By Tobias van Schneider Published October 15, 2020
We like to say designers are not artists. It is not our goal, so we've been told, to express ourselves. Our goals are our clients’ goals. Our style is the brand we’re designing for. And yet, we are expected to have a point of view. To stand out and make a name for ourselves.
Early in our career, it's a confusing conflict. We don't have much work to show yet that sets us apart from countless other designers. And we probably don't have the luxury of choosing projects and clients that align with who we are. Yet we feel an existential drive to be unique, find our style and become known for something.
So how do we establish our creative voice and identity while doing work for others? How do we offer our perspective within the constraints of a brief? How do we meet modern design expectations in our own way, without settling for a trend or style that might box us in?
Or, when we’re working within established systems and best practices anyway, does it really matter?
We asked a few established, independent designers for their take.
"Our point of view and the willingness to express it as designers will be the most important asset when robots take over our industry."
First, how does style play into it?
Voice and identity and style tend to get wrapped up in the same conversation. While they are inextricably linked, there is a distinction. Think about it in terms of writing:
A writer's voice is their unique perspective, their way of seeing and filtering the world.
A writer's style is the technical choices they make (specific language, words and turns of phrase) which may change depending on the piece they're writing.
Their identity is how they fit into the world. It's how they are perceived as a writer, where voice and style coalesce.
A writer may choose a specific style again and again, and become known for it. Or they may write a range of novels over their lifetime in varying styles. No matter what style they write in, their same voice will come through. Their voice is their point of view. Their style is how it's expressed. Their identity is the result.
The same is true for designers. Our style preference may change over the course of our career, and from one project to the next. There's nothing wrong with that. It's our voice that will, hopefully, come through loud and clear no matter the style. And that's how we make a name for ourselves.
So how do we find that voice?
Pranjal Kaila, who goes by the moniker "ajeeb," primarily creates visual identities and brand strategies. Image from ajeeb.in, made with Semplice.
Trust your instincts
For our voice to emerge, we have to listen to it ourselves first. As we work and learn, those instincts will get louder. And the more we trust them, they get stronger. They may even guide us in an opposite direction from what we or our clients expect.
“Usually when clients approach me they tend to have a certain expectation in mind or are looking for something similar to what I had already done. But I don't let that drive my creative process,” says Pranjal Kaila, an independent interdisciplinary artist & designer based in Gurgaon, India. “I approach projects from a tactical standpoint and make decisions based on my intuition."
Your intuition is formed, in part, by your education and experience. But it also comes from who you are. The more you trust your gut, the more you begin navigating the world on your own terms. Eventually, that defines the work you do.
Work toward the project goals. Follow the brief. But also follow your instincts and see where they lead you.
Libby Connolly creates thoughtful identities & branded content, including beautiful typography design. Image from libbyconnolly.com, made with Semplice.
Play to your strengths
For Libby Connolly, an independent designer and art director based in Portland, Maine, establishing her identity means catering to her strengths and unique eye for design.
"A lot of my work is type-driven and usually layered with varying elements and fine detail," Connolly says. “This is my personal style, however, those stylistic preferences can take many different forms.”
If you also have a love of detail, or color, or words, embrace it. Whether you're working on a product UX or on branding projects, we will see that love for detail or color come through. We'll begin to know you by it.
When possible, choose projects that fit those strengths. For many of us, it's a luxury to turn down work that doesn't feel like a natural fit for us. But anytime we can proactively and intentionally seek those projects, our shape as a designer comes clearer into view.
“That is why a client hires a creative person – to bring the style and voice to the project," says Tracy Doyle, an NYC-based creative director and brand consultant. "If you are starting out and receive a brief where the client is asking for a specific style that doesn't feel inherently right for you, perhaps it isn't a good fit. I understand that saying no takes courage, especially in a tough economic climate, but sometimes it is the wisest decision you can make.”
Tracy Doyle is a creative director and brand consultant working with clients like CHANEL, Tiffany & Co. and Gucci. Image from tracydoyle.com, made with Semplice.
"Having a distinct identity is the very essence of any creative medium, and design should be no different."
“Be a sponge,” says Connolly. “Browse design blogs and just look at other work, a lot of it. Take note of what you gravitate towards and why. Then try it out on your next passion project. This is what will ultimately become your own unique eye for design. Just absorb as much as you can. I still practice this exercise to this very day.”
Doyle seconds that.
“Ingest everything — especially when you are starting out. Visit museums; dissect typography; binge-watch cinematic gems; read voraciously; attend performances and study how movement, sounds, set, and costume all come together to create a performance."
While design handbooks and tutorials may be handy in the moment, won't find yourself there. It's the greater world that teaches you, inspires you and shapes your unique perspective.
"Different mediums all contribute to your creative capacity to produce ideas and form your point of view, but they also teach you how different types of work can evoke an emotional response," says Doyle. "That becomes a powerful tool when considering what you want the audience to feel when engaging with your own work.”
Don't discount self-expression
We may say art and design have different goals, but design is still an artistic practice. No matter how hard we preach otherwise, our designs are a visual expression of who we are.
“Design should be approached like any creative medium,” says Doyle. “A Fellini film looks, sounds, and feels remarkably different than a film by Agnès Varda; a painting by Modigliani is distinctly unique from, say, a Rothko or Alex Katz. Having a distinct identity is the very essence of any creative medium, and design should be no different. In part, this is about differentiating yourself from others, but it is also about your own sense of expression.”
“Unlike economics and science, design problems can have more than one right answer,” Kaila says. When every brief is broken down into formulas and processes, your creative voice is what will make a design solution unique. Our point of view and the willingness to express it as designers will be the most important asset when robots take over our industry.”
We don't just "find" our identity. We can shape it.
We talk about "finding" our identity, as if it's already out there and we just have to stumble upon it. But we have more control than that implies. Just like you'd craft an identity for a client, you create one for yourself.
“Creating a distinct creative identity for me means putting my best foot forward in attracting like-minded creatives and clients,” says Connolly. “For example, if I wanted to appeal more to tech companies, I’d portray myself much differently."
A client or company has countless options when selecting a designer for a project. It’s not your years of experience or your mastery of specific tools that make you their perfect choice. It’s the clients you choose and the work you create. It's your attitude, your voice, your process, how you describe yourself. It's who you are aligning with who they are.
The place where all of it comes together? Your portfolio.
It's here we see the picture of you develop – a story you tell through your website design, your case studies, your bio, even your typography choices. It's where we see your style and hear your voice without the filter of your client or the medium. It's where you tell us who you are on your own terms.
Celebrate the continuous process
Our interests and tastes will change over time. And that shapes the work we do. Even the most recognized designers don’t have it pinned down – or even define themselves by that unsatisfied state. It’s what motivates them to learn, experiment and evolve.
“Trying to find your own identity is hard,” says Kaila. “I think I am still in the process of discovering it."