Fighting off design Stalinism

Jason Santa Maria echoed a current dilemma of mine in his new article for Design in Flight magazine. I'd be interested to learn about your experiences.

Jason Santa Maria recently published a highly insightful article Fighting Off Design Stagnation in the latest issue of Design In-Flight magazine.

As Jason himself describes,

The article deals with the problems designers and creative people go through as their career progresses like the pressures to remain current, competitive and imaginative.

This is the first time I have read DIF and I am genuinely impressed. If you haven't already subscribed, I would heartily recommend you do.

Fighting off design stagnation

Jason begins by honestly musing over his reactions to other, younger designers' work and why their ideas make him wonder Why didn't I think of that?. He rationalises his reactions by concluding,

Design students enjoy the freedom of unknowing experimentation. They don�t have the boundaries like pleasing a client and real-world project restrictions. Because of their underexposure to such things, their minds are free to experience the medium for the first time and see it without such time-earned hang-ups.

and he goes on to offer sound advice on how to stay fresh and avoid design stagnation. His article is well worth a subscription to DIF and echoed thoughts that I have been having recently as our business grows a little bit.

Lonely splendour

Since striking out on my own seven years ago, for the majority of the time I have designed alone, relying on feedback from clients, friends and family to help keep me on the right track. I was in control, it way my work, no-one elses'. Mine, all mine (Muuhhaaha)! Someday I'll rule the world!

Today, things are a little different. As the company grows a little, I need to get used to the styles and ideas of other members of the team and this can be a tricky thing to do when you have been in complete control for so long. Change I must, but how?

Avoiding the design treadmill

Designers are often creatures of habit (I can't answer the telephone without lighting a cigarette) and this can often be a good thing, particularly when you work alone and need to be self-motivated. At the same time I know that it is important not to feel like you are on a treadmill. When designing as a business (rather than simply for pleasure), developing a 'house style' is not necessarily a bad thing if clients are attracted to your work and continue to knock on your door. Of course, if your style is highly 'fashionable', you do run the risk of your style quickly going out of favour.

I think that as a business grows, maintaining quality standards is vital, but bringing in new people is not always as easy as it first seems. Handling your emotional responses to their work can be hard and ensuring that your reactions are not simply based on It's not the way I would do it is even harder.

Not being a design Stalin

In his article Jason says, You can be your own most stringent and critical judge, but how to handle fresh input into a company's established ways can be a very tricky indeed. I know how critical I can be when judging submissions to the Web Standards Awards each week. But being critical of (semi) anonymous designers is not the same as being constructively critical of the work of people that you are with every day.

I would never like to be thought of as a design 'Stalin', where only work that resembles mine is acceptable. At the same time I know that standards of attention to detail and consistancy are important. It's a fine tight-rope to walk.

It's interesting; there are many designers I admire enormously whose styles are very different to mine, and others who I admire equally like John Oxton whose style I feel is perhaps more compatible with my own. My dilemma is learning how to accept important new influences and ideas without losing a sense of 'self'.

I'm sure this is not a new dilemma for creative people and I'd be interested to learn about your experiences, either as someone who has been in my shoes, or as someone with experience (good or bad) of joining an established team.


  1. #1 On January 8, 2005 11:49 PM John Oxton said:

    I can only really offer a side by side comparison from my previous life as a chef. Working in the places I did, some of the mostly highly rated restaurants in the UK, I came across two approaches. The first was very simple, my way or the highway. The second was a little more subtle; you were expected to achieve the standards set be the boss but how you went about achieving those results was entirely up to you but the standards must be achieved.

    Having then been put in the position of being the boss, remembering that cooking extremely well is both a technical and creative process, I started out as a real dictator and mellowed out as I learnt to trust my colleagues. I also found it was as much about picking the right kind of people for me, people I wanted to work with and people who wanted to work with me.

    In a nutshell? Eventually I came to the conclusion that new members of any team need to be involved in discussion and lots of it.

    Thanks for admiring me by the way, how much was that cheque for again! :-)

  2. #2 On January 9, 2005 02:13 AM Adam Michela said:

    I would just like to echo:

    This is the first time I have read DIF and I am genuinely impressed. If you haven't already subscribed, I would heartily recommend you do.

    I picked up my first issue, and the back issues, just a month or two ago. Not only is DIF a joy to read, but I have also found them to be an incredibly useful reference.

    DIF has a permanent place on my lil USB stick :)

  3. #3 On January 9, 2005 07:35 AM Jason Santa Maria said:

    Thanks so much for the write-up! It's good to know I'm not alone :D

  4. #4 On January 9, 2005 09:42 AM Richard@Home said:

    I'd much rather be a coder than a designer.

    Isn't the collective term for a bunch of designers known as an 'argument'? ;-)

    The problem that faces designers in this case is that it can be very difficult to say when one design is better than the other. It is entirely subjective. e.g. This one is a better design because I like blue and Arial, this design feels 'cramped', this choice of colours reminds me of my first puppy.

    Unlike coders, designers don't have autonomous tools that can gauge the merits of of one design over the other. You can't really benchmark a design. Coders have lots of tools designed to help them make this decision.

    Very rarely will you come across two pieces of code designed to do the same job where you cannot say one is better than the other (takes less time to execute, uses less resources, is more scalable, is easier to understand).

    Designers, like coders however have the ultimate toolkit at their disposal: Experience and testing. It becomes easier to compare two designs when the designer can explain why they made a particular choice and back it up with knowledge gained from experience and testing.

    For example: Your experience tells that (in western design at least) red is perceived a warning colour, blue is perceived as cold etc. Testing shows that your users can't find your contact page because the link is hidden in a multi-level menu.

    We aren't omnipotent. We can't know everything, we can't experience everything. This is when you must trust your colleagues and if you can't trust your colleagues, why did you hire them in the first place? ;-)

    I'd much rather be a coder than a designer.

  5. #5 On January 9, 2005 03:41 PM Jason Santa Maria said:

    That is exactly why I would much rather be a designer than a coder. I like finding a solution that works in a pool of many solutions. It sparks competitiveness and drives me to work harder. Not having autonomous tools to tell us we are doing OK is our greatest strength. It makes us have to constantly think of new directions. We are dealing with a much larger beast than right or wrong (as in, coded correctly or incorrectly, working/non-working). We are dealing with the collective conscious of the audience, their perceptions and experiences, thoughts and feelings.

    You say "Very rarely will you come across two pieces of code designed to do the same job where you cannot say one is better than the other". Ah, this is the point! Code can be evaluated without needing a message, whereas design begs one. We do have benchmarks (though they aren't as clean cut as yours), when a design is widely considered successful, it usually is. People can recognize, and many times even those without design background, what is pleasing and speaks to them on a personal level. Something that propels them into action or thought. People know something good when they see it. Everyone may not agree about something being "good", but in design, that isn't always the point. You can still get your message across and propel people to do something if they hate you. The possibilities are completely open. For the above reasons you explained, that is why designers and coders are a pretty powerful match together. The occupations fit together like puzzle pieces. I'll wear one hat and you can wear the other, but...

    I'd much rather be a designer than a coder :D

  6. #6 On January 9, 2005 04:39 PM Adagio Gherkin said:

    I agree Malarkey, that it's difficult to walk the fine line between being constructively critical and destructive. As there are no "rights" and "wrongs", unlike coding, designers are people who strive to produce better work constantly. A recent new member to a highly respected and creative design agency I have found it hard to find my niche. Design is such a subjective subject, and although there are several do's and dont's I (like most designers) take what is said on the chin. The feedback I have received on my css and my layouts is lapped up eagerly, although it may not appear so at the time. I take the information I am given, learn from it, and hopefully will make myself a better designer because of it.

  7. #7 On January 9, 2005 04:49 PM Tim Gluth said:

    Thanks to you and to Jason Santa Maria for posting these great articles. I have been battling with this same issue over the past few months.

    I have made a New Year's resolution to myself to not be so critical of my own work, and not to dismiss other's work so quickly. It's not as easy as it sounds, but I gained some great insight from your article(s).

  8. #8 On January 9, 2005 05:51 PM Kev said:

    Another great article with useful replies.

    The design industry is a funny animal. When I was at university, projects were all about pushing ideas to the full, and coming up with original ideas that invoked a strong reaction from the audience. This is how I thought it would be in the 'real world'. Unfortunately I found that the 'real world' meant a lot of compromise.
    If I'm working on something in my 9-5 job that 'goes against the grain' as it were, I bite my lip and put my head down and just get it done, and then go home and work twice as hard on satisfying my creative juices on personal projects to re-address the balance.

    Good luck to everyone with this eternal struggle ...

  9. #9 On January 9, 2005 11:15 PM Malarkey said:

    @ Richard:

    It becomes easier to compare two designs when the designer can explain why they made a particular choice and back it up with knowledge gained from experience and testing.

    I wish that more designers/bloggers would do this as I find it terrifically interesting (come on Jason!)

    @ Jason:

    The occupations (Ed: designers and coders) fit together like puzzle pieces. I'll wear one hat and you can wear the other.

    I agree with you and wrote this for an up-and-coming interview;

    I believe that there is no such thing as a web designer. However, there are designers who specialise in working on the web. I also believe that in the future there will be very little �single person� web development.

    To get the best results, a team will be made up of people with different skills working together including,

    • Content/Information designers
    • Graphic designers
    • Technical developers
    • Usability and accessibility specialists

    As designers, it is very important that we understand the general aspects of the different parts of the development process. But we should not aim to know everything, instead focussing on our core skill of design. Personally I cannot write JavaScript, ASP or PHP, but I understand fully what they do and where they fit into the process. I leave those aspects to others with different types of brains, and I get on with design.

    As designers who work on the web, it is important that we understand fully the needs of the end customer and the goals of our clients. If we design for these, and make the content of the site (which after-all is what people visit a site for) our main priority, then our sites will be more effective for our clients.

    But I digress... can anyone help me with my dilemma?

  10. #10 On January 10, 2005 12:03 AM Jason Santa Maria said:

    I don't know, I try not to worry too much about losing sense of self. I feel as though my style and methods need to constantly evolve and grow. I try to leave myself open to many things; you can find the beauty and designed intent to just about anything if you allow yourself. I just think it's a matter of not immediately discounting something before you can find something good in it. You are obviously able to be very critical about the things you don't like, and also able to understand why you like the things you do. So, as a little exercise, try a bit of role reversal. Force yourself to find things you dislike in art you consider to be "good". Then, force yourself to find things you like in art you consider to be "bad". This might help you to get in the mode of accepting more things, regardless of style.

    Don't worry, once I have a project or two I feel are able to be torn down and explained for the sake of myself and everyone, I will do it :D

  11. #11 On January 10, 2005 08:57 AM mearso said:

    Hurrah to Malarky for this quote.

    I believe that there is no such thing as a web designer. However, there are designers who specialise in working on the web.

    Whilst pondering this question is occured to me that talking about style can mean different things. Sometimes it can be the visual result of a sustained effort to understand a design problem, or other times, it can be visual dressing up - akin to picking out clothes from the fancy dress shop.

    I would guess that most of us can accomodate different styles from colleagues but would have a much harder time reconciling different underlying design philosphies.

  12. #12 On January 10, 2005 01:01 PM Adrian said:

    Is your dilemma "(a) difficulty in constructively criticising other team members" or "(b) difficulty in accepting new influences"?

    Either way, I suggest that you sit down with your team and define "good work." You mention consistency and attention to detail. Define those things. Flesh out a set of standards below which your team's work does not drop. Better to establish in advance "This is who WE are and what WE stand for," rather than say afterward "I didn't want you to do it like that, you are my employee, do as I say."

    Of course there may well be things that only you can bring to that discussion, but your goal is everyone on the team agreeing what must be present in every bit of work before you ship it out of the door. Not Stalinism, so much as shared vision of what you are trying to achieve.

    Feedback becomes easy. You have three yardsticks: your team's agreed standards, your client's requirements and user's requirements. Always discuss work in relation to those thing, instead of just "I don't like this, do it again." Familiarity, unjustified personal preference or "we have always done it this way" have no place in this kind of discussion.

    You can also provide much better feedback in any situation by following some simple guidelines which I picked up at Toastmasters, the public speaking club (the link above is to City of London Toastmasters):

    1. Use a Commend / Recommend / Commend structure - that is say what you liked about the work, say what you would like to see changed and then commend the person again on what they did do well.

    2. Make it your opinion. Instead of "you did this wrong" say "I don't understand how this meets the requirements."

    3. Make recommendations instead of criticisms. Not "this is bad" but "this would meet the requirements if you did A, B or C."

    As far as being open to new influences, you obviously have high standards for your own work and everyone elses. Possibly your standards leave you a little bit blinkered. "It doesn't meet my standards, so I cannot be influenced by it."

    Accepting something new does not have to mean diluting quality. Having discussed your work with the whole team, you should have a sense that they are equally committed to doing a great job - even if their approach is, at times, different. Knowing that you agree on what constitutes good work should make it a lot easier for you to be positively influenced by their stuff.

    If you don't understand their work, then ask why did you do it this way? And ask openly - interested in the answer - not as a precursor to saying "great, but I still want you to change it."

    Also take the blinkers off from time to time. Let yourself enjoy stuff that doesn't measure up, then figure out "how could I use that style, but in a way which meets our standards for quality?"

    And if you still have the nagging feeling that you are rejecting a piece of work because of Stalinism, then ask yourself what you would do differently. Stereotypically Malarkey is not necessarily better, just familiar. Familiarity is not, in this context, a good yardstick. Would your solution be genuinely better, or just different?

  13. #13 On January 10, 2005 01:11 PM Malarkey said:

    @ Adrian: Terrific stuff. Thank-you very much for taking the time and trouble to reply.

  14. #14 On January 11, 2005 05:42 AM Sean said:

    Design Stalinism hasn�t gone away. It fades - but as soon as an innovative design appears - it�s back.

    Innovation begets fashionableness. Fashionableness begets Design Stalinism.

    Broadsheet layouts from the late-1700�s with woodblock graphics were innovative. And, with the advent of steel-plate engravings in the 1800�s, more clients wanted graphics on their sheets. Early 1950�s styles were innovative but as more clients wanted �innovative styles�, these too became commonplace.

    Peter Saville had a innovative design style but then fermented an entire industry with his minimalist approach.

    View CSS Vault, cssZen Garden, stylegala, Deviant Art &c and you find that Design Stalinism�s not dead. Aesthetically, I like 1-in-50 of the designs found on those sites but, since the designs are selected by Experts, I defer my preferences. However, should a client want a design based on one of the Stalinist designs from the remaining 49, I�ll do it. It�s Commerce over Aesthetics.

    I liked A List Apart�s two column layout; I don�t these days. Everyone�s got one.

    I like whitespace; I like And all that Malarkey. I like their styles and content. However, when the day comes that those styles are fashionable, I will loathe those styles but I will like their designs.

    I agree with Adrian. Consensus is necessary. And, sometimes, compromise. Criticism�s interesting. It�s often subjective; it�s rarely objective. A client�s criticisms are subjective; a team member�s criticism may be one of each. [At least, one would hope so, since Everyone�s a professional.] Though, all too often, it leads to Stalinist preferences.

    Web Design has a unique set of conventions that affect the structure and presentation of the design: clients, content, usability, accessibility, platforms, standards, browser capabilities, monitor sizes, monitor color settings, line hook-ups &c.

    I cannot see that Design Stalinism will ever cease when Commerce demands it. Or, it's 'House Style' rules.

    And, Mr. Malarkey, what happened to Roy Wood's picture?

  15. #15 On January 11, 2005 08:56 AM Malarkey said:

    @ Shaun: Thanks for your considered reply. This is by way of a thank-you.

    (And I wish it could be Christmas, every dayayay...
    When the kids are singing and the bands begin to playayay...


  16. #16 On January 11, 2005 05:36 PM Blake said:

    Being a design student, I know full-well the freedom I have to explore any creative ventures my brain sees fit. One professor of mine darn near barks at her students to push your own boundaries and limits, exploring new territory, because this creative freedom will not last. In an atmosphere where difference matters as much as form and function, I can't help but wonder how much own design senses will change in the professional world. In the past year I've felt my own design sense evolve into something of my own. Without catering to a client, I'm sure it would flourish into something more. Ah, but who knows such things.