AMA – what do you think about a designer having a style? And do you think you have one?

Hey man!

I've been thinking a lot about typography, style, and been pondering over Massimo Vignelli's canon. It caught my attention that he limited the amount of typographies and colors he used, which made his works so unique and allowed him to create his own distinctive style. So my question is: what do you think about a designer having a style? Do you consider you have one? 

Cheers!
Adrian

 

Hey Adrian,

This is a good question. And in all honesty I think I’ve changed my stance on this from yes to no and vice versa multiple times over the last 10 years. And in the end I’ve come up with a very Swiss stance on it, that it’s ok to have a style and equally ok not to have a style. If this is all I gave you it’d be a very shit email back haha – so let’s take a look at my rationale for the pros and cons of having a design style vs. not. And then we’ll look at whether or not I consider I have a design style myself. 

 

Should designers have a style? Yes.  

Pros

Clients can have a problem and they know that they can come specifically to you to solve that problem. You are very clear in the way you niche your design output. Your distinctive style can seperate you from the work of others and can become your unique selling point. Depending on your style and how specialised it is, not many people can do what you can do. Being a linchpin in any organisation or industry is always a good move. When the criteria arises you automatically become a top candidate and a valued skill set to have. 

In the case of Massimo Vignelli clients come to him knowing the approach that he will take. They are paying him for a certain aesthetic, a certain process and a certain outcome. Simple, elegant and laden–with a small collection of typefaces that he uses. This is his value proposition and you know what you are getting in a way when you commission someone who has a style to do the work. Vignelli gets to do the work that he wants and the client gets the desired outcome for their project – everybody wins. (Isn’t this the holy grail? Every designers dream to do great work for great clients and to have a real impact on the people using our work? Well it’s mine at least haha) 

I remember when Si Scott’s illustration and typography work was in big demand. When a Creative or Art Director wanted this aesthetic for a campaign they had, you would know who you needed to commission. Because Si Scott’s work fulfilled a very specific niche and brand of design. When you have a style clients know what to expect from you and will hire you in a drop of a hat for that said style, as well as dropping the necessary coin for this to happen. 

With this path your are refining a style to it’s utmost potential – it is razor sharp. You become more of a maestro and an artisan designer. It is the Jiro and Vignelli approach, and there is something noble in that. (To me at least). 

 

A type illustration piece by SiScott 

 

Cons

The drawback for a having a style is if your style hinders your ability to do what’s right for a project. Like forcing a style on a project that doesn’t call for it. Overly designed, designers type of design that doesn’t make sense for certain industries and clients. I’ve seen this a lot where brands and websites have been designed in a way to showcase and showoff more of the designers ability than to get the best experience for the clients users and the success of their business. We want to create beautiful and innovative work I get that, but to do it at the expense of the client and the project is not right. This is where style has overtaken substance. Sites that FORCE minimalism or OVERLY animated sites for no reason puts a designers style and ego in front of the projects goals, which is never cool. 

You may become pigeon holed. Another thing with having a style is to make sure that your style is the brand of work you WANT to promote and keep doing. Because your style will become a representation of the type of output that people will want. When you become synonymous with something re-invention can become difficult or if your brand of work and style is no longer the flavour of the month or year you will become out of work very quickly. You will be in less demand and your value will drop drastically. So having a said style but also an ability to adapt is very important. This can also hinder growth if you are doing the same brand of work all the time so this can definitely be a drawback. 

 

SHOULD DESIGNERS HAVE A STYLE? No. 

Pros

By not being tied to a specific project, every project has a wider gamut of possibilities. Your approach to problems become inherently wider allowing you to explore more. Stretch yourself further creatively each time and constantly re-invent. Style is also interesting when you think about emerging technologies and the design landscape. Do chatbots have a style? Or is innovation the style? By not being tied to a style you can be more adaptable and span your work across different problems easier.  

Cons

You may not be able to differentiate yourself from others. Not always the case but having a lack of style can potentially blend you in with everybody else. Of course talent or great work is undeniable but in the case of clients looking for a particular type of work it is difficult to be synonymous with something if you do a lot of different things. A jack of all trades master of none type situation.  

Not really a con, but I think everybody has a style whether you can easily see it or not. There are always predispositions that one has when approaching problems. We are influenced by our values, culture, experience and what we perceive as beauty and how to interpret the data and information that we receive. How I approach a project will invariably be different to how you will approach a project. Even if we are given the same user insights, project goals and limitations. 

In closing: beyond style I think quality is a more important measure. Does your work consistently meet a certain quality and help achieve certain results that benefit the user and the businesses that you are working with? Keep striving for that. And finally what path is it that you want out of your career? Do you want to be a craftsman who refines their craft down to perfect skill set? Or are you a type to continually explore different avenues and look for reinvention? I don’t think there is a definitive answer for everyone as I’ve jumped between these 2 mindsets over the last 10 years and will continue on hopefully in the next 40 years. I am looking for craftsmanship AND reinvention. 

And finally to answer the other part of your question. Do I think I have a style? If you see my full gamut of work everything is a bit more varied, but the work I do share I can say that there is a style and a sandbox and pool that I work within. So yes I think I do have a style and people seek to work with me because of it. In the end I think there is nothing wrong with either mindset and jumping between each of them. Life is seldom ever a straight line, do what works for you and always aim for quality first and foremost.