In support of the middle

Richard Weston
Richard Weston is Head of Strategic Design at Thought Collective, where he helps develop brands and marketing solutions. He writes and designs. Richard also curates the found type, print and stuff blog Ace Jet 170.

At last Monday night’s NI Design Alliance event, The Design Question, we explored three broad themes. The first one was, “How the hell do I break into the design business?” and that’s the one I’m going to respond to here. I think it’s probably fair to say that although we were in that room for three hours, it was still not enough time to explore thoroughly all the themes; I imagine I’m not alone in coming away with further thoughts on the subjects.

I’d also like to point out that what follows is unashamedly written from a graphic designers perspective. What can I say? That’s what I am. If you fall into another creative area (product, architecture, photography, fashion, other) and see things differently, please accept my apology now. But also, tell us what you think. Have your say.

I think that for a very long time, perhaps for as long as the profession has existed, we have celebrated the stars. The celebrity designers who have either intentionally or, to be fair, by accident made a name for themselves through the creative press, for practicing their own unique, idiosyncratic form of graphic design. I guess it’s only natural to do this.

So it’s not surprising that when the question, “How do I break into the design business?” is posed, one of the strongest responses is to suggest that the individual should find and develop a personal style or approach. Not a superficial mask, let’s be balanced and accurate about this; the suggestion is that a young, fledgling designer explores their own talents and interests and crafts them into something distinct and original that they can “take to market” (to use an uncomfortable, in this context, phrase).

I think it’s a reasonable argument. Especially if that is already the aspiration of many who enter our field. But I also think that for many more, it could be an unhelpful one. Do we really need a world full of individualistic design practitioners? Is that really what our economy needs? I wonder. And I wonder if, faced with that proposition, many would-be designers could feel discouraged.

Do you know the classic Bell Curve diagram often used to illustrate “normal distribution“? Where the majority reside in the large central area and the periphery is populated my the ones (the things, the people) that stand out.

Isn’t our industry just like that? Where the vast majority of graphic design is carried out by “normal” designers for “normal” clients. So, in the context of our question, isn’t the middle ground where most of the work is, where most jobs are, where the majority of the opportunities are?

Even I can’t help repel a little from this idea. Who wants to be in the middle? Be average? But I’d suggest that to think like that is to think too simplistically.

Case in point: Me.

I’m definitely in that central zone. I certainly haven’t made a name for myself by creating ground-breaking work. Any notoriety I have gained is certainly not though my daily practice of graphic design. But I do think I’m a pretty good designer. My work is informed by 20+ years of diligent learning. I’ve conscientiously fine-tuned my craft. My work is, often, annoyingly well rationalised; strategically on the button; well executed and, essentially, effective.

Subsequently, I fair pretty well in client presentations. Can I talk about my work? Ask someone that knows me professionally. I can. And then some. My work is well supported by research, I’m a good listener, I have reasonable empathy for the client and their audience, I seem to have an ability to identify what it is about a client’s product or service that will push the right buttons. I can express those characteristics in effective ways.

But none of this is because I’m a super-talented, unique creative. I’m not being modest when I say that. I really am NOT that talented. And because I’m not that talented, I have to work damned hard. I read loads on theory and best practise. Have worked at my craft. Have learned from the best (by studying their work). I’ve tried, experimented, failed, failed again. Most importantly, I feel, I haven’t stopped. At no point in my career have I sat back and thought, that’s it, I now know enough. That’s because: a) I know I don’t, because b) I’m not that talented. I’m normal. I’m in the middle ground.

And I imagine, so are the vast majority of designers. We’re not the ones that are going to make a big name for ourselves. We’re not going to be in Creative Review every month or win D&AD pencils every year. We’re not going to be celebrated.

Does that make us lesser designers?

Does that mean we’re not good, great, exceptional? No it doesn’t.

And so I think, going right back to beginning, that this notion of notoriety, of idiosyncratic talent being king is only one answer and isn’t the answer for most of us. Most of us will have no unique, personal style but will deploy many, appropriate styles to craft strategically focused, beautifully constructed, effective executions for normal clients who are desperately trying to keep their business afloat.

I think the middle ground needs to be celebrated more. It’s the middle ground that is supporting our economy, that is helping small to medium sized (hell, even large) businesses to stand out in their crowded market places.

I should say, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here about those ultra-talented creatives who inspire us all. They’re essential to the vibrancy of our world. It’s just that they’re only part of the story. The middle ground is the other part and it’s where most of us are.

(I’d like to thank Rick Monro at Tibus for his help in writing this. You can and should read his blog Designing the Middle.)

Share your thoughts
  • Mike

    Awesome post Richard. Eloquently written and beautifully argued. Love it.

  • Darragh

    What Mike said Richard, except, I’ve seen your work and – dammit – I look up to you. You are that talented. Completely agree with pretty much everything here but could never put it quite so succinctly.

  • Andrea Austoni

    Walter Gropius said of traditional art schools that they only concentrated on the top students. The Bauhaus concentrated on the average ones, making everybody better instead of only fostering the few chosen ones who happend to have a smite of advantage over their mates.

  • Julie Oakley

    This is so well written and expresses something I’ve felt for many years.