Do designers need a personal style?

2 February 2010, in Design, Project 52 | 21 comments »

A post by Darren Hoyt caught my eye the other day (among the hundreds of unread posts on my RSS reader…) where he asked whether designers needed a personal style or not. I wrote up a quick comment at the time, but I feel the question deserves a little more discussion — specially because no-one seems to have a definite answer (my bet is that there isn’t one).

The question

So Darren asked:

Is it more attractive when designers can…
a) design like a chameleon in any style or genre appropriate to the project, or
b) design over a period of years in a consistent, signature style

And, this was (part of) my comment:

I feel that the best designers usually have their own style, even if it’s quite subtle and hardly noticeable in some instances — there is always something of their own that they added to the work. And when I don’t immediately recognize one of their work, when I finally look at it, I will usually say “Ah, now I see it.”

While artists have usually a more evident personal style, designers go through their professionals paths adapting their work to the requirements. Artists don’t do that. But we both evolve throughout the years and, in my opinion, we both walk towards a style, or a way of working even, that is adapted to ourselves.

A or B?

Basically, my opinion is still the same, I’d just like to elaborate on it a little more.

I certainly admire a designer that can completely transform their style for every project they work on, but I don’t think that happens very often, and I can’t even think of an example of a great web designer that does that, to illustrate this thought.

What I notice often though, is great web designers that do have a personal style, but that can adapt it for each project. It’s the details, or the way each project is handled. I like to think it’s adding a bit of their own selves to each thing they design.

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate my point.

Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain is constantly creating stunning pieces of work and that doesn’t mean all his work looks the same. But they do come together to produce a solid portfolio that you can look at and say it’s definitely Jesse’s.

Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain's Mobile Web Design

Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain's Campaign Monitor design

Another example is Mike Precious, whose work is, like Jesse’s, stunning. Every single piece on his portfolio makes me want to just stare at it. The way he treats photography and how his projects have a deep, rich texture (not literally) is something that is seen across all of his work. And that doesn’t mean the end result is a boring “everything looks the same” portfolio.

Mike Precious' Green Business Bureau design

Mike Precious' Marriage Today design

There are other designers that fit the description. Take, for instance, Nick La, Sam Brown, or Tim Van Damme. You get my point, right?

It doesn’t mean they use the same elements all the time, or the same special effects. It’s something you notice when you look at the overall design, it’s how you feel when you use the interfaces they create.

Not artists

I guess it’s safe to say designers are not artists, in a sense that a painter is an artist, or a musician is an artist. We have conventions to follow, briefs to guide us, users’ feedback, clients to report to, etc.

(Actually, painters often had clients to report to and briefs to follow. A guided tour around the National Gallery will let you know that that happened more often than not. But when a painting is finished, it’s finished forever.)

So, we don’t usually create work because we really only need to let our emotions flow, to show to the world our vision. Our work is going to be used and abused by others. However, that doesn’t impede us from adding a bit of ourselves to our work or to be creative and original.

Adapting to a brief

It’s incredibly hard to keep coming up with exciting new designs every month, and I believe the process of creating them is even more important then the style that is required to create them. And even if we have to adapt our creativity to whatever the brief requires, our process of working will invariably stay the same, or be very similar between projects. That may mean we always come up with something completely new and amazing, that was never seen before — and the fact that we do come up with that all the time may actually be the constant in our work.

One of the things that sometimes strikes me as unfair as a designer is how we are required to have a logical explanation for whatever it is we design, for every single detail, colour, position of the elements on a page, etc.

“Where is the theory that proves that placing this there is correct? Where is the study behind it? Why are you using blue?”

In my opinion, there is always a place for subjectivity, for just following your instinct to know what’s right. Sometimes you just feel that something is right, and there is no logic to it. And maybe that little bit you add is what creates your personal style.

Pardon me, I digress.

Your thoughts

So what do you think? Do you feel there is one correct answer to the question? Do you consider yourself a chameleon or would you rather be recognized for having a strong personal style?

  • I’d guess it’s sort of like all the arts. You can tell someone’s work, even if it’s adapted to another style. Their spin will rub off on it.

    I’m not sure it will come over completely in the digital medium, but it looks like, just from your examples above, that it is the case.

  • A & B are good.

    I think it’s not that bad to have a signature / personal style. But when a style is over and no-one really use it (think about web 2.0 glossy style which is not really used anymore), it’s harder to adapt for B than for A, I guess.

    It’s like a developer, or everything in this world. You can be extra-specialized (for instance a PHP developer) or a more generalist web developer who is not as specialized in PHP, but who knows PHP and some other languages.

  • I think it’s inevitable that a designer will have their own style, based simply on what they find looks good. The best designers I feel are able to adapt this style to fit the website in question.

    I have come across a few designers where I see their style become too dominant in the websites they do, with each website they create looking too similar.

  • “Where is the theory that proves that placing this there is correct? Where is the study behind it? Why are you using blue?” This is a problem with designing for the web. Designer have to qualify something that is intuitive and instinctive to engineers, who build things that are measurable and justifiable.

    It is difficult to explain that something just feels right to someone who bases their opinions on numbers and metrics.

  • Cameron Adams defines good design as the trade-off between efficiency and discoverability. For this reason a good designer is one that recognise existing patterns and implement them in new ways that are as simple as possible.

  • I’d say that Tim Van Damme is the perfect example of a guy who knows when to divert from his usual style (Take 24ways as an example).

    And I actually think that the client has the right to know why the product turned out the way it did. The product needs a solid foundation – and why you choose blue might come down to simple color theory, like the choice of font and following typesetting should be based on solid research. I don’t see that as unfair; it comes with the territory. The client pays the bills, and they’re entitled to an explanation.

  • I’d say a really good designer designs for the project. Form & function, but inevitably the designer will use his experience and his big bag of tricks he learned over time, to complete the job to the most awesome result. That’s the “signature” you’re seeing.

  • i think it´s always the both (A and B), because a designer always have a personal style, due to his/her background (education, culture, degree, believes, etc) and when it comes across a new project has to apply this signature to the new briefing ( doesn’t matter is it´s graphic, web, object…).

    we all have come across projects that are too specifics and dont’s allow much creativity and others that are like a blank page to work on, that´s the every day life of a designer, and when you refer to a portfolio has a example it´s some how wrong, because normally it´s a selection of the best works made by that designer, so by logic he/she will pick the projects that has more meaning to him/her and normally are the ones that have their signature all over.

  • it’s funny that you named Jesse, he’s the one that sprung first to my mind when I started reading your article. Love all of his work.

    Considering personal style in design, I tend to believe that being true to oneself results in a personal style (same as with clothing) and a stronger portfolio, although I think being versatile is a good thing.

  • Really good article! Spoke right out of my Brain. I guess that it is an unwritten word, most Designers are feel them selves as an Artist. Especially if they are saying they are not and they have to follow up on corporate guidelines, Rules of GUI and bla, bla, bla. But Deep in their Hearts they wish to be.

    And what i am always wondering about: Why they give the Job the Name: Art Director? (i Know: Not everything Designer becomes an AD) – but should it be renamed to Design Director? Sounds not that cool, hm? No, i think the space between an Designer and an Artist are a Gradient from on color to the other;)

  • I don’t no about need but I just can’t do any design without trying to make it dirty (it must be what my geography teacher was on about when I sniggered inapropriatley on day). I can’t do clean and I can’t do minimal without wanting to make it look worn or cluttered…Great Article!!

  • Really Helpfull!

  • I don’t think there is an answer to this question, however if a designer does have a style, they should consciously try to break out of their style regularly. This will allow them to stretch their design legs, and potentially open up new opportunities and skills as a result.

    Even try a new style if the reason your client hired you is due to your style, unless it is the perfect fit already.

    As long as it is a style, and not rehashing old design, of course. That’s just bad.

  • The answer is, of course, “both.” How much of either side informs our designs is part of who we are as designers. Web design is a strange and unquantifiable mixture of art and craft, aesthetic and technique. Matt’s note about “breaking out of your style regularly” is dead on; after a while, a “design aesthetic” can and often does become a rut.

    The two sides of the equation inform one another. The better you are at your craft, the more fully you can develop and express your artistry. And you can more fully explore your aesthetic sense when you have a handle on your craft, and know how to create and implement your ideas.

  • Definitely, each designer has his/her own style, even though we do not necessarily have to show it all the time. There will always be a few projects in which we take a totally different direction that may not match our style, but I think that’s okay too.

  • Rita

    Eu acho que é necessário um pouco das 2 coisas, sim todos os designers tem uma assinatura própria uma maneira de expôr de criar o layout o traço, que automaticamente consegue-se identificar-se com o resto dos seus trabalhos mas também tem que ter a faceta camaliónica porque estamos sempre a correr atrás das trends e os clientes assim o exigem e mesmo os clientes mais “malucos” aparecem sempre com aquelas ideias completamente doidas que tantas vezes nos tiram do sério e fazem-nos ir em direcção a algo que nunca fizemos, mas deixamos sempre um bocadinho de nós, no final incorpora sempre o toque de que fez.

  • Kipp

    Design needs to be rationalized and that’s hard to do if you work within a single style. Inevitably you will receive a brief that requires a different approach. The true test of a designers talent is their ability to adapt and solve different problems, not rehash their personal style. Of course this depends on your definition of the word which I find to be fairly ambiguous.

  • Great post! As an artist turned designer myself, I know there are several fundamental similarities, as much as there are differences between art and design. A personal style in Art is often borne out of the need to express something in a certain way. Design has a personal slant when the designer enjoys a particular workflow and uses perhaps a similar set of typefaces and colour pallette.

    I slightly disagree with a lot of the “problem solving” comments I see around the web, because to design is not just to solve a problem (though it is part of the process) it is to communicate effectively and that is most definitely not solving a problem. This is where creativity plays a big part.

    This boils down to your final point about subjectivity. As we know everything is subjective, especially when a client questions our work. I think a good grounding in the fundamentals of design and visual communications will always be needed, especially in web design where so many lack visual co-ordination (that’s for another time though). The main thing here though is that even though design is subjective, we nee to be able to explain to a client why something is that colour, especially if we feel it should remain so. I think getting in the habit of knowing why something works, or even doing a reactionary piece and then explaining it is a good thing, as it helps train the mind to work creatively even when they juices are running low so to speak.

  • Kipp

    Effective communication is most definitely problem solving.

  • John

    I think the best designers adapt their style within a specific projects. Those who approach design in a delicate fashion can truly do great stuff.

  • Lucianna Coelho

    Thank you for this cool article. I believe we should all use our own creativity coupled with our client’s vision when it comes to designing. I personally would rather be recognized for having my own strong personal side.
    Thank you!