How good am I?
June 28, 2005 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Am I a good graphic designer?

I just finished a BA in Politics and Economics, something that stopped exciting me after less than a year, let alone three. I want to be designer, but do I have what it takes?

I'm pretty good at getting things done with Quark and Photoshop, and I've been designing promotional materials to be printed for my own and my friends' club nights recently. I've never had any training, but do these samples show any evidence of talent that could be developed at a good design school? I find it so hard to assess my own work.

Bear in mind, I've never taken a course or read a book about this stuff, but be realistic. Don't let me throw away another 3 years of my life if I suck.
posted by godawful to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Your pictures aren't showing up - [view image] leads to a link saying that they contain errors
posted by PurplePorpoise at 11:29 AM on June 28, 2005

Response by poster: Shit. They're hosted on an MSN group. I was able to remotely link to the images, and they came through on preview.

Any reason this shouldn't work? Anything I can do?
posted by godawful at 11:31 AM on June 28, 2005

Post them on
posted by grouse at 11:34 AM on June 28, 2005

Response by poster: Sorry everyone. Thanks Grouse.

posted by godawful at 11:40 AM on June 28, 2005

They look pretty good to me. Although many design houses want to see big portfolios and formal training, not having either shouldn't be a barrier to getting design jobs of some description, as long as you have talent. And then you can work your way up to bigger things as you accumulate experience.

Looks like you're Oxford based, too - I used to frequent the Coven. Do they still have fibre glass caves?
posted by nylon at 11:57 AM on June 28, 2005

I like them, especially the last. The crucifix one is a little overwrought. iPod one is nice.

I don't know anything about design school, though. To attach a rider question on yours, is design school necessary for a design career? I'd likewise love to pursue a career in design after school (I'm majoring in poetry) — is it enough just to amass a small portfolio of my work, or should I have majored in art instead?
posted by rafter at 11:59 AM on June 28, 2005

Not bad at all. I think you're a little bit attached to a very structuralist grid - all that force-justified type is a bit unnecessary, but then again I'm coming from a more conservative book-arts background and to me almost eveyrthing should be ragged-right.

Nice color. You care about typography, obviously, and are having fun with the collage elements. I think you could do better, but who couldn't? I don't think you are wasting your time. Many of my colleagues - professional designers with degrees in publishing, design and art, with years of experience - are doing simply godawful work.

Read style manuals, get comfy with color theory, read the Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography and the Bringhurst book, and maybe look at the work of Ryan McGinness - he seems your style - and don't put too much stock in what you see in the design annuals. The Friedl/Ott/Stein book Typography is a good general primer on all manner of type, color and design issues, and I recommend it very highly; you can usually find it discounted for about US$25 and it's worth every penny. I learned as much from reading through that book as I did in two semesters of theory.

Constantly tighten up. Pare down. Simplify.
posted by luriete at 12:02 PM on June 28, 2005

Response by poster: Cheers Nylon. The Coven still has the caves. They let it go to seed for a few years, but now they're investing quite heavily in the place, and things are looking up. This February, they put in the best sound system I've ever heard outside of London.

Thanks rafter and luriete too. I should have asked for book suggestions. Any others?
posted by godawful at 12:05 PM on June 28, 2005

(And by the way - some of the most influential designers of the past 20 years never went to design school. But a good design program - or even a type-centric program, like those at Reading, which is not that far from you and which I recommend very highly - will help you to be creative when you need to be, and will certainly help you with technique, and will help you market yourself, too.)
posted by luriete at 12:06 PM on June 28, 2005

And if you are going to specialize in show flyers, spend a lot of time on this site.
posted by luriete at 12:07 PM on June 28, 2005

majoring in art isn't going to do crap for you. I have an art major, and i'm not a designer, nor am i necessarily qualified to be hired as one, though I dabble and do work for friends.

Now, if you went to a technical art school, rather than a fine arts school as i did*, your degree alone wouldn't necessarily qualify you either, but you'd probably both have the portfolio and the connections to make it as a designer. However, be warned that most of these folks now working in the industry spent several years interning FOR NOTHING at ad/design studios. of course, if you freelance, you might not need to worry about school OR being someone's bitch.

the reason i've never tried to do design on a professional basis is that 1) i like being able to do whatever i want with minimum input from "clients" (read: buddies who i do a favor for or work trade) and 2) i've got a limited style -- i haven't done enough different types of work that I can take a clients' idea and follow through on it visually. I think these are two qualities that are more important to being a designer, than "can i do cool work/copy current design trends". then again, i'm not a designer, so what do i know?

* (for the sake of this post, a technical art school is one that focuses on commercial art -- illustration, typography, photography, 3d modeling, graphic design etc, whereas fine arts is more concerned with work intended for a gallery/museum)
posted by fishfucker at 12:14 PM on June 28, 2005

ok, i'm just a computer programmer, but:
  1. the characters in the ipod display aren't rotated properly. they're leaning and not correctly foreshortened.
  2. which way is the movement going (seems like the fade out should run right to left) and is she sitting astride the word or not?
  3. this is just a mess. too many different kinds of area - cartoony blobs, squares with rounded corners and overlays. and a bunch of different fonts (i think), too.
  4. again, too little coherence. the background diagonals clash with the body of the title (different angle) and in general, while the title sets you up for some kind of "3d", nothing else plays along - the red text is coming from a completely different vanishing point, for example.
maybe that means that you would find an art school a positive thing - it could give you a bit more of a theoretical background to make more consistent work. or i could just be talking out of my arse (i do like the first one, apart from the text, which bugs me).
posted by andrew cooke at 12:56 PM on June 28, 2005

The curly apostrophy on the last one's pointing the wrong direction. ;)

Otherwise, these look pretty good.
posted by kindall at 1:16 PM on June 28, 2005

Brutally honest here, but I don't feel this is very strong design. Your description of your background and ability are shown to be honest and accurate.

Now, this doesn't mean you can't learn to be a good (or even extremely good) designer, but right now you are on par with someone who has some technical skill and no voice, as it were. I have found in my career working as Design Director that people who are very good at graphic design have a talent that just needs to be let out with the learning of how to use different mediums accurately. Once these skills are mastered, they are able to make the stuff in their head useable to the rest of us. More common are those who master the medium, but have no aesthetic to drive it. You may be on this side of the coin. But, you haven't spent a lot of time working through it either. If you truly enjoy design, then trying to be great at it for the next 3 years will not be a waste of your time. Follow your passion, and you will be happier regardless of the outcome. You just have to decide now that you are doing it for your own satisfaction and if it becomes a way to make good money, then great.

Now, I have had a lot of experience helping great designers tweak their work to accomplish a business need - but I am a lousy designer myself. So you can take all I said with a grain of salt, or throw it out completely. I just felt that you were getting a lot of pats on the head and not a lot of frank feedback - which you seem to be asking for. I'm also sure that you will get someone telling you that you are doing great and your work, as is, is perfect. Can't tell you who to believe. Good luck with whatever you decide to do.
posted by qwip at 1:35 PM on June 28, 2005

Your stuff looks just fine to me, but the real challenge of the design professional is to make business-related projects look presentable. In a business environment, you won't necessarily have the freedom to use cool robots and vintage pin-up material. You'll be working with much more mundane subjects like couches and doctor's offices and stock photo models shaking hands with each other.
posted by MegoSteve at 1:37 PM on June 28, 2005

Did you create the core images (the pinup girl, the robot, the jesus) or are you just using other peoples? If you did, that's pretty good, if you didn't, your just doing basic photoshopping
posted by cyphill at 1:37 PM on June 28, 2005

A whole 'nother aspect of it is, how long does it take you to get the job done? When someone hires you, you have to be able to deliver good work on time and on budget. It it takes you six months to design a decent concert flyer (an exaggeration, of course.... I hope...) ain't nobody gonna hire you.

Other than that, it looks to me like you're off to a good start, and just need to put more time and practice into it. Skills don't develop overnight. Is it worth it? Depends on how much you enjoy the work, I guess. There are many professions that pay more money. Do you need formal schoolin'? I think that's a personal decision. For some people that's the best way to learn. For others, not so much. In my opinion, self-trained designers do more interesting work, and tend to be less fussy about it and more fun to work with. But that's a very general statement, with plenty of exceptions, and is of course based on my own personal experience. (Heh -- Is that enough disclaimers for you?)
posted by spilon at 2:15 PM on June 28, 2005

Yes, go to school. Your instincts are good, and a formal education will teach you the theories that sustain work over time. You'll also learn a lot about working with clients, specifically taking criticism, meeting deadlines, learning to adjust your style to their needs and more. Further, working with other designers while you have the chance to collaborate is invaluable--design can be a lonely pursuit, and creative idea-sharing before you have your income on the line is wonderful, useful fun.

I've hired several designers, and to be very frank, I'd be less inclined to work with one who proclaimed to be "self taught" over someone who went through the process of educating themselves. Trained designers tend to be better organized, more receptive to my needs as a client, more realistic about the project's scope, and more humble about their work.
posted by hamster at 2:16 PM on June 28, 2005

I think the last one's the strongest, but I'm a sucker for color juxtapositions. Still, I think the background on that is nicely done.

But, the biggest obstacle to becoming a designer these days is that everyone's doing it. You no longer have to have draftsmanship skills and you no longer need to invest in lots of expensive equipment to get the hang of it, plus I think due to the internet / computers, people are just much more aware that it's a field than they were 20 years ago. I went to art school, but majored in fine art; if I had gone now, I would have probably majored in graphic design (I did end up working in design after school, I think because of photoshop - I remember like one project with velox / hard copy layout, but that mighta been as an intern...)

I guess the point is, if you're into it, give it a go, but just remember that you have a lot of competition. Also, not all design is hugely creative - depending on the kind of job you find, you may have to do boring corporate / textbook layout stuff, or just produce what the art director assigns. Remember that professional positions don't guarantee your getting to explore your own ideas, etc, so make sure you enjoy the nitty gritty enough to still be satisfied with the work.
posted by mdn at 2:20 PM on June 28, 2005

This work is a good start, and you would get employed as a junior in the industry based on these, I feel. It does, however, lack the true artistry that truly great designers have. I think you just need to learn your tools better, and get a lot more inspiration.. and then just keep on creating. You seem to have the right ideas.
posted by wackybrit at 4:30 PM on June 28, 2005

Hmm...I'd say the first and fourth are the strongest. On the second, I find myself wondering why the pinup isn't sitting on the top of the D, maybe with the foot resting on the Y...seems like it'd fill the space better. At that point, though, I'd want to redraw the illustration to integrate it more with the text. And I'd ditch the third example entirely. Too many styles, too much stuff going on in the lower-left corner, and that map is way too small to be of use (and therefore, bad design).

You no longer have to have draftsmanship skills and you no longer need to invest in lots of expensive equipment to get the hang of it, plus I think due to the internet / computers, people are just much more aware that it's a field than they were 20 years ago.

Quite true, but having the software doesn't automatically confer Mad Design Skillz...and it usually shows. If I had a dollar for every crime against design perpetuated by some enterprising soul with a copy of Adobe software, I wouldn't be hustling for freelance. (This is not to say, godawful, that I'm lumping you in that category. I'm not.)

Full disclosure: started out fine arts, switched to illustration and web work, currently doing the unsexy sort of graphic design mdn described. Unfortunately there seems to be much more call for those pedestrian projects than the balls-out, "make it cool" stuff. It's frustrating at times, but it has been an education. Fine-tuning the way you communicate with clients (who usually know nothing about design, but "know what they want") is something you will never learn in school. At this point I tend to think that it's nearly as important as being able to design well; in fact, I'd go so far as to say it's an integral part of being a good designer.
posted by Vervain at 7:40 PM on June 28, 2005

A few overlong, rambling thoughts from someone who isn't a designer and never could be, but has had professional dealings with several:

1) As has been said, design tools like Photoshop are becoming increasingly ubiquitous - as are basic skills in them. Every prospective client will have an office junior who regularly posts to b3ta or a mate who does his band's own record sleeves; you need to offer something significantly more than they can, across the concept, the creation and the delivery. Of your examples, 1 and 4 show definite promise in both concept and execution, although you can certainly learn to improve a few things (that fade and perhaps the kerning in 1 are irritating, and the lettering effects in 4 are confusing to the eye, as andrew cooke said). 2, assuming that the typeface and the saucy lady are not your own creations, is probably too simple and generic to really impress, but is fairly competently done. However, even as a lover of lo-fi clubnight fliers, I would not recommend showing 3 to anyone ever again. Seriously. Our Good Lord died to absolve us of the sins of clunky layout and font abuse, and yet you mock him still.
(On preview: Vervain and I would seem to be in agreement.)

2) A question: did you spot these (and other) problems yourself? Did you want to make them better? Even if you couldn't put your finger on quite what it was, did something make you go, "that's just not right"? Without uniquely inspired vision, you can never be a great designer; without mastery of your tools, you can never be a very good designer; but without an instinctive feeling of "ugh" for stuff that just looks wrong, you shouldn't even consider being a designer.

3) You can perfectly well teach yourself most of the technical stuff, or at least learn it part time. What you can't get, working by yourself and (more importantly) for yourself, is knowledge of all the fiddly little requirements of working to order. When working alone, you usually end up allowing yourself leeway and developing little workarounds and shortcuts that just won't hack it in the real world. Everything from meeting (often unreasonable) deadlines to integrating your work with that of others, both on a creative and technical level. Rather than (or at least as a prelude to) signing three years of your life away, go begging to some proper design firms for a little work experience. Otherwise that first midnight call complaining about spot colours or some other arcana, from a client who's about to go to press, will be come as a nasty, nasty shock.

4) Sorry, but Fabattoir is a bloody terrible name for an indie night.
posted by flashboy at 8:09 PM on June 28, 2005

I'll chime in with the general encouragement - no, these pieces aren't Great Design, but you weren't expecting everyone to say that, were you? They are not shabby. You can certainly pursue graphic design if that is what you want to do. Just keep in mind what everyone's saying about the noncreative parts of it.

Vervain's right, redo the map on #3, simplify it, it's completely illegible as is.
posted by furiousthought at 8:15 PM on June 28, 2005

I've worked as a graphic designer, for whatever that's worth. I don't think you're wasting your time. My only suggestion - it will probably help your portfolio to do some stuff that isn't bar/band related, as while all those examples are different, they're still in a fairly narrow range. Graphic design encompasses an awful lot, and many design companies run the gamet from golf clients one week to bull semon salespeople the next. Rad posters show you can design for the rad crowd, but you may need to show you can design for the staid conservative as well, even if you already know you can :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:18 PM on June 28, 2005

I think you need to ask yourself what you want to get out of designing. What you've shared with us looks creative and promising for a novice. You have an ideal situation to continue experimenting. Your client (the bar/band) allows you the latitude to express yourself very freely. This is fun, but it's an idealized view of what real-world designing is about.

If you're interested in keeping your design more personal, expressive and free then I think you should continue designing as a hobby. If you find that you have real passion for learning more about design, and all the work that is involved, then you should probably consider schooling.

I also think you need to ask yourself if design as a profession only looks attractive right now because of the disappointment you have had in your current major. Running away from something doesn't usually sustain someone with the motivation it takes to succeed in a new endeavor. Check yourself, then start making some decisions.
posted by quadog at 1:35 AM on June 29, 2005

harlequin's got a point. The company that's flipping me most of my freelance stuff specifically requested that I come up with two versions of my tearsheet (a single-page portfolio with contact information, much easier to hand off to potential clients than a traditional book): one with the "serious" work, and one with the funkier stuff. Know your audience and play to it, etc. You don't necessarily have to do more corporate stuff, but it can be limiting. For example: There was one guy in some of my design classes who was pretty skilled--as long as you didn't mind the end product looking like a snowboarding logo.
posted by Vervain at 3:07 AM on June 29, 2005

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