Defining Yourself Before Designing For Others

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“Dear Design Students” Series - Part 1

I wanted to write a blog series for Design Students. But I realise that what I wanted to say to them can actually apply to anyone in the creative industry who knows that we are learning all the time and often learn from each other. The first topic in my series is about defining yourself before you can design for others. 

So why did I believe it important to impart this advice to my younger, less experienced audience? Because like a Design Student we can all feel a little bit unsure of ourselves and I’ll give you a personal example. 

Last year, I was out of work for two months. Since my fourth year at university, I’d been working as a Junior Graphic Designer in a digital agency. Now, I don’t want to take for granted everything I learned there. I mean, it was a necessary time to build up my experience. But after four years, I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I started to think about what I really wanted to do, instead of doing what any budding designer would do to catch a break: anything

Finding yourself by aligning yourself right

That out-of-place feeling I had, came from my lack of self-knowledge which only grew as I started looking for new work! After reading hundreds of online jobs listings, I couldn’t identify myself with anyone. 

My main problem, was that I kept trying to value myself based on what I understood to be the demand of the market. I am no business person. I just wanted to give the people what they want. So If everyone says, “we want a magical, mythical creature who can fly and has super powers” (because magical unicorns are so in right now) — I believed I needed to be that unicorn. But deep down, I knew I could never measure up.

In design terms, this meant shaping my identity around external demands, instead of understanding myself and taking into consideration what I value and what I can do. I needed to choose wisely. 

However, very unwisely, I believed that I needed to be some sort of hybrid Designer/Front-end Developer based on the criteria of job listings that I was reading. Then I hastily tried to see what I could do to become one. Did I have a special interest in becoming a Developer? Not really. I just wanted to “keep up” with the industry. I just wanted to be wanted, instead of wanting to find someone who thought that we’d both be a great fit

I’m not saying, don’t pursue learning to code. In fact, I encourage it. I’m a huge supporter of professional development. I’m just saying, having a solid sense who you are, can help you to make more purposeful decisions. For example, I personally love illustration and languages. I’m super interested in story-telling visually and verbally. I also enjoy understanding the meaning of words. As a Designer, this helps me to communicate my ideas and present solutions in a unique way. So, instead of chasing a path that doesn’t suit me, I’ve decided to focus my time and energy on areas that most interest me and will make me more confident in my design practice. I want to use my expertise to be more effective in what I do, rather than simply satisfying a popular demand. 

Design by definition not definition by design

I once believed that crafting my identity meant designing a personal logo. So I slapped it on my website and sent it along with my cover letters and job applications. Voilà! Visually, I had defined myself by logo mark. In reality, I was still as lost as ever. I was trying to use a visual device to give me a sense of who I am. Instead of using who I am, what I want to do, where I want to go, how I want to grow, who I want to speak to etc. as a driving force to create the visual device. As a Designer, these are the kind of questions I’d ask my clients in order to do my job of communicating for them, effectively. 

If you’re only starting out, it may take a while to gain enough experience to understand yourself. You might even struggle with what you believe your purpose to be. It took me four years to realise what my true passions are, and to be more open to a new field (Branding) that I’d never even considered. I tried as much as I could, before I really started to notice, what kind of things meant more to me and what things I’d rather not compromise.

For example, when I work with people now I’d like them to know me for my professional work ethic; my vision and values; my problem solving skills; and my technical skills. I personally don’t want to chase industry recognition at the expense of coming up with purpose-built creative solutions. I value mentorship, collaborative working environments, thorough research and development and learning things indirectly related to my field of work, like French and Philosophy. All these things aren’t written down in some official document, neither am I subject to be defined by them all my life. But they are key to all my current creative decisions, whether career-wise or in daily practice with client-work. They are my anchor and I think it would be wise to figure out what your own anchor is too. Especially if you’d rather not be tossed and lost by the tide, as I was last year looking for work. 

Dear design students continues…

When I began this blog post — this whole series in fact — I basically wanted to address that awful feeling we get sometimes, called self-doubt, which for Designers can really affect the way that we work for others. When I think of ‘defining myself’ I imagine, chiselling my likeness out of marble stone. With every reflective question, I see a clearer picture. Since it’s my own likeness, I should know my features better than anyone else. The clearer the picture, the less likely others can sway me, and the more assertive and confident I can be in what I do. 

I haven’t been in the branding game for very long but I felt like a good start for Designers like me, would be right here. My understanding will grow and be refined and I’d like to be able to share my insights as I go along. So please keep an eye out for my next post, which will be about the Design Student Mentality and how it can sometimes be an obstacle to our professional growth.

By Bernadette Bucalon, Designer Problem Solver, Bubblefish

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