Gumption Traps for Graphic Designers

On Tuesday I wrote about gumption traps for artists. Today I’m going to talk about gumption traps for a subset of artists, graphic designers. I figure I’m pretty qualified to write about this since I myself am a graphic designer, and I’ve been pushing pixels and type for about 9 years now.

In thinking about the different things that frustrate the fire out of designers, I’ve realized that you can group them into categories different from the ones discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There are internal and external frustrations, like with everything else. It should be noted that where fine art is internally driven, graphic design is externally driven. A graphic designer is quite often given a task by someone else, or the designer creates his/her own tasks in order to fulfill some external requirement (such as generating new business). The same principles of line, color, form, texture are at work in both disciplines, so the two practices have a lot in common. But Graphic Design, formerly known as Commerical Art, is driven by commerce rather than self-expression. This is an important distinction to make, and if a new designer isn’t careful, it can be the source of many frustrations. I can’t remember who said it, but I remember reading many years ago an interview with some late, great designer who said that “design is about solving problems, and art is about making them.”

External Gumption Traps

So with the thought in mind that many of the gumption traps for designers are external, I’ve found they fall into four main categories:

  • Environmental Traps
  • Communication Traps
  • People Traps
  • Project Traps

Environmental Traps

These are the ones where your environment prevents you from accomplishing what you need to do.

  • Insufficient equipment - If your computer is 10 years old and has almost no RAM or hard drive space, you’re sunk. You’ll be watching spinning beach balls all day while Photoshop tries to do a Gaussian Blur. Get the best equipment you can afford. It’ll save you hours of frustration. It’ll make you a faster and more productive worker in the end.
  • Poor ergonomics - When your mouse makes your wrist hurt constantly or your chair makes your lower back hurt, or you’re otherwise uncomfortable, it distracts you from focusing on doing good work. I want to encourage design managers everywhere to invest in good furniture that won’t hurt workers.

Communication Traps

There are a lot of problems that can be prevented by clear communication upfront, regardless of what field you’re in. One thing I’ve learned: never assume anything. If you’re in any doubt, ask.

  • Unclear communication - When objectives are unclear or there’s a lack of communication, it’s hard to know what to do on a project. Once I was working on a project I thought was a trifold, but it turned out to be a rack card (roughly 4 by 9 inches, two-sided). It was an embarrassing miscommunication. The trick here is to be pro-active and ask. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, no matter how dumb or silly it may seem. Remember that the only dumb question is the one that goes unasked. This is important to remember no matter what your role is. If someone asks you a question you think is dumb, bite your tongue. they’re trying to save themselves (and you) a lot of trouble later on.
  • Client expectations are way off or just plain wrong, or they dumb down the work - When this happens, you need to be proactive in communicating to the client what to expect, and make sure you have all the project details in writing, agreed upon by both sides.

People Traps

Unfortunately they don’t teach interpersonal relations in art school, and I’ve learned that it’s important to have a thick skin around other designers. If somebody doesn’t like the logo you’ve done, don’t take it personally. Commerce is objective, not subjective, and that objective is to sell something. You have to remember that design work is not personal; it’s commercial. Save the personal expression for your fine art.

  • Office politics - This happens just about wherever you go, no matter what industry you’re in. The key here is to learn how to work with people.
  • Someone else is in a bad mood - If you’re in a small office, this can be demoralizing. Learn how to deflect people’s bad moods, or learn to ignore it. If there’s someone who absolutely can’t stand being around, you may need to talk to your manager and request to be moved farther from that annoying peson. If all else fails, consider a change of jobs. Life is too short and too long to work with obnoxious people, although it can do a lot to build your character.

Project Traps

Sometimes it’s the work itself that saps your enthusiasm.

  • Work is tedious and repetitive - It may be OK for some people, but most really creative people tend to like variety. I think a lot of designers are bored easily, so tedious projects get old in a hurry. However, this may be a good time to sharpen your organizational skills, since it’s easy to get sloppy with tedious work. Take pride in a tightly-assembled project.
  • Deadlines are too tight or close together, or there are too many at once - Nothing causes burnout faster than burning the candle at both ends to get everything done. If you’re in the position to do it, learn to say “no” when necessary. You’ll be doing everyone a favor, not only because you’ll cause less stress for yourself and your team, but the client won’t get a hastily-put-together product.
  • Skills/talents are underused/undervalued - This is perhaps the most frustrating issue of all. Let’s say you’ve got a knack for a certain type of project that you always gets assigned to someone else. If you’re unsuccessful at convincing management to grant you more of those projects, or you can’t come up with these sort of projects on your own free time, it’s probably time to look for a job that lets you do these things. Or you feel like you’ve maxed out at this particular job. In that case, it’s probably time to move on.

Internal Gumption Traps

As for the internal gumption traps that come to designers, they’re very often the same as those of artists (coming at something from the wrong angle, focus is too narrow or too broad, fussiness, mistaken either/or thinking, etc.). If you’re still stuck by running through all of those, it’s probably a good idea to step away from your work for a little bit and come back with fresh eyes. Take a walk around the building to clear your head. Or go peruse the design annuals. A change of environment can do you good. Also, try to get another pair of eyes looking at your work. Two heads are always better than one.

This is by no means complete, and I’m sure that as I move on up into more and more senior positions, I’ll discover other kinds of problems that destroy enthusiasm. I get the feeling that those kinds of problems are more common among management than design.

Have any gumption traps you’ve run into as a designer? Feel free to share in the comments.