I have to be honest. I am hesitant to write this article, because it’s like I am writing to myself. I have totally leapt over every line I’m about to talk about. I’ve done it all wrong. I’ve looked back at work I made when I first started out and can remember thinking how good it was, only to see now that it’s embarrassing.
I believed my own lie — I had no clue what I was doing and depended on stumbling onto a beautiful accident in the absence of understanding and skill. Thankfully, I wasn’t satisfied with that.
I’m hesitant because I don’t want it to be discouraging or blatantly negative. Rather, try to think of it as me telling you the mistakes I’ve learned along the way with the hope that you won’t make the same blunders I did. Some of these principles certainly aren’t hard lines. With the proper context and awareness you can do whatever you want. However an understanding of the rules, so you know when you’re breaking them, is the key to stepping “out of bounds” deliberately rather than by accident. Let’s jump in.
I can’t remember the date, time, or place that I first opened a trial version of Photoshop, but I can guarantee it went something like this: 1. Click the Photoshop Icon. 2. Stare blankly – not understanding what any of the icons in the left palate represent. 3. Open new document (probably the “standard” 640px × 480px). 4. Type my name with the type tool in Arial. 5. Discover the “Filters Menu.” 6. Use them all. 7. Show everyone so they can attempt to fathom how awesome I am. 8. Repeat.
It was a complete free for all. I did, because I could. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, and I quickly learned that with much power comes much responsibility. I can guess that a few times later I opened that same document and accidently opened the layer styles palate – turned loose on the text layer of my name like an unsupervised child with a box of crayons and a blank wall. I was a mess.
Bevels, giant drop shadows for “depth”, mosaic filters, liquify, sepia—I know I did it all wrong. But there was a part of me that loved that unbridled discovery. I had no idea what I was doing wrong, so everything felt like it was going right. I experimented, I attempted, I got things wrong, and I started to figure out things I liked. The problem was I didn’t know why, so when I was in a pinch for time (because of course I immediately wanted to get clients, now that I have this “skill”), I had no idea how to make something that would be great simply based on principle. I didn’t know them. I just valiantly clicked around with seeming purpose until stumbling on an accidentally decent idea. It was pure luck. I was just guessing. It sucked.
The Internet has been the best and worst thing for up-and-coming designers.
The Internet and all its resources can make you think you’re better than you are, because it can start you in a decent direction. It can give you a template to improve upon. It offers you typefaces that will help you “better express” your idea. It will offer you tutorials to copy and Photoshop brushes to “dress up” your design. The Internet is an awesome tool, but it’s not going to make you better by itself. It will, in fact, just make you worse.
Before you know it you’ll just be an assembler, a glorified “collage grunge artist.” It will leave you searching for “just the right stock photo”. It will make you forget to think for yourself and have you trying to find something that matches the idea in your brain with the time you could have spent making it yourself. It can cripple you from thinking outside of what you can find and put together. At worst, it will make you a thief, where you’re literally stealing ideas from other talented people, companies, advertising, and commercials. We justify stealing work by convincing ourselves that stealing their work is safer than risking failure on our own ideas. It’s easier, but so wrong. It has to stop.
More Is Not Better
More sugar in everything is not better. More ingredients in a pie is not better. So why do we think if we just add more to our work, it will be better? Sugar is important – used sparingly – to make something sweeter. But if you add too much it’s repulsive. Creating the perfect pie requires great timing, skill, learning through mistakes, and a recipe.
And when we make mistakes in cooking, we don’t serve it to our guests. We make something else. We try again. We go with something we know will be a success – something we’ve made countless times before.
In this same way, don’t experiment on your church. Constantly be experimenting on the side, so you can apply what you learn in your design work for church. Church design is notorious for being mediocre, but we have a chance to break the mold. Choose excellent and simple over busy. Choose clear and concise over wordy and confusing.
Don’t bet the farm on the hope that you’ll stumble onto a decent idea by accident. Instead, constantly learn the principles of design so you can know when to follow and break the rules. Think of your design as a beautiful appetizer – not a buffet. Great design eliminates all unnecessary details.
Just like a chef spends years mastering his recipes, you should master your craft. Keep practicing so you can look back at your work and see how you’ve improved. Nearly everything we look at was designed. Someone carefully designed the device you’re reading this on. Constantly ask yourself why and how would you improve on it. Why did they choose the things they did?
Design is a lifestyle; it’s a desire to make things clearer and more understandable. We can’t take that lightly. We get to do this. Design keeps the message the focus, and not itself.
I don’t have this all figured out, I’ve failed many times, and will many more. But it’s all worth it. I will never arrive as a designer. It’s all changing too quickly. But a commitment to always improving will keep me (and you) from growing complacent. Let’s always look backwards, doing more with less, and see how we’ve improved for a purpose far greater than just pretty pixels.