I recently received an email from a fellow designer named James. I’m not really one to reply to emails in public via the blog, but the nature of his email is something that I’ve seen a few times before and thought it might be relevant to others out there. James tells me a bit about his struggle in the design industry, being just out of school, and asks some questions on how he might find his way in the field, specifically with his own work. Here is the short version of his note to me:
“I recently graduated in multimedia, and I’m not particularly happy with the development side of my work. I would really like to push my graphic design work, but the nature of my studies has turned me into a bit of a “jack of all trades, master of none”, For example my knowledge of design for print is lacking and I know 10 times more about photoshop than illustrator.
I’m just lost on how to take it to the next level as I have many ideas but still feel very intimidated, and I have no personal style (rather opting to hop from trend to trend, spending most of my time envying the work of others!). if you have the time any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.”
I know this is a pitfall with a lot of designers and artists out there especially in early career mode, and I’m no exception. So I thought this might make for a good post on the blog (with James’ permission) if it helps out other like-minded designers out there who might have similar questions. Bear in mind, I write this based solely on my own experiences.
1. Pursuit of ‘Style’
I spent a lot of time during my early career (starting in 1998) trying to find “my own style”. I had been watching artists online developing their own unique work for a couple of years at that point, experimenting with the same graphic software I was using and creating results that boggled my mind. This is when I registered Signalnoise.com and started diving into Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash on my own time just like the artists I admired. This became intensely frustrating for me as I tried to force my creativity in different directions, almost entirely based on the work and direction of others. It didn’t work, which led to a lot of unfinished projects as I couldn’t get my ambition, creativity and technical know-how to line up at all. It was overwhelming.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that I was doing things for all the wrong reasons. Personal work shouldn’t feel like work, it shouldn’t have pressure or deadlines attached. Personal work should be fun. When you start having fun generating ideas and trying new techniques it relinquishes all of the pressure you put on yourself to create, and it feels like you’re a kid again slopping around paint just for the hell of it. Style happens by accident along the way as you continue to say “I wonder what would happen if I tried this.” I’m a metal-head who creates art with rainbows, so to say I never saw that coming would be a big understatement.
So my advice would be to forget about it. The idea of ‘style’ sounds like a destination, when art should be a constantly evolving beast.
2. Sources of Inspiration
I post a lot of inspirational artists on my blog because they inspire me and I figure like-minded creative types might think the same. Seeking out inspiration is a big deal for me, and the internet is a huge help in getting exposure to different artists through research or advice from others. That being the case, where does one start? I’ve always been nostalgic, so in my case the best inspiration I can find is the stuff I loved when I was a kid.
Everyone has a different range of art, music, movies, etc that they admire and from there one can draw a huge amount of inspiration that is uniquely their own. Flickr and Behance are wonderful for seeing what is new and cutting-edge, but try looking into things you enjoy offline. I have a bookcase full of art books with everything from Norman Rockwell to cosmic photography which is awesome to have on hand whenever I have a blank canvas in front of me.
Not to be too philosophical, but you have to look to what you love for inspiration. From there, it’s just research which is the fun part :)
3. The Tools
You have to know your tools and be willing to spend great amounts of time learning them, it’s as simple as that. This is something that doesn’t happen overnight, but after many many nights of playing with your favorite software packages. If you are a designer working at an agency, you can’t always be expected to do advanced Photoshop on all the jobs you work on, but you can on your own time. Never, ever, stop messing around with the tools you want to use for your work. Try some online tutorials and use the information you learn in different ways to see what might happen.
For a long time I had a disconnect between my creative and my technical and there is no one answer of how to overcome this. It’s all about how much time you put into it learning the subtleties of your software and discovering new ways of executing ideas. A bit of advice I can give here is to try creating things from the ground up on your own, without pre-fabricated textures, brushes, filters, etc. There are wonderful resources out there, but without leaning on pre-fab elements you will get a greater appreciation for what you can achieve on your own.
As I said at the beginning of the post, all of this information comes from my personal experience in the design field while exploring my own potential during free time, and the path is different for everyone. The key is to have fun with what you do, which is what creativity is all about. Research what you enjoy, draw inspiration from it, manifest your ideas, learn your tools, and never ever stop. The more time you put into developing your own skills, the stronger you will become. I started my own path in 1998 at the age of 21, and I’m still pushing myself today at 32 :)
So, I certainly hope this post gives a bit of insight into the abstract area between creative and technical, and feel free to sound off in the comments with any questions.