My design is dead! I can't take it anymore! Help!

Hi, everyone!
I’ve been at this for 8 years, self-taught. I’ve read all the “standard issue” material, from J.M. Brockman, M. Vignelli’s Cannon, The Type Primer, Itten’s color theory and everything else that a college curriculum suggests. I had a deal with Fine Arts Academy students, they supply me with all the material and I in turn help them learn the software, which in this particular academy is really badly covered.

From leading an maintaining a web store, doing tons of web graphics and promo material, to freelancing and launching 3 products on the shelves, I’ve always had a feeling that I’m missing something! Looking at famous designers such as Bierut, Sagmeister, Sher I noticed that “IT” factor that they all have…and when I look at my portfolio, it feels dry, uninspiring and even amateur. Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking at it for too damn long, or I’m too much of a perfectionist, Idk!

The strange thing is that wherever I go, I can re-design my surroundings on the fly in my head and do it right, but when I design my own stuff, I end up disappointed because I know I could do so much better, but there’s something in the way. I wake up at night because I came up with a brand name, a logo and an entire concept in my sleep. I love diving into new projects head first, and I believe my ideas are good if done well, yet there is a gap! A gap between what I know in my head, all the theory and what comes out on the other end. This missing link keeps eluding me for years now, it’s tearing me apart inside, I ended up on several antidepressants.

…so…as I’m looking at the studios and prominent designers like Tobias Van Schneider (also self taught), I keep wondering “what is it that they have that I can’t seem to grasp?”, “why does their work seem so rich and meaningful, while mine feels like it’s been done by a badly callibrated AI?” (at least to me). I believe I could do much better oce I grasp that elusive factor! I also produce music and I have a workflow that grants me a certain quality standard and I want to do the same in design, create a workflow that will allow to produce good if not great work on a consistent basis.

Two months ago I positioned myself as a studio called BLAKBOX and I haven’t had a project since than. I’m sick and tired of Upwork, low-impact material and meaningless projects and I wanna do real design!

So here it is, my portfolio: https://blakbox.org/
I’d love your input on it, guys. Look at it as if you haven’t just read all this, as if you were a client or another agency. Be honest, and tell me, is my design really that bad? Btw, all of these projects are the result of my “brain farts”…and some of them people keep asking about (Frostar beer, Nexus). Maybe I’m being too self critical, but maybe I’m missing something crucial.

What do you think, how do I break out of this mental-shit hole? How do I close the gap? Does any of you also struggle with such things? Is it because I haven’t gone to college? Were you in college, did you learn something that sets you apart from non-formally educated designers? Do you notice the difference?

Anyway, thanks a ton, I hope this topic even helps someone to not feel so alone in this, in case there is someone who suffers the same dilema as me.

Thank you again for your time and have a great day!

Alex.

Hmm. Interesting post.

I just looked at your website. Some of the work is nice, but it does come across as rather generic. Designing for fictitious projects to look good in your portfolio can be completely different than working for clients in the real world.

The website itself is not particularly well designed or interesting. Nor does it come across as genuine to me. (Why the .org? That seems out of place.)

Is English is a second language? It would do you good to hire a native English speaker to help with your copy. You say that you’re a perfectionist, but you have a pretty bad spelling error on your home page.

I’d say your biggest challenge is that you have a self-identity problem. On the one hand you say you are “maintaining a web store, doing tons of web graphics and promo material, to freelancing and launching 3 products on the shelves.” That sure sounds like a designer who is busy and doing quite well for himself. Then you say you’re searching Upwork for meaningless projects. And then you present your company as a do-it-all global agency.

My bottom line advice would be to figure out and come to terms with who you are and where you are now, figure out where you want to be, and chart a course to get there. I suppose it’s not impossible, but I highly doubt you’re going to achieve Pentagram-partner-level status bidding for low-paying online work.

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IMO, it looks like a 2nd year university portfolio. It doesn’t look like the portfolio of someone with several years of professional experience. It lacks depth. Take the beer identity. You put it on a bottle and a shirt. That says “student project”. If it were a professional project, there would be other pieces… beer boxes, cartons, advertising, point of purchase displays, swag, a delivery truck wrap. The identity is about more than a logo. So it reads like a student project, or a professional project where you were cut loose after you did the prototype. That doesn’t establish confidence with potential clients.

The site says you specialize in packaging, but there are only 2 examples of that. Again, that reads like “student portfolio”.

A lot of people who are self taught focus on developing their skills with the software. A good university education focuses on solving problems, asking questions, thinking, engaging with stakeholders. Those are experiences you can’t get by reading a book or watching a video.

My general advice… find local clients, people you can meet with in person, over coffee. Talk to them, ask them lots of questions about their business. Then try to solve their identity related problems so they make more money. That’s how you get clients that stick around for years and years.

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I think you’re under the illusion that the designers you mentioned have exceptional design skills. They’re good in their own way, of course, but their talent is augmented and reinforced by luck, timing, place, business savvy, promotional skills, subsequent fame, and landing high-profile clients that allow them to run wild with ideas that most clients would reject.

Through the years, I’ve worked closely with the caliber of designers you’ve mentioned on three occasions. On two of those occasions, I was disappointed that their talent and ability failed to live up to their reputations.

You mentioned the Vignelli Canon. While reading it, did you notice the poor typography and the rigid conformance to an ill-conceived grid? You also mentioned Stefan Sagmeister. Visit his website. Do you honestly consider it to be well-designed? It’s certainly unusual and experimental, but if you presented a solution like that to a typical client, they’d rightfully hire someone else.

Why do you feel compelled to measure yourself against these people? They’ve carved out their niches, and you should carve out yours. Not once in my career have I encountered a client who said, “I want you to design something so innovative, creative, and experimental that you win a dozen awards and become famous.” Instead, they say, “I want you to design something that I like and that I think will help me sell my widgets and make me more money.”

Eight or nine years after my BFA, I returned to graduate school — partially because I had the opportunity to have a very high-profile designer on my graduate committee. I’ve never been quite so disappointed in anyone’s reputation as I was in his. However, working with him did allow me to re-evaluate my misconceptions regarding the nature of our field, which I think you’re still trying to do.

Quit being so hard on yourself.

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Goddamn! Tnx ppl! All your feedback points out the things I was now willing to look at! This is awesome!

Steve_O > English is my third language, you hit the spot with self identity, that is my biggest issue in all my endeavours, which I work rigurously to avoid :D. This “agency” approach does yield better clients in my area (they pay more)…than again…I don’t put those projects in my portfolio. I’ve maintained a certain web store years ago, true. The point is, I’ve done so much work and worked with bigger brands too, like Piatnik and Harley Davidson, so how come I’m not at my desired level yet, you know?! Thank you for grounding the ■■■■ out of me! Respect!

Mojo > yes, this is the thing! It looks like a student’s portfolio!..and there’s the f***** gap I can’t seem to close! As on the subject of going local, I will do that, but this time with the goal of making them more dough, not just prick-waving. I have 3 clients that always come back to me for some reason and I know it’s not the quality of my design. After reading your comment I contacted on of them just to see where things stand…and to offer a solution…and they said “we miss you, you crazy dude”…see, this is one of those things that we as designers should master, yet when it comes to “it”, we don’t. Thanks for your input, it’s really helpful!

Just-B > “rigid conformance to an ill-conceived grid”! I’m gonna remember this to the end of my days :D, this was a balsam poured into my ears really! Of course I didn’t want to say anything becuse he’s the master and all… In the case of Vignelli Cannon, I focus on the semantic factor of the content, he inspires me, but not on the account of his work solely…I mean, c’mon! it’s Massimo, right?..I’m not suppose to criticise him (or Lela) because he is considered a master.

You, Mojo, take the cake! You raised a very inportant question for me, “why do you feel comeplled to measure yourself against these people?” This is why: Before I even knew what Graohic design is as a profession, I did logos for local bands, I did posters, I even learned HTML back in the day when html was all we had basically, css was just gaining tracktion.So, I expected myself to kick ass by this time and to drink coffee with Mr. Sagmeister, smoke weed with Paula Sher and…you know, the utopic’n’shit.
After reading your input I realized that even those that are considered great are faulty! Yes, I’m working to reevaluate my misconceptuins that’s why I reached out to the community. I tend to idolize people, especially designers, but it’s time I break away from being a fan and get the ■■■■ to work. Thank you for being open about your own experience. I felt really alone, but now I see that there are real-world-people who’ve seen the things I wanted to see, who’ve gone through the bullsht and are doing just fine.

I can’t offer you a “coffee” guys, but here’s the track I made (drums are programmed,but I can play most of it, vocals recorded witth my phone).
Again I thank you for all your input and bid my bestesest regards! All of you have given me a much needed cold shower and I really appreciate that!
Oh, right, the track.

That was Just-B’s insight. He’s smart.

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My apologies, I’m a bit late to the party. I read your post when you first put it up and and intended to respond then, but life and deadlines got in the way.

Here is my take, for what it is worth.

It feels a little bit like you want to be a rock-star, but forgot that the greats get there by playing a guitar for 10 hours every day, going over and over pentatonics, harmonic and melodic minors, modes, chord progressions, etc, etc. see where I am going? The goal was the music. Not the after-show party.

When I was in my teens, I could never figure out what the ‘thing’ great bassists had was. I could play all the same notes, but it just never sounded right. I tried so hard to emulate. Now, some decades later, I still think I have so much to learn, but I do now ‘get’ what eluded me before. I get that ghost note thing that gives bass it’s drive. I get the unteachable vibe thing. Why? Because I love the music and I still play for at least two hours a day. It’s about the music. The achievement follows. It’s not the goal.

To me, possibly, you seem a little too focussed on the achievement and not the process.

Design is no different to music in this regard, When I was at university the heroes were people like Brody, Carson (though I never liked his work at the time), Vaughan Oliver, etc, etc. You wanted to be them. Inconsequential things like typography class, where you had to ‘pointlessly’ waste time hand drawing pages of Bembo with a 0.25 rotring seemed an irrelevance. They were getting in the way of learning how to be a design rock-star.

Only later did it click, that those hours and hours of hand-rendering, learning the difference between humanist and grotesque, how typefaces gave personalities, who Janson, Griffo and Caxton were, etc, etc, would become the very reason, I get repeat business now.

Unfortunately, because you have neither gone through a formal education, or done four of five years in a studio environment (ideally both), the one essential ingredient you have probably not been exposed to is the critique session. Regular sessions, where peers and mentors assess the effectiveness of your work and you learn to take criticism objectively, rather than personally.

Years ago I envied those people who got to record in studios, play gigs, have great parties. Now, I have found a group of like-minded musos. We just love what we are doing. We don’t care about being famous, in fact, it would probably be a hindrance. We just love playing. There is nothing quite as satisfying as the buzz you get from watching an audience have a great night – big or small. I recently spent three days in the studio recording some tracks. Hard work, but loads of fun. Bubbly and belly-laughs were also involved. It was all the stuff I dreamed of as a teenager yet felt so out of reach.

Design was exactly the same for me. I have been lucky enough to be able to do some work for people I have to pinch myself to be working with. I am not saying any of this to inflate my own ego. It all happens when you stop trying to make it happen and concentrate on what you are doing and how well you can do it.

Learn to be good at solving problems. Learn some psychology, how people perceive information. Learn typography and what it says. Definitely try to really understand typography. No easy task. Typography is like music, for me; the more I learn, the more I know how much there is still left to learn.

To my mind, I would say the best thing you could do (assuming university is not an option) would be a few years working in a studio to understand what real-world design is all about.

Remember; if you just play the same scale over and over again for eight years, you’ll only ever get good at playing that one scale. You need to know how that scale works in context, to produce music. Never stop pushing your own boundaries.

Hope this helps.

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Thank you, Sprout!
It really does help to have these things clarified. They might seem obvious at first glance, but we tend to forget the basics in our pursuit of some illusion and you outlined my shortcommings in a clear way. There are tons of so called gurus that say the same things, but it’s very different to hear them from someone who’s “being cooked in the same pot”. It took a lot to go out like this, asking for feedback, but now, instead of quitting, I’ll take off my Rose Glasses, keep my head down and keep on working. Hopefully I will delight you with some cool compositions in the future.

Oh, yeah :D, sry !

But don’t keep working in the same direction if that direction is taking you nowhere. Sounds to me like you need to break a few unhealthy patterns.

Terms like ‘guru’ I take with a pinch of salt. Usually ‘gurus’ are self-proclaimed, whereas the people who have actual knowledge are just normal people who have been doing the job they do. Each time I met my heroes, they were either fluffed-up tossers who knew nothing, or the ones that retained my respect, had no idea they were.

Like beautiful people; the ones who think they are, never are and the ones who have no idea they are, it’s their humility makes them all the more so.

Again, going back to uni days, at the time, there was a small agency with huge stature in London. We all wanted to work for them. Years later and I am friends with one of the founders of that agency. She, like me, bailed the rat race and moved to the middle of nowhere. Just happens to be a couple miles from where I am. We met at a mutual friend’s dinner party and got chatting. She is a very diminutive, quiet character not at all what you would expect from a demigod. After a few months of knowing her, one evening, over a bottle of wine, I told her what I (and many of us on my course) thought. She laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it all. That’s sort of the point. Anyone who is truly good, has no idea they are. They just do what they do.

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Unhealthy patterns ? This sounds like Jungian shadow work to me, which is awesome btw. If you have feedback on that too, I’d love to hear it. Self reflection can only take you so far and I believe that we all need someone to tell us stuff about ourselves from time to time, there’re great insights in listening to people.

You’re right about The Great Ones. I had a privelege to meet my favorite metal vocalist Randy Blythe and he’s really down to earth, the rest of the band too. Lamb Of God were repeatedly named “the gods of metal”, but they don’t see themselves that way, like you said.

Anyhow. What was that about re-directing my efforts??? It intrigues me, because I’ve been flirting with this idea for a while now and just today was going through the list that I made for this purpose, so I’m interested in what you have to say on the subject.

Best regards,
Alex.