The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera
—Dorothea Lange (via bijan)
—Dorothea Lange (via bijan)
While working on an app icon I decided a companion evil version was in order.
I’m guilty of quickly clicking when someone calls design theft. It’s the closest thing to soap-opera-esque drama that an industry full of type and color obsessed kern-wads will ever get to. When we see the fight, we come running like it’s a schoolyard brawl where we’re all secretly hoping for things to get really crazy.
But much of the time these brawls have little substance. If no one has ever told you this, learn it now: YOU CAN’T OWN STYLE. Your job is not to develop a signature style. Your job is to match appropriate solutions to problems.
The decision to apply a specific style to address a specific problem is unique and ownable. Downloading free fonts from (the amazing) Lost Type Coop for a retro rebrand is a lot of fun, and you may be able to make some money in the process, but you don’t own the style. You own the decision that you made when you said “hey, this hardware store brand would look great in a post-war era retro style.” And you weren’t the first to fit those pieces of the puzzle together (and from the look of things, you won’t be the last).
The more we try to mark off a little territory, to claim a little bit of the creative process as our own, the more we limit others — especially those young ones who are newly exploring all kinds of wild territory. Encourage creation, share freely, and add enough value in your process that you don’t have to piss all over some tiny little spot in a world of possibilities just so you can claim it as your own.
Design is slowly developing a community of open source minded folks who freely share those useful but non distinct little bits. To be comfortable passing along your files, sharing your secret layer styles, and revealing how the sausage is made takes confidence that you add value at a higher level than the execution layer of a project. Execution is technical, it can be learned, shared, and repeated. The product level decision coming into that execution are where the real value lies.
You can’t own style. Style is commodity. Own an intelligent process for making decisions and you’ll have a defensible and competitive advantage.
* I wrote this a month ago but thought it was timely in light of the Layervault thing. Layervault has been beautifully executed, but Kelly and Allan are also brilliant product guys and that is where they are creating real value. Hopefully this fight doesn’t distract them too much from continuing to create something really valuable.
** Sadly, real design theft does happen, and community support in those cases is awesome to see: Aesthetic Apparatus, Varsity Donuts, The Fox is Black.
I have no connection to Dribbble outside the fact that happily pay $20 a year to get much more that twenty bucks worth of value out of the experience. Dribbble is amazing. But it’s also a bit awkward. And like most awkward things, you can miss the goodness inside if you focus on the idiosyncrasies.
First off, Dribbble is a real and very direct channel for independent designers to get work. It is delivering on a promise that professional organizations have been making for years: join up, get involved, grow your career. That value proposition is proven on Dribbble. With any other professional organization you join, that promise is dubious at best.
And this is important because (real talk here) things are looking kinda scary for designers. No one likes to talk about it. And it’s comforting to see that design budgets are growing and it’s becoming a focus for more and more companies. But supply is outpacing demand. I don’t have numbers on this. Just a bunch of friends struggling quietly, staying afloat, but worried about how long they can last, and I’ve been there many times before. Dribbble might be one channel to bootstrap an early design career. It might be a viable alternative to the agency salary-and-benefits route, especially at a time when those jobs are not as secure as they once were.
The second point is much easier to miss. Dribbble’s pitch is that it’s a “show and tell for designers”, a place to share work and get feedback. But we all know that people are so damn nice on Dribbble that it’s hard to get anything but comments like “your graphic designs are literally blowing my mind” or “sweet texture bro”. As the world’s best feedback tool, Dribbble fails.
But what the whole thing is really about is community. As more designers cut their agency ties and take up the cross of freelance work, Dribbble is stepping in as the place for workplace water-cooler chat. But instead of five fellow coworkers to chat with by the water-cooler, Dribbble is a freakin’ cafeteria packed with hundreds of fellow freelancers to chat with, share with, maybe even collaborate with. Dribbble isn’t just a better professional organization, it’s a better office space. If we stack it up next to the benefits a IRL office provides, it does a pretty great job. Getting design feedback is just one function of the office and it is probably the least interesting. No one develops loyalty to an office based on the groups technical feedback skills. An office is where you share news, commiserate, joke around, celebrate victories (personal and communal).
If you’re not into it, don’t sign up, don’t pay, don’t share. But don’t underestimate this simple little service.
For some interesting further reading check out Clayton Christensen’s idea that we hire products for a job to be done.
We often misunderstand what job we are really hiring a product for. I don’t think Dan Cederholm intended provide this breadth of services (community, career, social, etc) when he built Dribbble, but often the winners in a space fill in service gaps in new an unexpected ways.
We are teaming up with the AIGA New York for this one and Parsons is hosting. All proceeds of this event go to benefit Inspire/Make Workshops: An AIGA/NY Initiative. Inspire/Make Workshops is a series of free classes for high-school students who want to learn how to design and develop for digital media.
Do you make a distinction between “flat” and “round” characters?
If you describe someone, it is flat, as a photograph is, and from my standpoint a failure. If you make him up from what you know, there should be all the dimensions.
This is why this conversation goes on, why it is worth having. The desire for more honest (or at least more interesting) interfaces and a certain aesthetic have been lumped together and called “flat design”. I’m concerned with the deeper drive for mor pure interaction design, and there is more to it than altering your style or changing your habits in Photoshop. There is a fundamentally different process, something genuinely unique from print design. That difference goes much deeper than tools, and even defies directly translatable principles. “What’s good for print is good for digital” doesn’t hold up as a mantra of ‘flat’ design.