5 things your visual designer isn’t telling you

By Norebbo •  7 min read

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?


My name is Scott, and I started in the design industry over 20 years ago with a bachelors degree in Industrial Design from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI. I have an extensive background in both 2D and 3D illustration, and these days, I spend a majority of my time creating aircraft templates and airliner art. I’m basically an airplane dork.

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