Lessons Learned From Design Adventures Vol.1

If someone asks me how I feel about the last 5 years since I dove into the world of design, I’d say “everyday I am thankful for the tough love that art school showed me”.

I used to sleep 3 hours a day because I worried too much about falling behind other students. Once, I hid alone in the toilets and secretly cried because I couldn’t come up with a good idea. The worst moment was when I left my work at home on its due date after spending all night finishing it.

These unpleasant moments taught me valuable lessons. The late nights helped me believe the famous words “effort will never betray you”. Those efforts paid off as achievements at school. Crying in the toilets helped me — in my own way — to relieve anxiety and pull myself together. I was also able to become a person who thoroughly prepares for deadlines (and never forgets anything at home).

Good or bad, we learn from experience. My experiences in school became a critical part of my career as a designer. They continue to provide valuable insights and help me to form a better sense of judgement when I make decisions. In order to not forget those lessons, I write them down in my notebook and read them when things aren’t working out. They become great inspirations to refresh my brain and make me think about the most important aspects of design.

Today, I want to share a few lessons that helped me grow as a designer.

Designers should have a reason for every decision

Surprisingly, many people still don’t know much about what designers do. When I just started dating my boyfriend, he surprised me by saying ‘do you make things look pretty?’ (no offence! It’s just because he majored in science). It is a statement that designers really don’t want to hear, but at the same time, it is one of the most common misconceptions about designers. While it is true that aesthetics are an important component of design, it is not what design is all about. But, how can we prove that?

To prove that design is not just about making things look pretty, designers should always have a reason for every design decision they make. Even when placing a single line, we need to ask ourselves why we need it, because it will just become an aesthetic component without a reason to exist. ‘It looks good in that way’ can’t be a rationale. If it looks good, designers should find a reason why it looks good. We are responsible to explain our decisions in a rational manner and tie them to project goals to show why design matters much more than just an aesthetic component.

I explained this to my boyfriend several times and now he’s achieved a better understanding of my job. We sometimes have a debate on why things that we randomly see around us are designed in that way. What a great improvement.

If it doesn’t work for me, it won’t work for others

When I encounter creative block and don’t feel confident with the ideas I’ve come up with, I am sometimes tempted to believe in a false hope like: “Well, everyone has different tastes, so someone might like at least one of these ideas” (even though I don’t like any of them). What a sneaky thought it is!

Think about it this way: you went to a restaurant and weren’t sure what to choose from the menu. You asked a restaurant owner to recommend some of the best dishes, however they couldn’t say anything with confidence. If even the owner doesn’t feel confident about their food, how could customers trust it? It is the same for designers. If I want to sell my design, I should be the one who knows the most and feels most confident about my design to make clients understand why this approach is a right solution for their problem. However if I can’t convince myself first, how would I be able to convince others?

A few years ago, I was watching television and a celebrity was asked how he could be so stylish all the time. I still remember how he responded because his answer was simple but powerful. He answered, “take a look at yourself in a mirror. Do you look stylish to yourself?”. How easy is that!

We should always ask this question to ourselves. For the restaurant owner, imagine yourself as a customer and think if you would want to come to your restaurant again. If you are a designer, imagine yourself as a client and question if your design would WOW yourself. Don’t wait for a miraculous thing to happen. If it doesn’t feel good to you, it will never feel good to others.

The ‘designing’ part is only half the battle

A brilliant idea pops up in your head. You put a lot of effort and time to turn the idea into reality and finally finish all the design work you need; however, it’s not the end of the process. There is still one important thing left to do — the presentation of your work.

No matter how great the work is, people won’t know how great it is until they see it, but with so many platforms like Behance, Dribbble, and Instagram etc., making the most of people’s attention span is harder than ever. To make a successful launch into this competitive world, the work needs to put its best foot forward. Does a preview image look interesting enough to draw people’s attention? Does your presentation have a nice flow and order? Does it show strengths of the work?

How you present your work is as important as the work itself. It is communication between you and your audience, so make your presentation as considerate as possible. Make it easily accessible for your audience; Help them understand your story better, make them understand your project in the way you intended to. Make it interesting so they don’t get bored. A great presentation will give your work more strength and visibility.

It’s great to be surrounded by people who are better than you

To be honest, I sometimes don’t like to be surrounded by talented people. When I was in school, there were many people who were incredibly talented. I felt lucky to have them in my class, but at the same time I felt a sense of inferiority towards them. I was constantly comparing myself to them and doubted my abilities, asking “why couldn’t I do work like them?”.

Even though these were not positive emotions and it bothered me sometimes, I sincerely appreciated to be surrounded by them. I was able to improve a lot within those struggles. They became a great stimulus to push myself to the limit and generate higher quality outcomes.

Feeling inadequate about yourself can be a real struggle, but when you try to think about it another way, it can be an opportunity to try new things, gain a new perspective, and grow. There is always the lure of being comfortable with our surroundings, but being too comfortable can hinder growth. A little bit of pressure and discomfort become great motivation to push ourselves toward something greater.

Understand problems before trying to solve them

Design solves problems. Great design solves problems efficiently and uses as few elements as possible; however, we can’t really say whether it solves problems efficiently or not if we don’t understand what problems we need to solve.

When I initiate a project, I spend enough time doing research until I get a solid understanding of a problem. What causes the problem? Who is your audience? What do they need? Why do they need it? How has it done in the past? It is where I spend the most amount of energy and time on. This research builds a strong bedrock to start a project. It enables me to break the problem into its most essential and determine what actually matters.

The more the project develops, the more you will find the importance of having a solid understanding of a problem. It will be your guide that tells you where you need to go and keep you on the right track throughout the project.

As we proceed with our lives, we will face things we haven’t experienced before and learn something new. It is all part of our life-long learning process, and I hope this article becomes an opportunity for someone to learn something new. I also hope it doesn’t take me long to learn something to share and come back with Vol. 2!

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Yoon Lee

A designer at gskinner, visual problem solver, research lover, motion designer, illustrator and the best parallel parker.