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?
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.
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":
...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).
If you like charts, here's another neat illustration, by the painter Marc Dalessio. Obviously it's not scientific... but it perfectly matches my experience with all types of skill development, and judging by the comments and the image going viral, it resonated with many others, too.
Note the periods after you improve, where you think you're better than you really are; then you slowly realise you aren't that good yet, your critical skills improve, you get frustrated, and it's during that frustration that improvements begin.
It's not easy to assess your own ability objectively - you're biased. A pair of questions which help assess it objectively are: "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:
- Unfocus your eyes
- Literally step back (or, zoom out if, like me sometimes, you're feeling too lazy to stand up... but stepping back is better!)
- Flip horizontal (or use a mirror if it's a physical drawing).
- Dramatically change the hue / lighting.
- Remove or simplify the colours.
Run it through a photoshop effect (or if it's a physical drawing, I've heard of people using tinted glass)
- 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.
- Expect to be surprised. I often react immediately like "HOLY HELL the right hand side is SO unbalanced 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 hit undo, focus your eyes, sit back down, etc etc and see that, yes, it really was like that all along. And now you know better how to improve it.
- 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 skipbe 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.
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.
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.
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 ;)
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.
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.