Unsolicited Advice: Finding your 'design sense'

Maria asked: I major in graphic design right now and the more I do it the more I understand that design is what I do best. However, while I know that my ‘design sense’ or what have you is on point (yup), I know that I have so much to learn in the realm of techniques/coding/etc. etc.

Something I’ve been asking myself lately that I’m asking you now is: How do you find a balance between doing work that you love that is totally ~you~ but still pay attention to other design(ers) and learn new processes/techniques WITHOUT just becoming a copy-paste designer?

Like, there’s design I am attracted to that I would like to be able to make, but then if I make it, am I just copying what I see and not really contributing to the ‘greater good’ of design (whatever THAT means)? Am I thinking about it too much? I just don’t want to be puking out what everyone else is doing, you know? It’s like sometimes I battle between completely ignoring what everyone else is doing or looking at others for inspiration and trying to reach the heights that (I feel) they have reached. Maybe this is okay because I am still learning.My first reaction to this question when you sent it (over a month ago, I should add) was “omg omg omg omg fuck what do i even say.” It’s important that I own up to that reaction, because this is such a real, honest, legitimate question, and one that we basically all face. But you’re right. It is really hard to know what you should be doing, and the answer is even worse: Trust your instincts.

This post was originally published January 21, 2013

It is awesome that you know what you love doing. Graphic design is a tough one, because it’s art but its beauty is in its subtlety, and its perfection is often marked by invisibility, making the whole thing pretty hard to wrap your brain around. But it sounds like you also know the truth. Graphic designers have a voice just as much as illustrators, photographers, or any other type of art-maker or artist.

Trusting your instincts is hard when you aren’t sure what they are. You’re already ahead of the game if you know you really love design and are good at it. Add bonus points for knowing you have a lot to learn (because there’s ALWAYS something new to learn). Then sprinkle some more points for struggling with authenticity, originality, and care for the “greater good.” You’ve got points coming out your ears at this point. And that’s the actual point.

Sit down with a pencil and paper, and see if you can write a list of the things that matter to you. Do you want to be a “famous” designer? Do you want to work on “selling things” or “making things” or just “making” without the “things” part even defined? Great design is when the information and hierarchy and message is just all so perfect that it seems as if it all just fell that way. Great design is design that feels innate. Great design appeals to everyone, and sure, other designers like to know who made what, but the average person is just looking for the off ramp or their stop on the subway or the right hospital room to deliver balloons to.

It’s good to want to do your own thing, and good to not want to be “puking” out work. But also sometimes puke is exactly what you put into yourself in the first place. Puke is extra. Am I getting too metaphorical with body waste here? I did start this whole response with “HOOOOOOLY SHIT” before editing for digestibility. What’s all this food talk? Am I just hungry? The truth is, critical thinking matters. Critique your own work. Critique your process. But sometimes, take a step back and stare at the tiny baby you have just birthed and SMILE AT HIS DOPEY BABY FACE BECAUSE HE IS OF YOUR FLESH AND HE IS ADORABLE.

Think smarter and harder, but not too hard. Take a break but not just for coffee or a cigarette, take a break for you. Take ten minutes on the front stoop to look at dirt or trash or count steps or count freckles or stare at the clouds or stare at the sun (but not for too long) or just take a bunch of really deep breaths. And then get back to work, making, selling, crafting, coding, or doing, whatever it is that makes you feel happy. Bonus points if you get a paycheck.

Adam J. Kurtz is an artist and author whose illustrative work is rooted in honesty, humor and a little darkness.

AdviceAlyssa Nassner