For Designers: How to Choose a Style

With so many styles to choose from to represent a concept, how does a graphic designer approach choosing just one?

I’m going to shift gears today. I was going to continue writing about my “big why” for writing my book, but this question came up on the discussions in The Style Class, and I couldn’t resist responding:

As I have understood a graphic designer doesn’t restrict himself to a particular style. With so many styles to choose from to represent the concept, how does a graphic designer approach choosing one? Is there a guide or process a graphic designer has to follow? As I have understood so far, Context, Brand and Audience are deciding factors. I am unable to figure out how can style influence this. My education in this matter is missing. Any guidance around this will help.

While The Style Class is all about developing a personal illustration style, designers often have to work in different styles, depending on the needs of their client. I think it also depends on the designer. Some designers (whether individuals or studios) have a signature approach. I think of Ty Mattson or Allan Peters. As graphic designers, they have developed a very specific brand of designing that shows through across all their client work. In this sense, they are more like illustrators, who become known and for a certain look. Often, their style leads the other aspects of design. On the other hand, some designers are more chameleon-like in their approach. For such people, the needs of the client, or sometimes, the concept, lead the design more than style. Style is just another variable.

My guess is that most designers fall in the latter category—those who usually have to work in different styles. And even if you hope to be more like a Mattson or Peters, in the beginning of your career, you’ll most likely need to try on different styles at first. Like many parts of the design process, this part is not well-understood by beginners. If you’re like me when I was starting out, I just figured that designers just kind of made this stuff up from their heads. I assumed that it took more creative genius than anything else. As it turns out, just like so much of the creative process, the style (or more broadly, the visual feeling) of a design is built up incrementally.

Certainly, and more directly responding to the above question, one doesn’t just choose a style and apply it to whatever it is being designed. Design is about solving problems, about making information more accessible and palatable; it’s about guiding people through space, whether that’s on a page, a screen, or the physical world. It’s not enough to choose a template or set of visual attributes and call it a day.

Setting aside for now the bigger question of the full design process, the question of how to determine the look and feel (a.k.a. style) of a brand or design is an important one and deserves some thought. While it is not always easy—while it seems to add many extra steps to the design process—it promises to save you time in the long run. It also ensures that you and your client will stay on the same page from the beginning. It gives you and your client a chance to discuss details of style, of the overall visual qualities of the design, early on. Your job here is not to present arbitrary styles that you just happen to like, or which you think your client might like, but to build up a foundation of core attributes based on the brief. Suddenly you have some constraints. There will be a limited set of stylistic approaches that work. By going through the process outlined below, you will increasingly whittle away the least viable options and home in on the most viable ones.

The key thing to remember is that there is no one right style to choose. You just have to find one that works. If you had all the time in the world, you could keep trying new styles, and never be done exploring. Instead, decisions are made based on what works given everything you know in this moment. You can’t do it all—just do something. As long as it’s done well, it’ll all work out!

Design Directions: Choosing a Style for Design Clients

Many designers recoil at the notion of “style”. Designers like to think more in terms of concept. But at the end of the day, graphic design is a visual medium, and, in a moment’s glance, how a given concept looks is the most powerful thing about it. In my own practice as a designer (something that happens less frequently for me as a dedicated illustrator), I have always preferred the term design directions. This suggests something more thought through and flexible than style. It also ensures we don’t tie ourselves down to one specific style of one design or artist. It’s broad. It’s a composite of various sources, working together to create a cohesive sense of direction. This is something I picked up in my early career, working as an art director. Along the way to actually designing the things (logos, packages, websites, stationery, etc.), we first had to work out an overall look. We would present maybe 2 or 3 distinct design directions, and ultimately guide the client to choosing just one, and then from there, the rest of the project would continue, always referring back to the chosen direction. Here’s a summary of the process:

  1. Understand the design brief. What are the goals of the design? What mood or feeling do you have to achieve? Who is the audience? Is there an existing brand that you can use to give you a clue to some design elements?
  2. Find your keywords. Summarize the feeling of the design in 3–5 adjectives (descriptive keywords). For example: friendly / tech / fresh / loud / diverse
  3. Begin your image search. Look for images on Pinterest, Google Images, magazines, books, etc. that both inspire you and seem relevant to the brief.
  4. Curate (create a mood board). Gather the 5–10 most relevant or your favourite images and make a mood board. This mood board should tell the story of your adjectives, from 2 above. It sometimes helps to overlay your descriptive keywords from Step 2 here to get a sense of whether the images are telling the right story.
  5. Design in the abstract. This is where you start constructing your own design elements based on your moodboard inspiration. You are testing out different combinations and variations without designing your final thing, whatever it might end up being. This is just a visual exercise in putting different colours, shapes, fonts, lines, etc. together. Sometimes this is creating new ideas, and sometimes this is more directly referencing your inspiration. (Often designers need to provide 2–3 style directions as options. Assuming your keywords remain the same, you can repeat steps 3–5 for each additional direction. How different can each direction be while still reflecting the same keywords?)
  6. Test. For each direction, test it on a few notional applications. For example, design a quick mockup of a webpage or package, or T shirt, whatever is relevant to the design or brand you are working with. These are very high level and quick, but sort of show the possibilities of the style direction you are pitching. These would be included in your presentation to your client.
  7. Present. Of course, at a certain point you will have to share your design directions with your client for them to weigh in on. You can get a clearer sense of what style to work with through this conversation. They may choose one direction, or want to do a bit of a mashup (they almost always do!). It’s up to you how you lead your client through this process. The outcome should ultimately be a chosen style direction before actually going into design.
  8. Apply. Now with clarity on the design direction (style), you can start rolling out the actual design. Whether that’s a package, a brochure, a website, merch, or a whole bunch of different things, you can use the style direction you developed above as your reference for all things.

That is how I have always approached design, especially when there is no brand or visual language to work from. It’s a very involved process, and to be honest, it can take a long time and be frustrating at times. You are doing a mix of copying cool stuff you are inspired by and innovating new things. Hopefully you end up with something more original at the end. The best you can hope for as a designer is to come up with something totally innovative and amazing, something so good that it sets the entire industry ablaze! The very least you should expect is a design that looks great and does its job—and never outright copies another’s design or style. There is a fine line between imitation and inspiration, and the best way to avoid imitation is to work from a composite of multiple sources (Step 4, above). I always quote this, but whatever, here we go again: Paul Rand says “you don’t have to be original, you just have to be good!” (my paraphrase).

Personally, as a designer, I found this need to constantly changing up my style for each job very frustrating. It also took a lot of time and attention away from what I consider the more interesting part: the ideas and execution! Designers who must work in different styles are constantly having to live in the shadow of other artists and trends, and/or constantly having to reinvent the wheel for each job. Some folks might love this. As for me, I have a certain temperament that makes the process of sorting through countless options unbearable. As an illustrator, I get to have the style question mostly locked in. Because clients typically choose me for my style, I get to bypass this whole step entirely! Of course, there are times when I want to branch out, and I am always evolving. And I always include my client when I attempt any major departures. The truth is, a client doesn’t usually mind if I try something different; they probably care a lot less than I do about how strict I am with my own style.

But the ultimate thing a client wants from us is creative guidance. Expertise. Certainty. Whatever you present to your client, whether you give them various design directions, or you have one signature approach that you use for all projects, your job is to come in with a strong recommendation. The hardest thing is for you to be convinced yourself of your own decisions. But through the above process you can come closer to that. Then, knowing your stylistic directions are thoughtfully considered, you can come in with that strong guidance your client expects. You will feel more empowered as a designer, and your client will be more satisfied with the work.

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