All posts in: Design Discussion
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There are dirty little secrets in every profession, and the field of visual design is no different. It’s been my experience that clients tend to think of me as someone who sits around and has fun playing in Photoshop all day (hardly what they would call “real work”), and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This isn’t easy – I’m usually juggling many clients at once, trying to meet insanely tight deadlines, fielding phone calls and attending meetings, all while trying to stay as creative as possible and on top of the latest design trends. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that visual designers (like me) generally tend to look out for themselves and skew their output in ways which makes the daily grind easier to manage.

So, in no particular order, I’d like to present a few dirty little secrets about the visual designers you hire to work on your own projects:

We use stock photos and other graphics whenever possible

Back in the early days of my design career, I worked with a guy who I considered to be a really good designer. Whatever he worked on seemed to be on the cutting edge of the latest trends, and I remember greatly admiring him for his ability to reinvent his style from project to project. That’s a really hard thing to do, and I was in awe. However, it wasn’t until we worked together on a project for the first time that I learned the secret to his success: stock illustrations and “borrowed” design elements. What he essentially did was take existing elements from other designers, modified them a bit, and arranged them into compositions relevant to the project he was working on – and he wowed the client every single time. He did very little illustration and layout exploration on his own, and I was totally bummed when I realized what he was doing. It was like revealing the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz!

That’s an extreme case, but the truth is that I learned a very important lesson from him. Sometimes it’s ok not to reinvent the wheel and struggle to solve design problems that have been solved long ago. Illustration, for example, is extremely time consuming and can easily eat up entire project budgets really quick. More often than not, I find myself reaching for assets left over from old projects (and even from my own stock illustration collection) in order to meet tight deadlines at or under budget.

Additionally, ask to see the contents of your designer’s bookmark folder. You’re likely to find scores of links to award winning (and really cool) examples of projects just like yours. We look at this kind of stuff a lot to help spark ideas for the work we are creating for you. Just don’t be surprised if we “borrow” an element or two that we found somewhere else.

We don’t like it when clients give us laser-specific design direction

I may be nodding my head in agreement when a client tells me to change the button colors from blue to orange, but the truth is that I already tried orange and it clashed with other elements on the page. And although I’ll try my best to give them my expert opinion as to why that doesn’t work (possibly creating an updated mockup right then and there in the meeting), I know that these battles are not easily won.

The fact of the matter is that we are the style and design experts, so we appreciate it when clients respect our opinion when it comes to knowing what looks good and what doesn’t. Our reputation is on the line as well, so this project is as important to us as it is to them.

The Oatmeal did a brilliant job of summarizing this point in a comic strip, so much so that it’s not even worth reading any additional thoughts from me on the matter. He totally nailed it.

We care more about our own portfolio than your product

Don’t worry – I’m not saying that we don’t care about making you and your product look good. What I am saying is that we tend to skew our output towards styles that we favor and are likely to enhance our full portfolio of visual design work. Even I fully admit to steering clients into particular design directions that would help me learn new techniques and fill in empty spaces in my own portfolio.

I can hear you all gasping from here. But fear not – even though I’m looking out for myself, I’ll do whatever I can to address my client’s issues and make sure they get what they want. The key here is negotiation – both sides listening and respecting one another, and making adjustments until everyone is satisfied. I’m not going to just throw ideas at them that I know they won’t like – I’ll integrate my needs in with theirs, and I’m hoping they will do the same.

And yes, we will turn down projects that don’t seem interesting. I’ve certainly done it in the past, and a long time colleague of mine is notorious for this. He’s incredibly picky, selfish…and very smart. He’s also one of the most talented designers I know, so he can afford to be choosy.

Indecisiveness will cause us to lose interest

I admit it. I’ve dropped clients in the past who kept changing requirements all throughout the design process, causing confusion and chaos for all involved. It’s a mentally draining experience to have to go back and redo design concepts over and over (and over) again in order to incorporate last minute feedback and product tweaks, and I do what I can to avoid getting stuck in that trap. There are so many other things I’d rather be working on that would feed my creative soul and further my career.

Most of the other visual designers I know have that same “abbreviated” attention span, and I’d be willing to bet that they’d agree with me when I say that clients who don’t know what they want are usually the most difficult to work with.

We secretly wish we would have chosen a different career

I’ve always wondered if I was the only designer that had rouge thoughts like this, but after 18 years of being deep in the trenches of corporate design studios, I’ve found that many of my visual design colleagues feel exactly the same way. Why the heck did we choose a career that is so incredibly subjective? Everyone has an opinion on style and design, and it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Our ultimate goal, it seems, is to deliver design solutions that will annoy as few people as possible.

I should have chosen a career with very clear objectives. Moving furniture is a perfect example – there’s only one way to deliver furniture from one building to another, and once complete, you punch your time card and go home. The world of graphics and design is not like this, especially when dealing with clients from hell. Once the preliminary concepts have been presented, then begins the endless stream of revisions, more brainstorming sessions, design explorations, last-minute requirements changes, and more revisions. All due within incredibly short deadlines, of course. I just want to finish gracefully and move on to the next project!

The bottom line

I realize that all of this probably sounds selfish and arrogant (so much that I was even thinking about not posting it), but writing stuff like this helps me vent. Being a visual designer is a lot harder than most people think, so don’t be too hard on me for shedding some light on what’s really going on.

Anyone need some furniture moved?

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I don’t normally like to write “rant” posts, but today I need to vent. 🙂 I’m currently in the middle of a really complicated project with my primary client, and as much as I enjoy working with those folks on a daily basis, they are slowly driving me mad. It’s been eating away at me for some time now, and this entire experience has made me start to think about how visual designers are often the most abused members of any creative design team. It’s something I’ve personally experienced since I started with my first job back in the late 90’s, and it’s also something I’ve seen my peers struggle with as well. Why is it so much fun to poop on the visual designers?

The exact scenarios are always different from client to client, but the issue I’m facing now is that I’m being asked to solve an incredible amount of creative visual problems within very short timeframes. To make matters worse, the requirements are constantly changing so I’m having to redo the same work over and over – which really hurts after staying up late at night trying to finish concepts, only to have them made irrelevant by last-minute changes that come first thing the next morning. It’s maddening!

This particular client has the mentality that being busy is necessary for success, and that nothing is ever finished until the very last second before it’s shipped out the door. They work blindingly fast towards self-imposed super-tight deadlines, and I’m stuck in the middle of all that. Non-creatives don’t really understand how much effort goes into creating something visually perfect, and it’s very difficult to be creative when trying to race the clock. Every single day over the past few months has felt like a non-stop emergency from sunrise to sunset, so to say that I’m a bit frustrated with the process is a bit of an understatement.

With this frustration rattling around in my brain, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some friendly advice to all you busy-body project managers out there who have visual designers on your team.

The consequences of working with a frustrated visual designer:

  • It can be detrimental to your product or brand. They are the ones that are creating the customer-facing assets that define your business, so if you aren’t protecting them and keeping them satisfied they won’t be willing to go the extra mile to design an award-winning solution for you.
  • The word will spread that you are difficult to work with. We visual designers are a gossipy, well-connected bunch. It blows me away how often I run into other designers who know someone I used to work with way back when, and we usually have a lot of fun talking about the things we’ve done and the companies we worked for. It really is a small world…
  • You won’t be able to retain top talent. I’ve worked side by side with a great number of visual designers over the years, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that most don’t put up with overly-demanding clients. Working in a high-pressure environment is not good for anyone’s creativity, and designers thrive on being left alone (and given time) to do what they do best.

Despite how frustrated (and blunt) I may sound, writing out my thoughts like this helps to purge that negativity so I can focus on the positive. The client of mine who inspired this post knows my stance on this issue, and I am happy to say that they have admitted to being difficult. Whether they change their ways or not is yet to be seen, but keeping the lines of communication open is certainly a step in the right direction.

Thanks for letting me vent. Now back to work…

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One of the most enjoyable things about being an illustrator is all the toys we get to play with. I’m a tech nerd through and trough, so my tools and toys are probably more high-tech compared to artists who prefer to work with more traditional media. But it doesn’t really matter how we do our work – there are always neat new tools to work with that can inspire us to create amazing things in ways we never considered before.

Since I am often asked how I produce my illustrations, I thought it would be fun to write about all of the design tools that are currently in my arsenal that I absolutely cannot live without. I’ve used a lot of different software and hardware over the years, and there are a few products that have stood the test of time and will remain a core part of my design studio for a long time to come:

Wacom Tablet

I’ll admit that it took me far too long to get comfortable with a drawing tablet, but it’s been the biggest game-changer of them all for me over last 10 years. I bought my first Wacom tablet in 2006 (a white Graphire 4), and the frustration I felt after playing with it for the first 20 minutes is something I remember quite well. The hope of creating super-cool drawings with my computer was washed away like a tsunami as soon as I realized the necessary coordination involved, and I tossed it back in the box in a fit of frustration.

It sat untouched for the next 4 years, but I pulled it back out in 2010 determined to make it work because…well…all the other cool illustrators use them, so there must be something that makes the learning curve worth the effort. Right? Long story short, I stuck with it and I’m at the point now where using a mouse seems weird to me. I’ve since upgraded to a medium-sized Wacom Intuos 5, and I’m pretty confident when I say that my aircraft illustrations wouldn’t be possible without this thing. Manually applying soft shadows to complex surfaces in Photoshop requires a delicate and precise touch, and the Intuos 5 is the perfect tool for the job.

PhotoStore from Ktools.net

Jeff and Jon at Ktools.net have built an incredibly powerful photo store script that is something I have grown to depend on over the years for the distribution of my images. I started selling my own illustrations with PhotoStore 3 in 2007, and back then, I was a bit apprehensive about running my own store and dealing with all the potential headaches that might be associated with that. Server issues, corrupt files, updates…ugh. I am a designer who hates to dabble in code so I was very pleasantly relieved when I realized how stable the PhotoStore platform was. I’ve since upgraded to version 4 and I couldn’t be any happier – everything runs smoothly and exactly as it should so I never have to spend time tinkering with annoying technical issues. And even if I do run into a problem, the ongoing support they offer is top-notch. I’m a customer for life.

Sketchbook Pro

As I developed the hand/eye coordination to use my Wacom tablet, I grew more and more excited about rekindling an old passion of mine: drawing cars. I quickly found Photoshop to be too clunky for free and loose sketching, and that led me to SketchBook Pro by Autodesk. It was exactly what I was looking for in a drawing tool: a simple and clean interface, the ability to switch between pens and pencils quickly, super-fast brush size changes, and the ability to freely rotate the canvas as I worked.

Although I don’t post any of my sketches here on my blog, I’m trying to draw by hand as much as possible. Just seeing the app icon for SketchBook Pro sitting in the dock at the bottom of my screen every day has been an inspiring reminder for me to step away from the technical 3d stuff whenever possible and get back to my roots (drawing by hand).

FormZ

I’ve been a FormZ user since 1999, and I’ve grown to love it’s simplicity and ease of use for creating rich 3d content. It doesn’t get much love and attention from others in the 3d world (outside the architecture realm), but I’ve found it to be one of the tools I depend on the most in my day to day activities.

Even though I recently mentioned that I want to be using Maya as much as possible to create images for my Royalty-Free image collection, I’m starting to realize that might not be as realistic as I had hoped. Maya is incredibly powerful, and offers an awesome assortment of tools for building complex models. But the downside is that rendering times are often too long for high-volume production work. And that’s where FormZ shines.

FormZ is a powerful 3d modeling program without all the nauseating complexity that you’d find elsewhere (like Maya), and that allows me to create 3d content quickly (from rough geometry to final rendering) without much fuss.

The fastest computer I can afford

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business, it’s that time is a valuable thing. Clients tend to demand things as fast as possible, and I like to move fast so that I can have more personal free time to do the things I want to do. Since I spend all day in front of a computer, it behooves me to be using hardware that can keep a fast pace and won’t leave me sitting and waiting for it to catch up.

That may seem like common sense, but for years I had a hard time justifying the cost of a powerful computer built for heavy visual design work. I’ve always been a bit of a tightwad, and the thought of spending a ton of money on hardware that would be obsolete in six months sent shudders up an down my spine. But two years ago, while working with a very complex 3d model that was bringing my years-old iMac to it’s knees, I decided enough was enough and went big on a beefy multi-processor Mac Pro. It was some of the best money I’ve ever spent in my life. Lesson learned.

Because I’m a sucker for hot new technology, I am always on the lookout for products that I think will allow me to grow as a designer. The list above is what I consider to be my “core” toolset – likely to always be there out of familiarity and alignment with my own design process. I am sure the list will keep growing as I advance in my career, but for now, I’d be lost without any of them.

How about you? I’m curious what other designers consider to be part of their core toolset, so please leave a comment and let me know!

Audi R8 3d wireframe
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Now that I’ve made the decision to migrate my 3d workflow to Maya, I feel like I’ve totally given up my “pro” status and reverted way back to newbie mode. You know…that awkward (and sometimes painful) stage where it takes far too long to accomplish seemingly simple tasks and nothing seems to be getting done. It’s a frustrating place to be considering how many project ideas I have floating around in my head, and learning a complex new 3d modeling package is putting a serious damper on my output.

Ive been busting my you-know-what over the past several months, and I’m not going to lie that I’m a bit irritated that I don’t really have anything to show for it other than a couple shiny renderings (that I can’t sell as stock) and a bunch of new data about Maya stored in my brain. I’m used to producing content at a high volume, so this is kind of a big change of pace for me. I know that I’ll be better off in the long run though, so slowing down a bit and learning Maya is not something I regret doing at all.

Building my first car

I’m currently up to my eyeballs with my second Maya project: a 2008 Audi R8. I admit that seems like a rather lofty goal for a Maya newbie, but I’m a 3d expert…right? Yes, I’m being sarcastic. While I do have years of 3d modeling experience behind me, nearly of all that has been with FormZ using solids-based modeling methods. The car I’m building in Maya is being constructed entirely with polygons – which is a completely different way of constructing objects. That means that I’m basically starting my 3d education over from scratch and there’s not much I can leverage from all my years of previous modeling experience. Sounds fun, right?

You have no idea. I’m currently about half way done with this car so far, and on two separate occasions over the past week I’ve come very close to giving up and forgetting about this project forever. I’ve been pushing and pulling vertices for weeks now, and it’s so intense that I actually dream about it at night (and these aren’t pleasant dreams). One step forward, two steps back – that’s the way it goes for a beginner to polygonal modeling.

Audi R8 wireframe I'm currently building

Front view of the Audi R8 wireframe I’m currently building

As frustrating as it’s been, I’m also having a lot of fun. Modeling with polygons in Maya has really opened up my eyes in terms of realizing what’s possible with 3d content, so I thought it would be fun to list out some of the things I’ve learned since starting to build this car:

1). Polygonal (subdivision) modeling is very forgiving

I know this isn’t a Maya-specific thing, but coming from a solids-based modeling background, I’m blown away at how forgiving modeling with polygons can be. With a solid object, the geometry essentially had to be perfect to achieve nice bevels and proper transformations – and many times those transformations simply weren’t possible. But with polygons, I can push and pull, merge and cut, extrude, and tweak forever to achieve the shape I want.

2). Tweaking forever can be a bad thing

Compared to FormZ, there is a control or adjustment in Maya for everything. And I do mean everything. That level and control and adjustment gets the designer in me very excited, but I find that the more I mess with stuff, the more I screw things up. This is especially bad when sculpting something very organic like the surface of a car. It takes a long time to get the surfaces and forms right, and I’ve ruined hours of work on my R8 trying to fine tune things after I was already satisfied with a complex panel. It’s tempting not to touch all those buttons and sliders in the control dialogs – and I’m learning to realize that less is more with complex models such as this.

3). A highly glossy and reflective 3d rendering can hide a lot of mistakes in the mesh

This is something I already knew, but Maya takes it to a whole new level. Mental Ray (the built in rendering engine) is really good at producing really juicy images without much effort. That’s a good thing, because I’ve quickly discovered that building a clean mesh is a delicate art, and I’m pretty darn far from being delicate. However, I’ve come to discover that if the end goal is just a pretty rendering or quick fly-by animation, a blingy Mental Ray rendering with some nice HDR lighting will draw attention away from the imperfections.

4). Rendering in Maya takes forever (or so it seems)

Generating quick renders to preview my progress on a 3d model has been part of my workflow for years, and in FormZ I could just quickly rip off small 320×240 production-quality renderings in a matter of seconds to check out surfaces and lighting. It’s not quite that fast in Maya – and to make matters worse, rendering completely locks up my stout Mac Pro until it’s totally complete. As a guy who likes to multi-task, this is borderline unacceptable. I can easily let a FormZ render run in the background while I work on other things, so this is a hard change for me to accept. Someone did tell me the other day that it’s possible to limit the rendering process to certain cores of my Mac’s processor which would alleviate that problem – so that’s something I’m definitely going to look into.

5). I’m not as good as I thought I was

Jumping over to Maya has been challenging enough, but trying to build a detailed car has taken it up another notch. I’m nearly in over my head here, and I hate the feeling of not being able to do what I want to do in a timely manner. This is my first truly organic 3d model, and to say I’m flailing at times is an understatement. I know I’m learning though, so I will continue to push on…

Anyway, I’m sure that I’m going to be learning a lot more as I work to complete this car, and I’m getting pretty anxious to wrap it up. I’m not rushing it though – this car will likely just be a part of my portfolio and nothing more, so it’s not like I’m under a tight deadline to get it done or anything. The wireframe previews I posted above show it in it’s current state, which is the result of about two weeks worth of work (about 2 to 3 hours each day). I figure it’s going to take another 2-3 weeks to finish completely, and at that point I’ll post some pictures here to show it off. I’m crossing my fingers that it comes together ok, so stay tuned.

3d rolex watch rendering
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Way back in 1996, I started tinkering in the world of 3d with Alias running on Silicon Graphics workstations at my first job right out of college. From there I migrated to FormZ to design trade show exhibits at my second job – but that was very short lived. I only stayed in that gig for a year, throwing in the towel to go off and design websites during the dot com boom of 1999-2001. I thought my 3d days were behind me at that point, and to be honest, I was having more fun doing websites and user interfaces than anything else I had been doing so far.

2001 to 2006 was a largely 3d-free time in my career. I was strictly focused on user interface design, occasionally messing around with an old copy of 3DS Max whenever I needed to create some basic (really basic) 3d objects for interface projects. It was so sporadic, in fact, that I never really learned my way around Max that well – to say I struggled is putting it mildly.

In 2006, I was looking to expand creatively outside of my day job, and I started shooting stock photography. I launched the Norebbo brand, and I shot photos exclusively for the first month. But it wasn’t satisfying – and I quickly noticed how difficult it was to stand out from the plethora of other photographers who had a lot more talent that I did. I needed an edge! I started thinking about creating stock illustrations instead of shooting photos, and long story short – I downloaded a demo version of my trusty old friend: FormZ. I suddenly found myself back in the world of 3d, and that leads me to where I am today.

It’s been 8 years since I got re-aqainted with FormZ, and I’m happy to say that it’s become a tool I know well and like very much. Nearly all of my 3d illustrations up until this point have been created with it, and I really like the things that it can do. But the things it can not do well (like modeling organic shapes) has been eating at me for far too long and I am at the point now where I feel like it’s holding me back.

Six months ago I started looking around for a more powerful 3d modeling package, weighing the pros and cons of each, and I ultimately decided on Maya by Autodesk. I tinkered with it for a bit, became quickly overwhelmed (lol) and ran straight back to FormZ with my tail between my legs. But two months ago I decided enough was enough and that I needed to start taking classes or running through tutorials so I could begin the migration.

It’s been a hectic 60 days – but I’m learning a lot, and I’m absolutely blown away with how much more powerful it is over FormZ. I’ve followed a handful of really good tutorials, but the Rolex Daytona watch tutorial I completed just a few days ago was fantastic and worthy of a shoutout. It’s a 57-part youtube series created by Stephan Pilz (aka Pixelbahn), and he does a spectacular job of going through the process of building this watch in Maya step-by-step. It took me 4 weeks to finish my own model, but it was most certainly worth the time – I learned so much, more than any other tutorial I’ve found so far. The results speak for themselves:

close up rendering of the rolex watch

Close up rendering of the face of this Rolex watch

Front perspective view

Front perspective view

Rolex watch wireframe

Rolex watch wireframe

Maya default surface texture

One of the things I really like about Maya is that I can quickly evaluate surfaces, even after textures have been applied

Maya viewport windows

Maya viewport windows

This is by far the most complex 3d model I have ever created, and I owe it all to Stephan for creating and publishing this tutorial. After building this Rolex and learning some really great new modeling techniques, I’m really excited about going off on my own and building some new things that I never could do with FormZ.

Yes, FormZ will always be part of my workflow (I love it too much to abandon completely), but Maya has officially become my 3d weapon of choice. This is going to be good!

clipboard showing a list of tips for new designers
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Several years ago I wrote an article in which I offered some advice for young designers just coming into the profession. The purpose of that article was to share some of the mistakes that I made early in my own career, in hopes that others could learn from that and find a somewhat smoother road than I took when I was first starting out.

I’m always thinking about this kind of stuff, so I thought it would be a good time to write it all out. Here are five more useful tips for young designers:

Don’t be afraid to spend money on the design software that you really want to use

Not being an expert in my “dream” software packages has probably been one of the biggest regrets in my design career up until this point. I started out in Photoshop and Illustrator just like most other designers do, and I’m confident when I say that I’m an expert in both. I had unlimited access to these tools at every design job that I’ve ever had, and it’s to the point now where I don’t even flinch when purchasing upgrades (or new licenses) for these packages out of my own wallet today. These are necessary tools for me and my business.

However, I have always wanted to become an expert in Maya and/or 3ds Max. Since 3d work hadn’t been a core part of my profession up until 2006, I had been really apprehensive about spending the money for what would have essentially been a “hobby” tool for me. Even in 2006, it was a scary thought to shell out $3500+ for a single software license and no matter how much I tried to justify it, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I purchased a license of Form-Z (a modeling package I had brief experience with several years prior) for $1600.

Looking back on that decision, I wish I would have shelled out the cash for 3ds Max or Maya instead. Don’t get me wrong – Form-Z is a highly capable 3d modeling and rendering package, but it isn’t very compatible with anything else and the online support community is frustratingly small. If I would have just decided to go all-in on 3ds Max or Maya, I’d have expert-level knowledge of either of them right now. Instead, I’m an expert in Form-Z…which nobody really cares about since not many people outside of the architectural world have heard of it.

So go ahead and spend the big bucks on the software you want to use. It’s an investment in your career.

Go with the flow

Visual design is a subjective thing – what you like isn’t necessarily what your client is going to like, so compromise plays a big part in this career. The naive side of me didn’t fully realize this until I left college and was finding myself being forced to do what the creative director told me, and it was a challenging new experience to say the least. The most frustrating part of it was that I really had no choice – I either had to do as I was told, or I could quit. There didn’t seem like much of an in-between at the time.

Years later, I’ve learned that just going with the flow makes things a lot easier (to a point – see the next tip below). If a client asks me to do something that I don’t agree with, I happily do it – along with an additional design concept that I prefer. Having this second concept is beneficial in two ways:

1). You can use it to explicitly show why your client’s idea may not be the best solution.

2). If your client still doesn’t agree with your proposed design, you can feel good knowing that you’ve still made the client happy, and that you’ve got something nice for your portfolio – even though the chosen design wasn’t your primary choice. If you feel strongly enough about it, you can even use it as a case-study. Show the differences between the two and describe why you feel yours is better.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should always cave in to ridiculous demands – after all, you’ve got a reputation to uphold! That leads me to my next tip:

Don’t be afraid to take a stand and defend your work

Going with the flow can is fine – to a point. But what if your client is asking you to produce something that you would be downright embarrassed to have your name attached to? These are the times in which you need to stand up for what you believe in.

It’s all too easy to cave in to a demanding client – and I’m guilty of this from time to time as well. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason this happens, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and suggest that it’s due to several factors: fear of losing a good job, not having enough confidence to be considered as an “expert”, or perhaps just a general feeling of wanting to make everyone happy. The problem is that these feelings only last for so long and you’ll soon find yourself losing patience with those who are telling you (the designer) how to do things.

If you never take a stand and establish yourself as the expert, it’s likely that your clients will walk all over you and not allow you the creative freedom to do your job.

It’s ok to be introverted

Those of you who know me in real life know that I have somewhat of an introverted personality, and up until a few years ago, I was constantly worrying about whether or not this was hurting my chances of success as a visual designer. After all, I’ve spent years working for companies and extroverted clients who seemed to take great pleasure in yanking me out of my social comfort zone and trying (unsuccessfully) to mold me into the extroverted designer rock star they wanted me to be. Were they right in trying to shed me of my introverted personality? Now more than ever, I know that the answer to that is “no”.

The fact of the matter is that I’ve done well in my career up to this point. I scored highly in design school, I’ve worked at several really great fortune 500 companies, and most recently, I’ve done well freelancing for a handful of great clients. And I’ve done all this with a socially-awkward and introverted personality. Most clients will get past that if I prove to them that I’ve got the design skills they are looking for.

One final thought on this: I give Jony Ive a lot of credit for helping me to accept who I am. Have you ever noticed how he never appears on stage at any of Apple’s large media events? He said before that he’s not a showman, yet that isn’t stopping him from being one of the most influential designers of our time.

Build your own personal brand

Most designers start their career as employees at a design firm of some sort, which is a great way to learn the business of design – as well as building a portfolio of professional work. However, there is a high likelihood that you’ll eventually grow tired of working for someone else and having to deal with their rules and processes and you’re going to want to go out on your own. This is a normal feeling, and I actually started experiencing it it just two years out of college while I was working as a designer for a large Fortune 500 company here in southern California.

The problem at the time was that I was a virtual “nobody”. I had no online presence, a web search on my name revealed nothing, and I really had no idea how to sell myself to potential clients.

Fast forward to May of 2006, and I started the Norebbo brand with my stock illustration collection. To be honest, I didn’t really plan on trying to do any brand building – I just chose the name to represent myself at all the major stock photo agencies and things just sort of took off from there. Seven years later, Google is sending me thousands of hits from people searching for the term “norebbo”. It seems by making a presence for myself via this blog, and social media like Facebook and Twitter, I’ve accidentally established a sought-after brand name.

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: even if you are happy in your cushy design agency job today, there’s a really good chance you’ll be yearning to venture off on your own at some point in your career. It’s going to be a LOT easier if your name (or your brand name) shows up as a top hit in a Google search for “design” or something similar . Get active. Start a blog. Use Twitter and Facebook. Make yourself known.

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If there is one thing that I struggle with when designing for my clients, it’s the debate that usually sparks when I present concepts which use gray as the base color. The argument typically heard is that gray is too dull and drab, and they prefer to see concepts with “lots of color” instead. Don’t get me wrong – I like color. A lot. There’s an art to developing inviting and cohesive color palette which emphasize mood and emotion, and that’s one of my favorite parts about being a designer. However, I draw the line at adding lots of color just for the sake of making something colorful.

My design philosophy is based around the premise that color needs to have a purpose. I like to apply my color palettes in a way that promotes good usability as opposed to aesthetic reasons alone. For example, the color red should should be limited to alert-type elements, and green usually is left for confirmations and metaphors of “success”. I know that’s an overly simplistic example, but I think you get my point. There’s usually a lot of thought that goes into deciding how a color should be used.

The reason for my tendency of using gray as a base color is that by doing so, I can indirectly focus the users attention on what matters. For example, if I’m designing a menu with some very important buttons that are critical to the flow of the user interface, those buttons need to stand out from the rest of the design. If everything else on the screen is as colorful as that very important button, a conflict occurs when there’s no clear indication as to what element is important and what action needs to be taken. By keeping the framework and all less important elements of the UI in gray tones (or other neutral colors), I can use color to draw attention to the things that are most important.

As a Mac user, one of the most common complaints I hear from others (mostly non-designer types) is: “Why are all the icons in the OSX finder gray? It’s so boring!” (see Figure 1). I hear this over and over again, and honestly – it really irritates me. I’ve never heard a formal explanation from the OSX development team as to why they did this, but I think I have a pretty good idea why: it keeps clutter to an absolute minimum, and this is especially critical when doing creative work. No matter what kind of stuff you’re doing (image / video editing, 3d rendering, illustration, etc), you want to focus on your work – and not be distracted by visually strong UI elements. At least I don’t want to.

Honestly, the color gray doesn’t automatically equate to “boring”, “dull”, or “drab”. Used properly, it can enhance the overall user experience of a complex product by helping to define zones of focus. I’m sure this is something that I’ll never have to stop explaining to clients, but no matter – I enjoy defending my philosophy about design and the way I approach my work.

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Ive mentioned a few times before that I am a die-hard car guy. I love cars, and have held the interest my entire life. That love for cars led me to persue a career in automotive design during college (which I ultimately decided against), but I have always had great interest in beautiful cars.

But one thing that I’ve never had much interest in is customizing my cars (or other products that I own) to my own specific taste. Every car I have ever bought has remained stock – just as it came from the factory. To be honest, I have always thought this was kind of weird considering that I am a professional designer and I like to surround myself with beautiful things. Why am I against going against the grain and doing my own thing?

I was reading a few online car forums last night (as I always like to do in my spare time), and I had an epiphany of sorts as I was browsing through user-submitted galleries of customized cars. Basically, it comes down to this: most of the high-end things that I buy are carefully researched, and I have chosen them because I consider them to be finely designed products crafted by professionals who pour their blood, sweat, and tears into them to make them as good as they could possibly be. Why spoil that? As a designer, I know what it takes to develop a great product, and then watch in horror as users add their own personal flair to it. Most of the time, it evolves into something I no longer wish to have my name attached to.

Nearly everything I own is stock. My car, my phone – even the walls in my office are relatively bare. Of course there are exceptions, but nearly all of the time, I can’t bring myself to spoil the lines (or soul) of a great product that has had all of it’s parts designed from the ground up to work together in harmony with one another. And I tend to think that a lot of other designers feel this same way – at least the ones I have worked with over the years. Of all the people I’ve known in my life, I have noticed that it’s always the non-designers who are hell-bent on tinkering with things to “make them better”.

I think it would be fun to do formal research on this. But for now, I’m just glad that I am starting to understand the reasoning behind my nerdy behavior.

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It occurred to me the other day that I am no longer a young designer. Even though I can still remember it like it was yesterday, it has been 14 years since I graduated from college (*sigh*). I’ve had a great career up to this point, and I feel fortunate to have worked with some of the most talented people in the industry. Along the way, I’ve experienced the thrill of victory as well as the agony of defeat. It’s been an adventure to say the least.

As I approach the mid-point of my design career, I’d like to take a moment to offer some advice to young designers who are just starting out today. I’ve racked up some pretty good experience through the years, and these are the most important bits of advice I can give to anyone just getting started:

Don’t give away your work (or time) for free

As a budding designer, one of the most degrading things you can do for yourself (and this industry) is to give your work away for free. Would you expect your car mechanic to fix your transmission for free?  Or how about your dentist fixing your teeth as a favor? You have a very specialized talent that people are seeking – so why let them take advantage of that?

Many argue that giving design services away for free is the only way to build up a portfolio, but I disagree. Why not take some time to work on your own projects? Or better yet – how about redesigning some existing poorly-executed design (like a logo or a website) from a well known company? As someone who has interviewed many designers in the past, I really enjoy seeing how a young designer can take something that exists today and make it better. To me, the “before and after” examples are the money shot in a job interview.

Here’s another thing to think about: even if you are just starting out and you have no clients, giving your services away can be detrimental over the long term. In the future, will your freeloading clients be willing to pay when you’ve done so much free work for them in the past?

Take your time – don’t become the fastest designer in the studio

I’ve always been a fast worker, and a year-long stint at a high volume exhibit design company about 12 years ago taught me how to be even faster. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into work in the morning with the company sales team waiting for my arrival at  the door, anxious to feed me design requirements from new clients that needed an exhibit design proposal by the end of the day.  Each and every day was filled with crazy deadlines like this, and the only way to keep my head above water was to stop being so analytical about everything and just start sketching like a mad man. If they wanted a custom 48’ x 48’ trade show exhibit designed from scratch within 8 hours (under budget, of course), I could do that – and the sales team (and my boss) began to take this for granted. At first, they felt sorry for putting so much pressure on me, but since I delivered time and time again with good results, it became normal and expected of me.

When I left that job, I (unfortunately) took that work ethic with me. At each and every job I had after that, I became the go-to guy for speedy design. If somebody wanted something done NOW, I was the guy they came to, bypassing every other designer in the studio. Can you see where problems might start to arise? It wasn’t long until I started feeling burned out, and it was my own fault.  Don’t make the same mistake I did. Take your time. Your quality of work-life will be much better.

Give your clients options

If there is one thing that irritates me about asking another designer to do something for me, it’s not receiving enough design concepts in return. If I’m not satisfied with the design, and the designer doesn’t have any other options to show me, it wastes my time and theirs. If the designer had produced multiple solutions for a single task, I (the client) could give more valuable feedback by selecting elements from each that I liked (and disliked). That helps the designer greatly, as he/she could have a much clearer understanding of how to proceed instead of taking another wild shot in the dark hoping to please me.

Of course, we all know that there may not always be enough time to produce multiple concepts for a single task. In that case, you should quickly mock up a few ideas before spending too much time on just one. Show those mockups to the client as soon as you can – before the first formal design review. This will save a lot of time during the course of the project, because you’ll have a much better chance of spending your time working on something your client is happy with.

Learn to accept criticism

Face it – design in subjective, and everybody has an opinion. You’ll never make everyone happy, so just do your best to accept the fact that there are people who won’t like your work no matter how hard you try to please them. I admit that I’ve felt like throwing my hands up in the air in surrender after endless revisions that did not satisfy the client. In situations like this, the only thing you can do is to push on, and accept the fact that in order to satisfy your client, you’ll sometimes need to create things that you aren’t happy with. In situations like this, I always produce two concepts. One for the client – and one for my portfolio.

If you’re just starting out in this business, get ready to hear “I don’t like it”. A lot.

It’s ok to be a niche designer

If there is one thing I regret about my career up to this point, it’s the fact that I spent far too long trying to find my niche. I have a degree in industrial design, and my first job out of college was as a product designer for a large Fortune 500 company. Within a year after that, I was transitioning toward environmental design, which ultimately led to a year long adventure designing trade show exhibits. By this time (1999), the internet was in full swing and I naturally fell into designing websites – there was so much demand for web designers at the time, and even though I had no experience designing for the web, I found myself as a founding member of an internet startup. When the .com bubble burst, I was out of a job and took a role as a visual designer for a large home appliance company designing graphics for touch-screen interfaces. Once I had enough of that, it was on to mobile UI design – which by the way, I am still heavily involved with today.

For all this experience, I still feel lost sometimes. Unsure of who I am as a designer. Whenever I stumble across a really great website, or an incredibly cool series of vector illustrations, I feel inspired. Inspired by these other designers who have so obviously spent their career developing one core talent to the point that they are masters of the art. In fact, I know designers like this, and I hire them from time to time when I need something that I cannot do myself (like, for example, character illustration). Most of them make a pretty good living focusing on one thing, and as they develop their talent, things just keep getting better.

I feel that I do have a broad range of design skills, but they are diluted compared to other superstar designers. I have never spent enough time focusing on one area of design to the point of mastery, and for that I am ashamed. I can design websites, but I feel like there is so much more I want to learn. Same for 3d graphics. And icon design. The list is endless. If I had stayed focused on product design, I wonder how successful I would be today? I’d have 15 years of experience doing that one thing by now, so it does give me reason to think. This is something you need to think about as well. Do you want to be a good designer who can do many things? Or do you want to focus on one thing and become a superstar?

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I’ve been called a lot of things, but the only thing that really confuses me is my title. I proclaim myself to be a visual designer. I am not a graphic designer, nor am I exclusively a web designer. But I think there is a chance that I might be a digital designer. Ah, confusing isn’t it? So what do all of these different titles mean? Here are my own personal definitions of the most common titles given to people who create graphics:

Graphic Artist – I have never heard the term “graphic artist” more than I did while working in a large Fortune 500 company in the midwest about 13 years ago. It was a communications company with a small design department, of which I was a core member of. In my three years of employment there, I don’t think I was ever once called by my real name by the executives – I was known simply as “the graphic artist”. Those guys and gals had no real understanding of what I did – all they knew is that I could make pretty PowerPoint graphics for them when called upon. To me, their lack of understanding implied that they looked at me the same way they would a painter or fine artist. So to this day, when I hear someone use the term “graphic artist”, I naturally assume they don’t give a crap about what I do on a day to day basis. “Graphic artist” is simply a catch-all term to conveniently label all graphic people as one of the same.

Graphic Designer – Someone primarily focused on print design is most commonly referred to as a “graphic designer”. These are the people who design magazine and book layouts, print advertisements, banners, and billboards. Of all the graphic designers I’ve worked with over the years, I’ve found most to be highly talented vector artists and illustrators as well.

Web Designer – This one is pretty much self-explanatory I think. A web designer is someone who designs and builds websites. This can include everything from the graphic design and layout of the website, all the way to building and deploying it. In my experience, I’ve found that most web designers are more specialized in one area vs. another (graphics vs. coding). The superstars of web design are the ones who can do everything very well. These people are difficult to find, and if you are lucky enough to come across one – pay them handsomely.

Digital Designer – You know those fancy on-screen menus that come with your DVD and BlueRay movies? That is the work of a digital designer. Digital designers typically work in TV and interactive media, which can also include things like game design and animated websites. Digital designers produce graphics that are rich in mixed media like video, sound, and images.

Visual Designer -A visual designer is someone who dabbles in all aspects of the visual arts. This includes print, web, illustration, and even fine art. Because of the broad range of design categories required n my mind, there are very few truly exceptional visual designers. I’m also noticing many large companies using the term “visual designer” to advertise open design positions, as this implies that they are in need for someone who can do many graphic-related things. So if you are a designer looking for work, take note that anybody looking for a visual designer will work you hard – but it could be a very satisfying experience because of the variety of work involved.

“Visual designer” is the title that I am currently using for myself, and I don’t think it’s working out very well. Whenever I tell someone that I am a “visual designer” it is usually met by blank stares, thus requiring me to take more time for a more detailed explanation. If they still don’t get it after a minute or two of describing the work I do, I realize that I was probably better off by just saying that “I am a graphic artist” to begin with.