Reconstruction of my early days as a designer

A Brief History of Finding My Process

Part One: Discovering The Importance of the Brief

In the beginning, I discovered design. Commercial art. Being creative for a living. I was working as a tech at a small company in Toronto, and since I was the “young fella” who was “good with computers”, I was also the de facto graphic designer.

There were all sorts of unmentionably bad brochures and website designs. We don’t have to go there today. My first real experience trying my hand as a graphic designer was when my employer started a new company and needed more full time support on the creative side. I was the guy.

I went from tech guy to graphic designer, all the while having almost no qualifications nor experience in the latter.

One of my first jobs in my new position: rebrand the company. They had a professional designer create a logo and packaging, but they were unhappy with it. So, what better plan than to ask an inexperienced but eager young fella to try his hand at representing the company for its international debut?

Hours—months—were spent struggling to work on this monumental creative problem. In hindsight, lucky as I was to have the job (given my inexperience), it was totally unfair that I should have had to take this on all by myself, with no mentorship and no idea of how the design process went.

I experienced unimaginable anxiety and self-doubt at this time. I was so passionate about design, so eager to learn on the job, that I was somehow able to push through it. I felt some kind of inner fire, a strong passion for design. Whatever I lacked in natural talent, training, or experience, I made up for in sheer will power.

The Ultimate Imposter Syndrome

We talk about imposter syndrome all the time these days. Never had I felt more like an imposter than at this time in my life, when I literally had a business card that had my name on it, and underneath, the words “Graphic Designer”. But I felt like a joke compared to the actual designers I knew at the time. I was so ashamed of my lack of qualifications that I wouldn’t even call myself a designer around such people. They were up on a different level of talent and expertise, and I was down in some kind of makeshift, make-believe, just-got-lucky (but not fooling anybody) layer on the bottom.

The truth is, I was an imposter. It’s fine though. I got lucky. Somehow, I found myself in a position where, although I was pretty bad, somebody thought I was pretty good — good enough to earn a salary doing it. This is proof you don’t have to be amazing to get paid to be creative, just a little better than the person hiring you. If I were in my old employer’s shoes, I wouldn’t have hired me, though. That’s how much of an imposter I was. I don’t understand how I got chosen for this opportunity. (My best guess is that I showed some obvious creative talent and work ethic that my employer was able to see).

Starting In The Middle and Spinning in Circles

But my story here is about how I found my process. And a huge part of this story was my experience of deep anxiety and feeling of lostness in the beginning. I would have so much initial enthusiasm and inspiration at the outset of a project. The task of designing a new logo for the company was beyond exciting for me. My passion for design, my interest in the very idea of it, blinded me to the fact that I really had no idea of what I was doing. This fact would later show up, though. As I started into the process in a very fumbling, unsystematic way—drawing ideas in my sketchbook, searching the internet, finding design related books at libraries and book shops, flipping through design magazines, even going to shops and looking at packages and branding on the shelves—I soon grew weary. It became clear to me that for all my researching and sketching, I was getting nowhere. I still had no idea what was good or not, or really, what to do next, and how to know when it was time to go to whatever was next. In short, I did not have a clear process to follow.

As I floundered about, I worried that I just didn’t have the chops for being a designer. For all my passion on the topic, maybe I just wasn’t that good. I didn’t realize that, at the time, I had unrealistic ideas about how designer went about their business. I assumed that, if you were good, ideas just sort of came out on the page. You sketched out some ideas, or maybe, if you felt the spirit moving, you’d jump right into Adobe Illustrator and start trying different logo options there. With no time spent on defining the design problem or the goals of the overall effort.

Writing My Way to The Brief

I figured out almost by accident that it really helps it if you write out what you are about to design before you go and actual design it. I am a natural writer, and especially when I feel anxious, I turn to writing to get things out of my head and work them out on paper. It was in writing about all my anxieties at this time in my life that I started writing about my design problems. I almost instinctively started to write out the definition of the problem and what my intentions for the design were. Go figure: when you write out a problem, you start to feel like you might actually solve it. You get clarity on what it is, exactly, you are doing. What are you designing? For what purpose? Who is it for? What do you know? What don’t you know? What more do you need to know to do the job?

Later, I would realize these questions, and their answers, form what the industry calls the brief.

Realizing the importance of a brief was just the beginning, though. It’s one thing to define the design problem. But what about actually solving it? No decisions are made at this early stage. No creative skills are applied.

Just as important, and this was a huge thing for me at this time, was having people who were responsible and invested in the process. This may seem surprising, but in my position as a salaried, in-house designer, my design tasks were often vaguely defined and the sense of someone expecting me to deliver creative output was very unclear. I was the designer, but who was managing the project? I saw my role as being the creative, the person who made the logos and websites. The guy who chose the fonts and colours. But who was approving my decisions or giving me a sense of whether I was on track or not. It was all well and good that I had defined the problem and goals for the design project for myself, but what about the company I was working for? It may seem strange that I would be hired in this way with little oversight, but the company was very up-starty, and the management style was very non-micro-managerial. People were given a lot of freedom to do their jobs; even complete newbs like myself.

A little more structure would have been helpful. I believed that then, and I still believe that now. But at the same time, this was the very situation that I think helped me learn to assume nobody but I was going to do all the legwork. It made me learn how to be a creative leader by assuming it was my job to guide the creative process. My boss was a busy CEO of at least two startups, and he was relying on me to step up and save him time, not take more of it.

A Missing Piece: A Project Manager

So apart from defining the brief, I learned the importance of having a project manager. Years later, after graduating from art school, in my first agency job, I was ecstatic that we had dedicated project managers—people whose job it was to initiate and define design projects from the beginning, and make sure they stayed on track through to the end.

Project management is an essential part of the professional creative process. Whether you have dedicated people in this role, or whether you have to do the project management yourself, it needs to be done. People who work as part of teams are lucky enough to have dedicated people on the job for them. Freelancers will have to take this part of the process on themselves.

Project management includes defining the brief, but it also assigns roles to everyone involved. The more clearly defined the roles, and the more jurisdiction each person has over their assigned tasks, the more effective the team will be. Each person will be more empowered to do their job, and they will do it better.

The Young and The Briefless

In those days as an unqualified graphic designer, just figuring these things out on my own, I definitely got stuck for lack of project management, and for lack of clear roles. In my first experience, designing a logo, I would go and start trying different sketches and working countless ideas out in Illustrator. Then, I would just pop into my boss’s office and ask if he could come in and look at some of my ideas. He would come as soon as he was available, and we’d go through the different ideas. None of them would elicit an enthusiastic response from my boss. I would feel personally judged and invalidated. I would get very frustrated, like grinding my teeth and feeling like I wanted to scream level frustrated. It was very toxic for me. It wasn’t my boss’s fault though. I still didn’t quite understand how design is done. There were so many things wrong with the scene I am recounting here. For instance, there’s the fact that I would just pop into my boss’s office, on a whim, and expect him to break his own stream of thought to help me with my problem. And then there’s the fact that I had no full concepts to share; I was not presenting my ideas in a way that showed vision or elicited excitement or buy-in. And then there was the huge problem overshadowing the whole thing: we never formally set up a brief, nor assembled a team with these dedicated roles and assigned expectations. All of this was a recipe for creative failure, and in my case, intense anxiety and frustration.

I worked as the in house graphic designer at this company for two years. I was entirely self-taught, aside from occasional night classes at a local community college. Over those two years, I learned a lot, and as a company, we overcame a lot of design problems. I successfully designed an entire rebrand for the company, including the primary and secondary logos, a colour palette, a typeface spec, letterhead, business cards, and a brand standards manual. We also developed multiple websites, product packaging, brochures, did a photoshoot with a professional photographer, and much, much more. I even started feeling bold enough to call myself a designer to my friends. All the while, I knew there was so much more to learn. I was the one designer, and still felt like everything rested on my shoulders, and meanwhile, I still craved more creative community and mentorship. So I gave my notice and went to art school to study graphic design. But that is a different story.

It All Comes Down to Structure

What I can say about this early experience for me was that it taught me the importance of having structure in the context of professional creativity. We are not hired to “just” be creative. We are not hired to just “work our magic” (a phrase that always makes me cringe). We need the structure of having a creative process that includes formation of the brief and assignment of roles for anyone that needs to be involved in the process. We need people whose job it is to care about the outcome of the design or creative project (we usually call this person or group, collectively, the client). And then, from there, we need to know what to do next.

And that’s where, for today, I will hit pause. Knowing what to do next is the part where the creative must go out on their own to start solving the creative problem in their own way. Later on, they reconvene with the client, to share their ideas in way that builds up excitement and trust, and ensures that the process keeps moving toward the final creative goal. Knowing what to do next is the end of this article, but really still just the beginning for the creative professional.

p.s. I just want to acknowledge that I am talking about my experience as a designer, all the while writing mostly in the context of illustration. To this I say, first, I have to start with my roots, which are firmly in graphic design. And second, to me, the process for illustration and design are very similar. In fact, I see illustration as being just a very specific kind of design. Graphic designers solve problems at a more abstract, broader level. Designers are creative generalists. Illustrators solve one very particular kind of problem: creating expressive, communicative images. But both designers and illustrators are in the business of having ideas and expressing them in visual format. And for this, we need ways of first coming up with ideas, and then executing on our best ones—ultimately helping our clients (or employers) meet a specific need.

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare.

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