Twenty Insights for 2020

Context is King

My time at University was a game-changer for me. Not only did I find a place where I could grow comfortably and be challenged constructively, but I also met incredible people. Inscape was where I defined myself as a designer, and now it is where I define myself as a teacher.

As ego-scratching as it sounds, there hasn’t been a year since my second year where I wasn’t asked a question or two about That Type Guy or featured in a 1st-Year Exposure brief on life in the industry. I count myself in a lucky position, where I am occasionally asked about my life as a designer and an artist, in one way or another. And I am equally excited to both remain learning and sharing my insight and experiences to those one step behind me.

This year was no exception and I am humbled, as always, to have the opportunity to share insight with people in a position I was not too long ago. And then it dawned on me, I have this platform where I share on a weekly basis and I haven’t shared my answers to these kinds of questions yet.

I want to change that. Why have a platform like this if I don’t use it to share what I know that has the potential to help other people in my position or working their way towards it. There’s always something you can teach someone and as a life-long learner, I understand the value of teaching what you know. So this is what I know.

The following is a narrative-style Q&A, which was formulated from questions I was recently asked from students currently at Inscape, along with the best answers I could give them at the time. I tried to keep them bite-sized, but I may have elaborated in areas I felt were necessary.

If you’d rather watch or listen to some of them, you can watch this interview I compiled for a similar situation.

A little background-buildup

I always knew that I was going to be an artist, in some form or another. During my high school days, I developed a keen interest in photography and decided that could be something I could pursue as a career. When I went study it, however, it turned out it was more of a hobby than a career option at that point. So I returned home, regrouped and spent a year looking into alternatives.

I came across an online short-course in graphic design through UCT’s GetSmarter program. I fell in love with it from there and found a great campus down in Durban (Inscape) where I could study graphic design full-time. When I met the people there, and really got into the work we would be doing and learning, I instantly knew this was where I was meant to be. Graduating the way I did only reinforced this, and I have loved my work and industry ever since.

My thoughts on the growth of the design industry

I think the design industry is always growing. Now especially, more than ever before, with the age of information and online media that we find ourselves in. Designers have one of the largest roles to play in the way the world moves because we dictate how others view that media and how they interact with each other while doing so.

One of the projects I’m proudest of

I’ve completed a lot of personal and professional projects over the years, but I would have to say that the one I’m the proudest of, is the one I completed recently for Epworth School in Pietermaritzburg. I think this is because I knew when I set out to work on it that I was going to be challenged. It was in a style that I had never done to this degree before, and it was in a time-frame that was going to be challenging on its own.

I’m proud of it because, despite the challenges, I completed it beyond my own expectations. I was happy, and the client was happy. That’s not always something that happens in the industry. Also, it was fun to complete, even with those challenges, so I know that it was a worthwhile step in my own development and towards creating something meaningful for someone else.

How a project’s concept-development usually works

When it comes to personal projects, I usually have a concept in mind before starting; but the execution might be very different from what I thought it would be in the end. I enjoy using these opportunities to experiment and create without obligations or boundaries so that I can develop my skills in a way that isn’t hindered by anything, and also isn’t dictated by anyone besides myself. This way the growth and development are authentic to who I am in that given moment.

When it comes to client projects, I usually don’t have as much freedom unless they explicitly tell me otherwise. There is usually a concept and a direction that they would like to pursue, and I stick to that. The only place where that changes is in my execution: I decide how the final product looks and feels because I have my own stylistic preferences. This is something clients come to me for (as they should for any artist or designer), and so how things end up are usually from a process similar to improvising while I’m creating. There are a few guidelines, but the freedom to make it up as I go along is where the real magic happens.

My main goal while designing

When it comes to personal work, my main goal is to experiment and share my process. This is either in the reason why I’m creating the design or just the process of the design itself, for the sake of developing my skills. When it comes to designing for other people, my goals are what their aims are for the design. This is dependant on what the design is for and where it’s going in the end. This, therefore, can change all the time and isn’t the same for every client.

How I handle negative feedback

In the design industry, we aim to not receive negative feedback but rather constructive feedback. This isn’t always achieved, though, so when we do receive negative feedback we can choose how we want to deal with it.

Most people ignore it. Some let it affect them personally, which is something you definitely want to avoid. And others embrace it, try to understand where the feedback is coming from and to make the most of the situation. I place myself in that third group.

When I receive negative feedback, I try not to let it affect me and understand that it’s still a human being that it’s coming from. I then understand what the feedback is for. If I feel it is relevant, then I will use it; and if I don’t feel it’s relevant, then I discard it. That’s the beauty of the industry and design in general. It isn’t always for everyone, and if you haven’t made someone angry, or uncomfortable, then perhaps you haven’t said anything worth saying yet.

The role of social media in a designer’s career

I think as a designer or an artist you would be doing yourself a disservice if you ignored social media, and focused on other traditional mediums. This is obviously very subjective, but social media is how I grew my brand and my career from the beginning. Most people use social media to share their lives, which can become quite monotonous. However, when used as a tool for your brand, it can catapult you like you wouldn’t believe.

Whether you use it to find work that inspires you, or you use it to share your own work and build a following, it’s hugely impactful. In this day and age, reach is paramount in a business’s success; the more people you can reach, the more leads you can generate; and the more leads you can generate, the more clients and sales you can make. Social media is where those people are, whether we like it or not, so not utilising it is doing your career a disservice.

Granted, it’s hard to not get sucked into the validation game, which I think is why a lot of people avoid it, but if you can develop the skill of using it productively, you won’t regret it.

The qualities and skills of a good designer

I think when it comes to hard skills, you can always learn those with time and practice, such as Photoshop or Illustration skills. I believe the real qualities and skills you need as a great designer are resilience, patience, and a relatively thick skin.

You’re going to have to deal with people who know more than you, and whether they are willing to help or not, you will have to learn from them if you want to succeed in what you do. This requires patience. Being able to stick to your craft for a lengthy period of time to hone those hard skills, that will require resilience. And when your work needs refinement, and people offer you their feedback and advice — something we all need to really grow in our fields — you will need a thick skin.

You won’t always like what people have to say, but if you can understand why they’re saying it and you can apply that to your work, you will be a mark above the rest.

My inspirations

I’m inspired by people and events all the time, so I can’t really say anyone or anything in particular. I’m tapped into many social networks and communities. The people who are always sharing their work and evolving, those are the ones I look up to, because they don’t let anything hold them back.

Where my career actually started

Technically, I started as a student, learning what I could in the field I wanted to pursue. My freelance career started toward the end of my second year at Inscape (unintentionally at first) as my work began to be noticed. From there I learnt contextual business strategies and policies on my own, taking everything with me once I graduated. Now I build on that and learn everything I can in the industry that can help me to become a better designer and teacher.

The phases of my creative process

When it comes to client work, I usually incorporate a three-phase process. The 1st phase involves onboarding, research and an initial proposal where we decide on the direction moving forward. The 2nd phase involves the bulk of the work. Here, refinements are made per the overall specifications and feedback that I get during meetings and presentations.

The structure of this can vary depending on the client and the nature of the project, but this process is usually reiterated about 3–5 times before a final result is achieved and agreed on. The 3rd and final phase is where files are cleaned up and prepared to be submitted, either to the client or to a printer. Here, I will package everything in every format necessary and send them to the client or printer as required.

It’s a simple 3-step process, but it can get complicated in the middle depending on the context. Experience and practice really help to refine these skills and the smoothness of this process, but I find it really helpful to make this as simple as possible. Projects can get lengthy and complicated, but as long as you have a system that your sanity can rely on, you’ll thank yourself for it.

My favourite part of my job

Without a doubt, my favourite part is when I get to see work that I create out in the real world. When you’re studying or practising you work mainly with mockups, but when you’re in the industry (depending on your specific field) you get to see your work real and tangible.

I remember when the first t-shirt came back from the printers for my first batch of Destination Tees for Rip Curl early last year. It was surreal. Real ink on real fabric showcasing something I designed. It was the best feeling in the world, and I get to relive that every season.

Pay in the industry

No one likes to talk about money, and that sucks. It made it really hard to gauge what I should charge in the freelance world and what my work could be worth, and it made it difficult to initially negotiate my in-house salary. I’m not going to perpetuate that frustration for someone else, so I’m going to talk about it.

The tricky thing, though, is that pay can vary on who your employer or client is, the value your portfolio presents (and the value you present) and what kind of job or project it is.

With my in-house job, I receive a standard industry salary for a junior designer, ranging from 10–14K (ZAR). In the freelance world, however, this can be very different. I work with a value-based pricing strategy, which means I define my charge depending on the client, what is involved and where it will end up, including usage rights. It can get complicated, as clients and projects can vary wildly, but I’ve done jobs ranging from 1K to 20K and everything in-between. It really is contextual and matters more on what you value your work as and whether the client agrees or not. So a lot of that will come from experience.

Industry hours

In my full-time job (under normal circumstances), I work a standard 08h00–17h00. In my freelance, however, I decide my hours as they are in my own time. Because I work for clients around the world, you can’t really tie yourself to a specific schedule that easily. Especially since I do that part-time. For me (and for my clients) as long as I get the work done at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter the hours I worked. The end result is the same, and I believe that is the way to go in this industry.

Sometimes you can get the same work done in 2 hours on one day and in 4 hours on the next. It isn’t a question of your calibre as a designer, but more a result of the day itself and all of its complexities. Creative-industry employers and clients who don’t at least understand that often were never designers themselves at any point.

An average daily schedule (pre-lockdown)

My daily schedule can vary quite a lot, but it usually involves a good night’s rest (at least 8 hours) followed by reviewing my day and what needs to get done. I’ll then begin to work on whatever I need to, ranging from research to drawing or even just some reading. There may or may not be some coffee breaks sprinkled in there (but if I told you I’d have to kill you). Once my day is officially done, I’ll head to the gym before going home to eat dinner and continue working on a freelance or personal project as I feel I need to. Rinse and repeat.

Niching

The graphic design industry can involve many things. I think it’s important, however, to specialise in an area of your field and rely on other professionals for the others. This way you can become a master at what you do, and others can do the same. When work needs to be done out of your scope, that is when the community comes in handy and we can all work together on something.

Designers work like that all the time; delegating work to other designers that they aren’t good at themselves. Personally, I find it freeing. Knowing that I don’t have to be great at everything and that I can rely on others around me, helps me to not fall into any level of Superman Syndrome. It also helps to prevent burnout, believe it or not.

I remember a great friend of mine told me about how he found himself in a predicament one day when working on his portfolio. He’s not too bad at copywriting, but his skills lay more in graphic design at the time. As luck would have it, he worked (at his full-time gig) with someone who was great at copywriting but wasn’t great at graphic design. They teamed up. She helped develop the copy for his online portfolio, and he helped develop her website. At the end of the day, they both had great websites.

I’m not saying you can’t do it all, but energy can be a finite resource. Spending it all in one place, and relying on others in their own professional fields, is often the better route to go.

My marketing strategy

I work with a content-marketing strategy, which means that I essentially create work and share it. Most of my clients come to me for work I’ve already done (either for someone else or for myself) but now in their own context. Sometimes clients will come to me for my style, but only because they know I can do it already.

This strategy means that I only share work that I want to be known for, so that’s all people see. I don’t use any traditional marketing mediums currently, although I will likely look into these in the future as my brand and skills grow.

Industry competitiveness

I don’t really pay much attention to the competitiveness in the market because what I offer is fairly specialised. If someone comes to me for something I can’t or don’t do, I’ll usually tell them I’m not their guy.

This gives the opportunity to someone else better suited or qualified, and it also means I don’t dilute my brand as much. I’ll still accept some work, depending on what it is, but I reserve the right to turn down work if I don’t feel it is for me. This has the potential to make me sought-after as well, so it can be a worthwhile strategy if you offer something locally unique.

Competitiveness on its own isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of the greatest products and brands are developed out of the spirit of competition. If there wasn’t one, then where would the motivation be to have a great product? So it can work in your favour if you use it productively, but that’s entirely up to you.

My thoughts on ‘making it’

‘Making it’ is kind of a funny thing. By colloquial definition, if you’ve ‘made it’ then you’re done. There’s nothing more for you to learn. But as a designer, I believe we should be growing all the time. Doing new things and rediscovering what that means. So unless you’ve retired and left a legacy for the ages, if you’ve ‘made it’ then that’s not the best place to be. What you want to do is have a goal and then reach it. Then have another one and reach that. Again and again and again.

When I first ‘made it,’ one of my posts was shared on a large curation account on Instagram. But soon after that, something else awesome happened and I ‘made it’ again. At those times, those things were what I considered ‘making it,’ but when you zoom out those things are tiny.

Our definitions of ‘making it’ change all the time as we progress through life and our careers. What we view as monumental or amazing at the time could very well be inconsequential the following year. But that’s a good thing. It keeps us on our toes and pushes us to keep creating and breaking through our own ceilings.

My advice for a prospective designer

Do it. Dive in. Experience what it’s like to create something from nothing and to see it manifest in the real world. It’s an incredible feeling when that happens and it makes the entire process worthwhile, from the gruelling presentations to the all-night layer cleanups.

Also, take your time and enjoy the ride. Design is an ever-evolving field and everything is always changing. From trends to personal tastes, things will never be the same as they were before. But this can be an exciting ride worth the bumps and scrapes as you carve your unique place in it all.

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Zachary Styles

Zachary Styles

Full-time designer, illustrator and lettering artist. Part time lecturer. Part time student. Experiencing the world through words, both written and drawn.