Do designers need a personal style?

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?