First Hand — Designer Matt Gardner on overcoming the pressure to be a ‘creative’ creative
The stereotypical notion of a designer might conjure visions of a boundlessly inspired creative, with a never-ending stream of brilliant artistic concepts and references. But what about the other side of design? Strategy, logic and expertise in software and technology are just as crucial to many design teams. Through a ten-year career, this is something designer Matt Gardner has thought about a lot. Having found his place in design and overcome his concerns that he wasn’t creative enough, he shares his advice on putting your skill set to use and discovering your own value within a team.
Starting out in the design industry, it’s easy to feel like you have to fit a certain mould – that of the ‘creative’ creative. Whether it’s the type of work we do, or how we go about coming up with ideas in the first place, there are all sorts of things that can make us feel insecure, or that we’re simply not creative enough.
There’s the well-known stereotype that people are governed either by the left brain (imaginative, creative) or by the right brain (analytical, methodical). Add that to the popular opinion that design is a primarily creative industry, and the idea of a right-brained designer becomes almost an oxymoron. There’s an overwhelming pressure to be as creative as possible – the implication being that, if you’re not, you are unlikely to succeed in this ever-growing design industry.
Now, nearly a decade into my design career, I feel more comfortable about myself and more confident in the skill set I bring to the table - it’s easier to push through the fear of not fitting the stereotypical designer mould. But for several years, I felt like a fish out of water – I couldn’t look past the imposed binary system of ‘left brain’ vs ‘right brain’, and I worried that my more analytic approach to design wouldn’t compete with the more artistically creative flair of my colleagues. When I think about my first steps into the world of design – fresh out of uni, eager and bright-eyed – it would have been reassuring to know that there is no single way to be a designer.
With all of this in mind, I’d like to rethink, and redefine, the typical profile of a modern designer. Not only is there a world of invaluable skills and assets beyond creativity, but there’s also the potential for a more fulfilling and enjoyable career once you reject the notion of fitting into any sort of mould.
“There’s an overwhelming pressure to be as creative as possible.”
What is this idea of the ‘creative’ creative?
This is the designer who can generate new ideas at a mile a minute. Their imagination is fruitful, endless and effortlessly tapped into. They push boundaries, redefine what’s stale or old and, without fail, always have a few new ideas in their back pocket. Stereotypically thought of as the left-brainers.
And stereotypically speaking, I have found myself to fall more into the right-brain category. I tend to take a more methodical, detail-oriented, almost scientific approach. That’s not at all to say I don’t come up with ideas, or that I’m never imaginative. But the flair and ease with which many of my colleagues tap into those elements had me questioning my creativity for a long time, and wondering whether I was even suited to being a designer.
Embracing your strengths
Throughout my education and my career, I wasted too much time worrying that my creativity wasn’t up to par, that my artistry didn’t match my peers, that my brain worked in a different way to the other designers on my team. The left-brain stereotype was constantly floating in the back of my mind, making me question my abilities when it came to any brainstorm or ideation session.
It wasn’t until many years into my career that I began to see where my skills were strongest and what value this was able to bring. My enjoyment of the detail and specificity became my key approach. I could focus on quickly bringing a digital product to life, working up the intricate details of a prototype to show how a service could function, refining and actualising ideas and breaking them apart for clients.
Putting your strengths to use
Think about how you and your team work together
Jot down a few key aspects you’ve worked on that you’ve enjoyed and had success in, as well as some things that perhaps haven’t gone so well. Defining these will help to reveal what you value in your way of working, and subsequently what value you can bring to a team.
The more aware you are of your strengths, the more you can develop them
Maybe your ability to create a research plan and write or conduct interviews is an indicator that your core skills lie in empathy and listening; or maybe the satisfaction you get from breaking things down into a huge spreadsheet is evidence of your meticulousness and your organisational skills. You may find that the processes you most enjoy are the ones where you can implement your key talents, and these can become a focus for your design process.
Remember: there is no one way to be a designer
We need to help our industry by not pushing this one vision of ‘creative’ creative stereotype, to help designers who don’t fit that specific mould realise their strengths. By embracing a range and diversity of talent in our design teams, and moving away from the left-brain, right-brain binary, we can relieve the pressure on new designers to bring a hundred and one ideas to the table, and ultimately empower people to follow their strengths.
With so many skill sets of equal importance, the idea that design is solely a creatives’ industry just doesn’t hold. There are a huge number of opportunities for you to discover your strengths and help them grow. Work with people who build you up and do the same for them. There is no one way to be a designer.