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To me my designs looks good, at least for some months. But to others not so much. I want to go freelancing but I don't want to be a bad designer. So how do I find out if my logo/website/business card/backgrounds are good, and if not, what is bad about them?

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possible duplicate of Design Critique/Feedback Websites –  Brendan Jan 3 '13 at 2:41
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+1 There's a really good interesting question in this somewhere. I'm too full of flu to figure out how to improve it right now, but there's a real, answerable universal concern behind this. –  user568458 Jan 3 '13 at 9:29
    
i also felt that way this has been in my mind for at least 1 year or more, i wish could clarify more that aspect of it. But still it is not missed. –  Muhammad Umer Jan 3 '13 at 16:13
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I suspect the answer is "experience". They say it takes 10,000 hours to master an activity. Have we spent those hours? I hope that once we master the knowledge of our field, for ex: know typography and fonts technically and aesthetically very well, know the name of the to 25 designers of the last half century, know composition techniques, know materials etc, then we can feel confident to make our statement. We will know "what we are doing", which will translate into our being a good designer. –  Mrwolfy Jan 4 '13 at 3:35

5 Answers 5

up vote 22 down vote accepted

This old quote from US broadcaster Ira Glass puts it really well. It's something I believe is true for every creative profession:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Not much to add to that. Feeling conflicted about your own work is healthy - it's a sign of high standards and of pushing yourself.

For you, it sounds like it's not those months where you don't like your work so much that you should worry about. Pushing yourself is normal and healthy, being satisfied with everything you produce is not a sign of being a good designer - quite the opposite. Maybe you're going too easy on your work in those months where you're perfectly satisfied with it.

It's very hard to judge your own ability, because it's healthy and normal have a certain amount of dissatisfaction with your ability from always aiming slightly higher each time your ability gets slightly higher - what web comic Cyanide & Happiness called "The Creator's Curse":

enter image description here

...and it is pretty neat because it keeps people improving - if you don't have it, you might be stagnating. It's easier to cope with the constant frustration when you know it's for the best... (or at least, that's what I keep telling myself).


A better pair of questions which are easier to assess objectively is: "Are my clients (or boss) happy, paying, and recommending me to others?" and "Am I improving - is my work and skill set really, actually better than 3 months ago?". If you don't have clients or an equivalent source of impartial objective feedback yet, or if you feel you need more, get it using some of the suggestions in plainclothes' answer.

A few design-specific tips for better assessing yourself and your work:

  • Find ways to look at your work with fresh eyes - make temporary changes that mean you don't recognise it as that thing you've spent hours on, forcing your brain to process it a little more like you would if you were seeing it for the first time.

    • Tricks include: Flip horizontal (or use a mirror if it's a physical drawing). Dramatically change the hue / lighting. Look at it at a very different scale, medium or distance. Remove or simplify the colours. If it suddenly looks imbalanced or wrong the moment you see it without recognizing it, there's a flaw you didn't see before because you'd grown accustomed to it.
    • I like to do these by rasterizing, flattening then running through a photoshop effect that has a dialog box and an 'Okay' button where previewing can be turned off. I set up the effect, look away from the screen, hit Return, wait 10 seconds so it's definitely finished, then look back and expect to be surprised. I often react immediately with something like "HOLY HELL there's WAY too much stuff on the right hand side and the title's getting lost and the centre is FAR too busy and too dark relative to the whole image. Is this really my design? It looked fine seconds ago...". Then you can press 'Undo' and see that, yes, it really was like that all along. I've also known people do similar things using photocopier settings, or using mirrors and tinted glass. Unfocusing your eyes and literally stepping back are also better than nothing.
  • There's no easy technique to become able to be impartial and emotionally detached about your own work while still being passionate about improving it, you just need to develop this kind of discipline, and it takes time and effort (plus lots of experiences of being forced to bin and move on from ideas you love by clients you won't release were actually right all along until 10 months later). The closest I've ever known to a technique to get a prompt boost of impartial thinking when needed is, put it to one side, come up with an alternate concept, and develop that, treating your last work as the rival you have to beat.
  • Show it to people who know nothing about what you're trying to do, and ask them to talk you through what they see - where their eyes fall first, where they look next, how they react to each element. Give no clues or prompting, seek out people you can trust to be brutally honest and encourage them to be more brutally honest. Expect to be surprised most of the time and expect people to initially say, "Yeah, I get this, it's good", then slowly reveal that they actually interpreted it in the opposite way to what you wanted, and expect people to turn out to totally miss or misunderstand the last things you'd expect. If you're not surprised like this, you're probably influencing them and/or they're not being brutally honest enough.
  • Do everything Lèse majesté suggests to improve, sharpen and keep fresh your aesthetic eye. (actually, maybe skip be careful with design competitions - except for the best ones, the feedback is usually bad, who wins is usually near-random and they're usually horribly exploitative. But if you've got nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon, I guess entering a few with low expectations can't hurt)
  • Read DA01's awesome answer, and know which phase you're in and how far through that phase you are. If you don't vividly remember the painful transition from phase 2 to phase 3, if even thinking about that soul-destroying period doesn't make you shudder a little (or laugh, if it was enough years ago), you're probably in phase 1 or 2. There's no shame in being in phase 2, everyone goes through it. Just don't linger there.
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Fresh Eyes: Yes that is true, i had developed hate relation with gradients everything with gradients looked bad and amateruish to me. But i once had someone with zero graphic experience to design something and he mostly used gradients. And design kind of worked. That opened my eyes. –  Muhammad Umer Jan 3 '13 at 16:15
    
Contest are great for exploring, but only the ones who tell you something. Usually Contest holder doesnt know what he or she wants and figures out after 200 designs have been submitted. They have no research or any kind of information, that would help in logo or web design. At most its like my name is this and i am Realtor so give me a logo that i am going to like. –  Muhammad Umer Jan 3 '13 at 16:17
    
While this is great and I've heard it and seen little youtube videos made of this speech I'm not sure it applies to the OP unless the question is just really poorly written its almost the opposite of Ira Glass' ideas. OP says they're work looks good to them, its others saying it isn't. Ira is saying you know your work is no good. Thats a fundamental difference. –  Ryan Jan 3 '13 at 21:01
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Fair point, I read the post as, sometimes he likes his work, sometimes he doesn't, and he doesn't like the uncertainty and wants to know where he really stands. So I'm saying: that uncertainty is normal, and actually maybe he needs a little more of it and to embrace it and use it. I agree it's hard to tell what's meant in the original post. –  user568458 Jan 3 '13 at 22:14

A good aesthetic eye is something that takes a little experience to develop. And being a good designer means also being your number 1 critic (not number 1 fan, which many poor designers tend to be). Good designers are perfectionists, just like any other good artist.

There's no simple way to achieve these things, but one very helpful method is to immerse yourself in high quality designs:

  • Subscribe to design feeds
  • Visit design blogs
  • View design showcases
  • Look at the websites and portfolios of top agencies (it also helps to read their blog entries where they explain their process or how they developed a particular project)
  • Become an active member of design communities like Behance, Dribbble, FFFFound, ColourLovers, etc.
  • Check out template and stock image sites (e.g. GraphicRiver, iStockPhoto, Veer)
  • participate in and/or check out design competitions:

    • monthly competitions held by Veer, iStockPhoto (also, Feast is a great program from iStockPhoto that intermediate designers should look into)
    • corporate sponsored competitions on sites like Behance, deviantArt, or submit your past work to design annuals.
    • HOW/PRINT, AIGA's annual competitions

      If you're just starting, you might hold off on submitting and just purchase the design annuals or look at the winners when marketing organizations give out awards for best marketing/fundraising pieces--usually they have them for different categories, like direct mail, microsites, brochures, branding, etc.

    • T-shirt design contests by Threadless, Shirt.Woot, etc.

The goal of all of this is to get out of a solipsistic mindset where you're only looking at your own designs. Because when you get that sort of tunnel vision, you have no objective reference for judging your own work. All you see is your own designs all the time and hear your clients or friends/family commenting on how great they are. You will grow very little as a designer this way.

On the other hand, if you focus outwardly and on the best designers in the industry, then you'll always be able to see how much further you have to go to be on the same level as the first rate design studios.

In time, by absorbing the aesthetic qualities of professional designs, you'll begin to internalize some of those aesthetics and be able to apply them to your own work in original and innovative ways. But that only comes if you set very high standards for yourself.

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"participate in design competitions" = I'd strongly suggest not doing that. That is typically the opposite of 'high quality designs' –  DA01 Jan 3 '13 at 17:40
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@DA01: I disagree. The competitions set up by iStockPhoto, Veer, PRINT, HOW (PRINT & HOW's cost a lot of money to enter, so I wouldn't bother with them until much later in your career), Behance, etc. have a lot of really great designers--especially the ones sponsored by Pantone, Wacom, Sony, Nvidia, or other big corporations. They usually have pretty good prizes was well. Even the corporate sponsored contests they have on DeviantArt tend to have pretty good entries for the finalists. Another really good source are the Threadless-type competitions if you're an illustrator. –  Lèse majesté Jan 4 '13 at 0:41
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Just to clarify, the HOW/PRINT contests and some marketing organizations generally have year-end contests where they ask you to submit your best marketing piece or branding project, etc. So you're not creating something just for the contest, but rather submitting something already in your portfolio. –  Lèse majesté Jan 4 '13 at 0:45
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Ah! Sorry, my mistake. I was assuming 'logo design contests' and the like. Indeed, the annual design competitions run by the major publications (and organizations like AIGA) are certainly places to go for good design. –  DA01 Jan 4 '13 at 1:16
    
Yea, I guess I should have clarified. –  Lèse majesté Jan 4 '13 at 1:56

Your clients will tell you.

Sometimes delicately, sometimes not so much.

Go out and start doing work for people and see what they say. If people start coming back and referring their contacts that means they like you work, your responsiveness, and your price.

Over time you can inch your rates up as your business and your work improve. To be honest, most clients have terrible taste: They'll pay even if you're an awful designer, as long as you give them what they're after and their sales are good.

If you really want an insider's perspective

Bug local designers / firms / ad agencies and see if they'll take a few minutes to meet with you. Some designers will meet with local newbies out of the good of their heart. Others are just scouting for new talent. You'll be able to tell the difference when they start talking ;)

You can post your work here and ask for specific areas of guidance. This is a Q&A site but with the right kind of question, people are willing to help.

Behance Portfolio Reviews are a good format for structured feedback. The face-to-face format is the best way to learn. They are community organized for aspiring designers in various fields. If there's one near you, check it out.

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To be honest, most clients have terrible taste: They'll pay even if you're an awful designer, as long as you give them what they're after and their sales are good. -- That's key. You can't rely on the client's tastes alone. Part of what they're paying you for is your designer instincts. One of the harder parts of being a designer is being able to work with a client with poor tastes to still come up with a professional-looking product. –  Lèse majesté Jan 3 '13 at 5:51
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But filtering, interpreting, and maybe deviating completely from what the client asks for is something that comes with time. Early on you're likely to work with lower end clients. You're going to give them a good deal for what is essentially portfolio/experience building. It's going to be very hard to coerce the client to trust your instinct when you don't have any proof of concept. –  plainclothes Jan 3 '13 at 6:38

In general, I find there's 4 phases in a person's self-evaluation of their own work:

1) I know nothing. I suck. 2) I think I figured this out! I rock! 3) Wait a minute, I now know enough that I know I don't know a lot. I need to get better. 4) I'm now fairly confident in my work.

The second phase is the dangerous phase...when you know enough to be dangerous, but don't know enough to realize all the stuff you are doing wrong.

The 3rd phase is the one I feel that most people will spend most of their career in. It's an acknowledgement that you know a lot, but that you still have a lot to learn.

I guess my point to that is don't confuse phase 2 with phase 4. ;)

As for how to know you are good or not, are you making a living doing what you are doing? That's one sign.

Another suggestion would be to take your portfolio around to other design firms. Ask if you could sit down with some art directors and have them review your portfolio and offer some feedback. Ask for some peer review.

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Those 4 phases are so true. I can recognize each of them in myself and others for everything from drawing, design, programming, writing to sports. –  Lèse majesté Jan 4 '13 at 0:48
    
about #4, if i feel that way wont you say that i have become used-to/master at trends of that time. –  Muhammad Umer Jan 4 '13 at 16:35
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+1 I love that four phases idea. Also reminds me of the cycle of life: overwhelmed child, overconfident adolescent, overworked adult, then some people reach a level of success and seniority where they're over worrying and just do it. I'm hoping to get there in, maybe, 4-6 years. Is it adapted from one or more books/articles etc, or is it a personal observation? Also would you say that your phase 4 is/relates to that unscientific but appealing 10,000 hours to mastery idea? –  user568458 Jan 10 '13 at 17:03
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Oh, I suppose it does relate to the 10,000 hour concept too. I guess the connection would be after 10,000 hours, that's when you reach stage 4. My dilemma is that career-wise I've been mostly a generalist so I fear that I'll always be stuck in phase 3 (On the plus side, at least phase 3 keeps you curious). –  DA01 Jan 10 '13 at 17:47
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If you look at the work you did a year ago and cringe, you're in phase 3. Once that stops you're in phase 4. Phase 4 doesn't mean you stop learning though... –  John Jun 18 '13 at 16:59

Hearing from others helps, this is my best opinion that others have responded by making remarks of pros and cons. You can set it up in a blog for other designers to check out. Try Behance and other great portfolio sites online.

In some situations it is always good to go with your gut instinct if you feel it will stand out... take the risk and see what happens. Either way you learn as you go.

I don't know everything about designing but I know designers take risks, and offer something different to their clients that the "other guys" didn't think about.. so why not? I actually try to do a tutorial once a week to learn something new. : ) Hope this helps you on your journey, I'm guessing you never really get off the quest to be good at what you do... you keep at it.

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