s been said to our faces. As someone guilty (at times) of both these stereotypes, I’ve decided to come in batting for the designer’s corner.

We’re only precious because we care, and we’re stubborn because we strongly believe in our ideas (and their benefits for our clients).

But when you’re working with a designer, you need someone who’s both easy to work with and who understands your vision. Some aspects of being a great designer are in our nature, some are taught, and some are naturally developed over time. And sometimes you have to mess up, to ensure you don’t make that same mistake again.

Here are my five steps to being a great designer.

1. Know your audience

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to know my audience. And by the audience, I don’t mean the client, but the client’s audience.

For example, when a client requests a new logo, of course, it’s important that they like what you’ve created. But it’s more important that it’s relevant, appropriate and liked by their audience.

A common faux pas designers are guilty of is to make decisions on colors, fonts, and photography because it suits their own tastes. This should never be the response to a brief.

Every project is different and unique (just take a look through some of our work to see what that means in practice). Each takes inspiration from the audience it’s directed at. So the output needs to respect each and every requirement, irrelevant of personal preferences.

2. Communicate clearly

I can’t overstate how important communication is in every aspect of any job.

When talking about design, it’s not only important that the finished project sends the right message. It’s vital that clear lines of communication are maintained throughout the job, from client to designer and vice versa.

A great designer ensures they’re clear on the brief from the word go. They make sure any uncertainties are ironed out as early as possible, and everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to the project timeline.

Throughout the job, it’s imperative that client feedback is passed back to the designer clearly. And that all deliveries of creative are accompanied by a list of notes. These should outline the thought behind the concept, and flag any points of contention.

This is really critical, especially when you’re dealing with something complex like a form or website design, where you might need to explain the underlying functionality.

3. Manage your time

Time, time, time. Well known for going slow when we’re not busy, and racing past when we’re up against it.

But there are only so many hours in the day. And no amount of grumbling gets us around that fact. Great designers need to be pros at managing time and eking out every single minute of productivity.

For me, the trick is to make lists (many, many, lists), and prioritize each task according to urgency. Going through what needs to be done, and working out roughly how long it will take is paramount to hitting deadlines. And as you can imagine, in design studios these are typically very tight.

That said, being sparse on time pushes you to work on your instinct. More on that in point five.

4. Work as a great design team

No designer is an island and working as a team is imperative to achieving the best creative output.

If you keep your head down and avoid communication, you’re likely to become blinkered, eventually losing sight of the original brief by going off on a tangent. Even if you’re the lead on project, using your team as a sounding board can filter out any mad ideas (and trust me there will be a few).

Brainstorming is also the best way to throw all ideas on the table, open for discussion. Some of the greatest ideas come out of a flippant comment. And if you can’t put your thoughts into words, why not explain them through the medium of interpretive dance? If you work with a decent bunch of people, they won’t judge you. 

5. Listen to your instinct

A great designer learns to identify and listen to internal warning signs and follow their gut instincts. Doing this can save you plenty of valuable time in the long run. In my case, my instinct is personified by a little voice twittering away in my ear telling me that what I’m doing isn’t right, or appropriate.

Retreat! Retreat!

It might tell me that my chosen color combination won’t work when printed, or that it isn’t accessible for website design. It tells me that the image I’ve chose isn’t sensitive enough, and it tells me that I should scan my eye over that artwork just one more time.

It’s easy to ignore your instinct, especially when it’s so much simpler and faster to just carry on down the path you’re on, hoping it’ll turn out OK. But the reality is that in the long run, you’ll just have to start again at an even more inconvenient time, which makes for an unhappy boss, an unhappy client and a very unhappy you.

Some parting words of advice

Being a great designer is not just about ticking boxes. Every project is made up of many moving parts and contrasting opinions, with rarely any defined boxes to tick. You’ll find that you’re strong in some areas and weaker in others. While some designers specialize in one field, others have good ability across many areas. Both have their value, and their place.

My nine years of experience has shown me that being a great designer is about learning from everything. And I’m still learning. I like to think that I actively run through steps one to five, but you need to make allowances for the fact that every job will generate new challenges that test you in new ways.

outré creative has a really tight team of designers of varying levels, and we all bring something different to the table. We all specialize in different things, from pushing creative routes to drilling down into the most technical parts. But no matter what we’re working on, the steps above provide a valuable path to follow.

Being a great designer is not just about what you create yourself, but also how you guide others creatively to the best solution. It’s about communicating your thoughts in a clear way that’s easy to understand and won’t be misinterpreted. It’s about providing feedback in a constructive manner, and it’s about patience.