Graphic Design Survival 101: Don’t Just Do, Think

Graphic Design is everywhere, but how much is meaningful? - Pyragraph

I am a Graphic Designer.

Those of us who claim this title nowadays are more common than ever…wait, stop. I have to let some snark out first, and say there is actually an obscene number of people with design career tracks these days! Schools are churning out designers, online classes and degree certificates with names that evolve as fast as the technology we are using. Who are we?

This is the amazing era of DIY, when you can learn about design and almost any subject by simply typing a few words into Google. I can recall a time when being a graphic designer felt like a niche; it was a special sort of elite, in-club. We were the artists who mainly stayed clean and had pretty reliable rent money. You just didn’t meet as many of us back then, and when you did, you’d often find a fascinating mix of structured creativity, thoughtfulness and craftsmanship. Now, anybody you encounter might be a graphic designer (or claim to be, but I think that’s for another article…).

Perhaps it’s a taint of conceit, I’ll admit, but during my weaker moments this whole idea depresses me.

The elite club I thought I joined (and studied in college for) has changed so much, whether I like it or not. What kind of “special” am I now? I’m not a dinosaur yet, but after many years in print design, a world ruled by internet “instaneity” makes me feel pretty displaced. What I’ve realized, though, is that while I might have some old experience, I’ve got a foundation—a versatile, expansive view that many newcomers do not. Thus, I have managed to survive as a freelance artist…even if my client base for the most part didn’t survive the recession.

A burgeoning design field means more clutter, competition and bidding on good projects, for every one of us.

In the end, I suspect that the fittest (and finest) will survive.

How designers design is not the only thing that has changed. It is done fast, and relatively easily. Fast and efficient is good. But there are ways to further improve your craft, and if implemented logically, you’ll move up in the mainstream designer food chain.

Other good news (quite a relief when I realized this, myself) is that survival and success have little to do with learning a new skill or having the latest software package. Paul Rand, the enlightened grandfather of American graphic design, liked to use his hands. Though he was familiar with the available technologies, he knew that real design wasn’t about computers at all: “Without the aesthetic, the computer is but a mindless speed machine, producing effects without substance. Form without relevant content, or content without meaningful form.”

So how do you design better, more meaningfully?

Learn, really know the design principles. For example, don’t just memorize that you need to have some empty space on a page for information to be noticed or seen clearly. That practice will become boring in time, for both you and your audience. Instead, come to know the psychology of space and people. Think about how the viewer reacts to the designer’s use of space. Where does the mind look first and wander, why does it go to that place, and can it trigger us to feel?

According to some schools of design theory, there are about seven design principles to learn: space, dominance, hierarchy, balance, color, unity and gestalt. Within these are also grid and typography (perhaps the most complex topic; full of tradition and rules, to abide or ignore). If you went to school and learned about them, great, you are ahead of the game…keep going. Put them into practice with your intellect, and combine them with another level of potency: how to use concepts to make designs more memorable.

If you missed the principles, go get yourself some good books. Here are some I recommend. I use them regularly in my college design courses:

It’s easy to be a doer when designing, and we all end up on autopilot now and then.

But it’s so much more fun, and engaging, to be a thinker while doing. You’ll sidestep the sea of doers with ease when you are thinker. Your clients and art directors will probably appreciate it, or at least notice that there is something different and special about you. And if all else fails, you’ll have more of the psychology of design down pat when it gets to the real nitty-gritty of freelance: successfully talking your way through the presentation, getting it approved, and best of all, getting paid!

Book cover illustration and design © 2012 Mariah Fox, The Assassination of Heydrich by Jan Weiner (Irie Books).

Mariah Fox

About Mariah Fox

Mariah Fox, Assistant Professor of Media Arts at New Mexico Highlands University, is an Addy Award winning art director and illustrator. In 2001, she founded her company, Ital Art, which provides creative services for a variety of clients. Mariah’s mixed media work has been exhibited internationally and she has contributed art, editing, research and writing to 32 books and 14 publishers, including several major New York houses.

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