Having a unique aesthetic is a challenge for (almost) all of us. Realistically, if someone has not carved out time to define and hone in on their personal aesthetic, they don’t typically have one.
Having a very recognizable aesthetic is a must for certain types of designers. For example, an editorial illustrator. Their clients want to have a good grasp on what the look and feel of a piece will be before they are contracted out to do the work. This is the same for most interior designers as well.
Having your own unique (recognizable) style is good until the time comes when you dislike getting the same type of work again and again. As a designer/art director in general, if you solely commit to a style you need to stick with it for several years. Unless you are just flowing with current trends, you will more than likely be pigeon holed into the same type of jobs, and have difficulty changing/moving away from them in the future.
Art Versus Design
Art is something someone does for themselves – in a style they choose, with a message they want to communicate. Design is a solution to someone else’s problem. You have variables you can’t control. Colors you need to stick to. Budget you can’t break. It’s a mind game. A more complex puzzle. Some designers are really artists and it’s important to know personally where you want to draw the line. I have seen a lot of portfolios full of wonderful art – but nothing that solved a problem.
Style Versus Trend
Trends date things. Trends are a way you can categorize things developing as a group in a certain direction. They become predictable, boring, and make your work part of a group.
Style (when someone really has it) is distinctive. It sets you a part.
“Fashion (trends) fades, only style remains the same.” – Coco Chanel
I have a very specified style personally; but I do not push my style on any client unless it’s appropriate (and it rarely is). I always showcase a variety of work that proves my versatility and flexibility. I believe that when you are practicing design disciplines, there is a need to put your voice aside and lean into how and what a client needs to communicate. Consider how their brand needs to function for the current project, event, or campaign. For example, I can’t make the next men’s event look like an ad from Anthropology. I also know not every design I kick out is going to be a home run. Designs sometimes have constraints, time limits, resource, or political limits. I am in the design field to problem solve. That’s my driver.
“Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.” – Charles Eames
That being said you do need to know and assess your style and your drivers.
What are the through lines in your work?
If you collected all your favorite designs you have created and looked at them as a whole, what are the through lines? Is there a predominant style, trend, or color scheme? Do you use the same font combinations or techniques? Take time to write down some descriptive words about common threads you are finding in your best work. Or the work that was easiest, fastest, or most enjoyable for you to create. Look at each piece and examine why you love it.
Does your portfolio look like you want?
Another important question to ask yourself: Does your portfolio look like you want it to? Not just the technical skill set you may have, but the feeling of the pieces. Is it the style of design you love looking at? Does the tone match your inspiration boards? By inspiration boards, I mean whatever tools you use to keep track of other designers’ work in the world that you love. Maybe it’s Pinterest or Evernote, a box, scrap book or your camera roll, book or magazine collection. Take time to write down some descriptive words about your favorite designers or inspiration pieces. What makes you gravitate toward the style of work you like?
Do you like concepting, illustrating, layout, or reformatting?
Some designers don’t like to concept, and that is fine! They don’t need a style at all. Some larger churches have design reformatters that will take branding and then resize it for social media and create layout grids for magazines or postcards. Reformatting and layout is just as important as concept. Some designers always use stock as a starting point. Some designers also just put type on an image. And some designers just look at what happens to be on trend and work it into their next campaign. There is nothing wrong with any of that, but being aware of your natural bent and what makes you happiest is important. And sometimes you might like to do all of it (and you want to be in a catch all position).
Wrong or right fit?
I have been friends with and worked with so many designers that are passionate about creating specific types of work that they will never get the opportunity to do in their current position. If you like doing hand painted illustrations, you need to craft as many as you can, the best you can, and go apply at every cool stationary shop possible. If you like doing intense high passed sports layouts and infographic work, don’t apply at a stationary shop. Same with churches. Consider the type of members they have, their house style, and the budget or communication constraints. Make sure you are in alignment with those, and that you are a good fit for one another.
Other life factors to consider…
- Your music playlist.
- How you decorate your house.
- How you dress yourself.
- The books you read.
- What you eat and drink.
- Where you travel.
- The movies you watch.
When you really develop a style, your design and the above things blend and mesh well together. Your design work can feed off other areas to create some unexpected ideas.
It’s never over.
Having style isn’t some perfect point on a map you arrive and stay at. Style develops and evolves. But it’s a good thing to actualize and contemplate.