Why great designers don’t settle for mediocre work

Let’s talk about mediocrity.

No kid dreams of being just “O.K.” when they grow up. They don’t tell their parents “When I grow up, I want to be a minor-league baseball player.” No offense to minor-league ballplayers, but we all want to be major league. We grow up swinging for the fences.

So why do we settle for mediocre design?

Unless we fundamentally change our approach to the design process, we may never rise above mediocre work. Better results start with change.

When I co-presented “5 Reasons Your Marketing Sucks” with Darren at UCDA two years ago, we quoted one of management guru Peter Drucker’s most famous quotes in the session: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

The response was jaw-dropping. Higher ed creatives are ready to discuss their challenges and are ready to try a new approach. The response was humbling, exciting and encouraging.

I believe we are coming into the new age of the higher ed creative, one that is fully integrated with the strategic goals of our institutions and more collaborative than ever. Why? Because designers are learning how to articulate their value by contributing to the marketing process – not simply as artists, but as a highly-trained problem solvers that provide valuable insight into the strategic process.

I designed my presentation for this year’s UCDA with these designers in mind. But before we see each other in sunny San Diego, I thought I would share a few old things to stop doing and a few new things to start doing that will get you off on the right foot.

Stop: Making things “look pretty.”

Designers are often relegated to the crafts table, where they are asked to “make it look pretty.” Quite frankly, this is an insulting underutilization of your time and talents.

Would you buy a car that “looked pretty” but “didn’t run?” Probably not, because you know that while how something looks is important, how it works is most important. Designers fundamentally seek to solve problems in ways that are elegant, exciting and engaging.

Start: Designing with purpose

Designers and creatives should be the squeaky wheel of the marketing office. Ask questions. Engage. Test things. Introduce new ideas. Too often, we sit back until nearly the end of the process. We’re handed a big pile of incomprehensible nonsense we’re asked to make look pretty. The antidote is to be involved, purposefully, earlier.

Look for ways to do this. Do you have a resource toolbox that empowers your clients? Why not? Remember, templates are your friend.

Stop: Designing blind

Production work is part of design, and yes, from time-to-time, you will have to crank out some near-mindless design. That’s O.K., and sometimes it is a nice change of pace.

But too often we begin projects without an understanding of the audience, its needs and emotions, and the goals of the project. Sound familiar? We skip steps in the process in favor of speed. And we’re surprised so many of our initiatives don’t gain traction?

Start: Researching and testing

One of the best parts about working on a college campus (besides all the free t-shirts) is access to a captive test audience that can provide valuable insight to you. Get out of the chair and go ask questions. Look up research online. Don’t design blind. Design like you mean it.

Stop: Running yourself dry

Design is a hard job. It takes a lot of thought, time and trial & error. It is probably the most vulnerable role in the design office because it is subject to constant feedback (some unsolicited), and, even though everyone needs it, few understand it.

Over time, we wear down. We get stuck designing in a rut. Our work stagnates and we lose our creative spark. Before long, we’re jaded, tired and, you guessed it, mediocre.

That also means you need to manage your design time effectively. Think in templates and think about empowering your users to use said templates. These are exactly the kind of services we D. White & Company offers, simply because they work. When you free your time up, you can work on more important projects. 

Start: Refilling your well

You are creative. Make sure you are scheduling time for yourself to play, try new things and interact with design. Build you creative community. Get outside. Don’t rob yourself of the ability to be inspired and awed.

Of course, I have some other tips on how to replenish your creative mojo, but you’ll just have to join us in San Diego to learn those. See you soon!

Shelly Jackman is the art director for Texas Wesleyan University, located in Fort Worth, Texas. She is presenting “5 Ways to Not Make Mediocre Design” and “5 Ways to Not Be a Mediocre Designer” at the UCDA Design Summit in April 5-7 in San Diego.