Zachary Styles: Design Manifesto 2020

As an artist, I express myself through what I create. And as a designer, I live and breathe a world of visuals and communication. From typography in magazines to information design in social community projects, designers create and grow in a never-ending cycle that feeds itself if done well.

I aim to live a life where I can create things that inspire others while using that as a vehicle for my own personal and professional growth. While I am no expert while writing this, there are a few fundamental things that I do that keep me inspired and that sustain my own development. This manifesto is a narrative of these things for record and further review down the road.

tl;dr:

1. Share what you know
2. Learn through play
3. Create for yourself first
4. Grow in public
5. Process before outcome
6. Own your own
7. Stepping stones
8. Know yourself

Share what you know

I decided a long time ago that for me to understand something, I needed to seek it out. My ignorance was forever holding me back, intentionally or otherwise. And without actively trying to change that, I couldn’t see the potential of what lay in front of me.

When I come across the insightful knowledge of others, two thoughts always come to mind:
1. “I’m glad that I understand this now,” and;
2. I’m grateful that this person took the time to share what they know.”

By sharing what they knew at that given moment, it allowed me to fill a gap I was desperately searching for. And occasionally, someone shares something I didn’t even realise I needed to know. But without the initiative that person took to take what they knew and share it with others, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I might be somewhere else, not an inherently better or worse position, but it would be different. And I like where I am now, so I am grateful for them.

I also believe that I do myself and those around me a disservice by not doing the very same. I will never claim I know everything there is to know, and anyone who tells you they do is a liar; but, I know more than I did yesterday and someone is there right now. Someone is a step or two behind me, and they could benefit from what I have to say.

I am not so disillusioned that everything I have to say is worthwhile listening to. Still, you often have to trudge through the mud to find the gold beneath it all. Not everything you say will be life-changing, but when you share with others, it grows your own understanding and your own knowledge.

When you share what you know, it can be almost impossible to not do so in service of helping someone else. When you write for someone else, you write informatively, and you remove what is unnecessary. And when you design for someone else, you merge what you know with what they need.

When you grow, those who you share with grow with you.

Learn through play

You can always learn from a textbook, and you can learn from listening to someone speak, but in the creative profession, there is one mode of learning that trumps the rest: play.

This, I believe, is in two parts, the first being psychological. By being willing to play, you are already in the mindset of being open to possibilities previously unseen, and you are more likely to find something new. By being willing to play, you are free to experiment, and you are prepared to be proven wrong. Through practice, you learn, and you develop your skills.

The second part is that adopting a playful mindset with practical skills makes them more fun. If you look at a situation and you think it’s terribly boring, you won’t be very open to stretching your concepts or experimenting. Even if you do learn something, you likely won’t be excited to share it. Which then keeps it uninteresting, and the chances of developing your skills further are next to nothing.

By being playful and willing to experiment, you lose track of time. You enter that elusive flow state, and the world slips past you in the best way. You become engrossed in what you do, and you get excited to keep going. That is when you learn, not only because you love what you do, but because you’re willing to go the extra mile and take it a step further. Without playing, you often get stuck, and as a creative, you don’t want to get stuck.

Create for yourself first

I think most designers try to create for other people so much that they forget why they started designing or creating art in the first place. For most of us, we began with expression. Then, perhaps, it moved to creating for others because we developed our skills through that expression. And now all we do is create for others and never for ourselves again.

Some designers and artists take time off to create for themselves. And others do so in between their client projects. Different people will approach it differently, and rightly so. Regardless, creating for yourself sustains your energy. It helps pull you through the tough times because you don’t feel like you’re just a cog in someone else’s wheel (don’t worry, clients, we still love you), and it keeps your own fire burning.

Without creating for yourself, you’re lost in a sea of design that all looks the same because the personality isn’t there. Start with what you like. Create what you want to create. Express how you feel. Without doing this, you won’t know what you like, what you want to create and how you feel.

Art is a process, and rarely a single outcome that speaks for itself. It’s a journey, for the sake of a tried-and-true cliche. Without embarking on our own journey and creating what we want to create how we want to create it, we can’t be unique, and we can’t grow. So create for yourself first, and create for others later; if you have the time.

Grow in public

The world is online. You cannot deny that. While many things in the world are offline, one sure-fire way to grow and develop your skills in the creative industry is to scale what you do online.

This isn’t to say that you need to share everything, but it’s important to show the world that you are learning and figuring it all out while enjoying the process. You can, of course, tell them that in person, but your reach won’t nearly be the same.

Don’t be a spammer, but don’t be a recluse either. Very few creative people thrive behind closed doors. Besides, they have to show the world what they do at some point; otherwise, no one would know they are even hireable.

Growing in public also shows you’re a real person. In an age of perpetual technology and endless fictional entertainment, sometimes the best thing you can come across is someone being genuine. That genuineness can be wrong, and it can also be painful. Still, without being willing to figure it out alongside other real people (most of whom are online) then you’re doomed to go at a snail’s pace because all you have is yourself.

I’ve said a lot about online, but this also applies to physical public spaces. All I really mean is that if you think you can learn and grow on your own with no external help, then you’re missing out. Relying on other people and learning from them shows gaps in your own knowledge, which you now have to fill because you’ve made yourself accountable to them.

Grow in public. Not just because growing on your own is lonely and slow, but because people are more willing to share and collaborate than you may think. Leverage the incredible community we have, and you’ll never see another way to grow just as much ever again.

Process before outcome

I’ve followed writers and creatives for years, and one of the most robust perspectives that I’ve found is that if you can’t write down what your process is, then you don’t have one. Without articulating and understanding, step-by-step what you do and how you do it, then you don’t know what you’re doing. This often leads to your luck running out and creative block sets in.

Without knowing how you do something, you cannot replicate it. You cannot understand what made something successful to the point that you can do it again.

This isn’t to say that all processes are correct. Most of them are wrong, especially at first. But, without knowing what they are as you work your way through that mud, you can’t look at processes that don’t work and try new ones with more potential.

At first, I just created things. But then I figured out what worked and what didn’t work for me. The only way I could see those things, however, was to get a proper look at them. Once you have them down, you notice where the gaps are, and you realise where there is potential for improvement. Now, I have a step-by-step list of what works for me with client work. This means that I can tell clients what I will do and how I will do it, giving them clarity and reassurance of the overall process. In time, my methods will change. They will improve. Without knowing what they are in the first place, though, means you have no roadmap to follow and no idea of where and how you can improve.

And as a side note, most human beings like to see the process. Clients want to know how you got from A to B, and other designers and artists like to see that you work roughly at times as well. It shows we’re all still human at the end of the day.

Own your own

No one likes a copycat. People enjoy seeing updates, and people want to get credit for things, but no one likes to see someone claim work that is not their own. To avoid this, most people credit original sources and creative inspiration; but, one brilliant way to claim your work is to own your creative mistakes.

Most designers don’t like sharing what didn’t work and what they failed to create, because the perception is that it shows a weakness of skill and calibre as a designer and an artist. This, however, I believe, is wrong. Professional creatives never started as professionals, and the greatest of the greats know that it all starts with creating work that is absolute crap.

The goal isn’t to create terrible work. The goal is to create whatever you can at the best of your ability, but to own it if it doesn’t work. We learn more from failure than we do from success. We see the mistakes, and we know where to improve. We feel the embarrassment of failure and use it to fuel what comes next. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and some of the most exceptional art and design out there came from really shitty sketches and failed prototypes. You won’t always see it, but they’re there.

Owning your own work doesn’t only mean to be original and creative in your individual rights, but acknowledging and owning the failures just as much as the successes. To see the puzzle for the broken pieces it took to build. Owning your work acknowledges the process and that no success comes from nowhere. As soon as you do that, you can learn; and as soon as you can learn, you can grow.

Stepping stones

In line with my previous point, one must realise that everything we do is a small step in a much larger plan. Failures are steps just as much as successes are, but we can’t always look at what we do in that kind of success/failure or black/white light. Sometimes the things we do and the little projects and artworks we create are just steps in a particular direction.

Seeing things only as failures or successes makes us not notice all the little things that we do that contribute to those successes or failures. It’s never one big thing that we create, but rather a succession of lots of little things. Think of it like puzzle pieces that form the puzzle in the end. We can’t create the puzzle without acknowledging the individual roles of all the parts. I believe the same thing happens in creative pursuits.

Most creative endeavours are worked on religiously. If they came easy, then they wouldn’t be held in such high regard (as they should be). So by acknowledging that every step we take, every small thing that we do that contributes to our successes — or failures — we begin to work with them with intention.

This also ties in with my fifth point (Process before outcome). I try to work with each project with an intentional-stepping-stone mindset. By seeing every small thing as a step, as a little lesson, I can see how it fits into the bigger picture. Every illustration I create develops my skills in that particular style. Every presentation I do develops my public speaking and interpersonal skills. And every article I write develops my writing and thinking skills.

I don’t necessarily have to have this grand finale in my mind of where it’s all going to end up. But, as long as I know that everything I do serves a purpose, the monotonous becomes welcome, the learning becomes intriguing, and the challenges become exciting. There’s little that I’ve experienced that wakes you up and makes you feel more alive than being excited about the small things.

When they tell you, “small things amuse small minds,” remember that those are the things that make you feel alive. Embrace them, they make you who you are.

Know yourself

Design is personal. Yes, we can all create the same wireframes and zine-grid layouts, but great designers inject their own flair into the mix. They sprinkle in a few of their own ingredients. When people get a taste of their work, they will ask “how did you do it?” The secret ingredient is your personality, it’s what you uniquely bring to the table.

Knowing what to sprinkle in, however, is a difficult task. To understand how to do this, you first need to understand what is unique about you. You need to understand your flaws, your strengths and your weaknesses. You need to know your biases and where they like to rear their heads.

Without knowing these things, they affect your work in ways you don’t foresee. By acknowledging and understanding them, you can learn to control them. You can’t fix what you don’t know is a problem, in the same way, you can’t optimise what you don’t know is unique.

Orignally published in 2020

medium.com

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