I was just beginning to write this when I got the news that Steve Jobs, the visionary of Apple Computer died. After reading a couple of obituary articles about his past and passing, I realized that many of his core beliefs about design and creativity were very similar to mine. Unfortunately, even though we share the same initials (SJ) and sported graying beards and thinning hair, I'm nowhere near as successful as Jobs was. Although I have worked for about $1 a year. I began to think about those beliefs and I had recalled that I wrote them down long ago. So I dug them up and I thought they'd be appropriate to share now.
Here then are some of the design principles I’ve always tried to live up to in my work and when influencing employees, interns, and students. They’re all concepts that I feel strongly about, even though I need to constantly remind myself of their value and significance if I find myself drifting. Sometimes they're a challenge to adhere to and every once in a while I add some new ones. But I think most professional designers, or anyone tasked with idea generating, probably think similarly.
• The idea is everything. Execution is obviously important but is ultimately secondary. Great ideas can, and have been formulated, on the proverbial cocktail napkin and no amount of software wizardry can make a poor idea better.
• Strive to develop simple answers to complex problems. I’ve always been a great believer in the “KISS” philosophy... Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s easier to complicate things than to simplify them.
• Designs must communicate and function in a real world, so keep focused on your audience or customer. Designers sometimes lose sight of this and design for each other or merely to win awards. Unreadable type, ill-defined concepts, poorly executed ideas, are all communication killers.
• Avoid design clichés, visual trends, or the “style du jour.” It’s always best to develop your own style. Design software programs make it easy to lean on visual crutches like drop shadows and filters.
• Solve design problems (or any problem, for that matter) using all the tools at your disposal. Don’t ignore any avenue without giving consideration to other mediums and techniques, whether they be painting, illustration, sculpture, three-dimensional construction, photography, or a combination of the conventional with the digital. Many times a designer forgets that the PC is just a tool and falls victim to a one-sided, all-digital approach.
• Research! Get out into the environment for ideas and don’t chain yourself to the computer or drawing board (does anyone still use one besides me?) I’m always amused by designers who stare at a monitor or blank piece of paper trying to come up with an idea out of thin air.
• Avoid “Design by Settling.” Don’t accept a solution because you can’t think of anything else at the moment or because of time constraints, budget limitations, etc. You’ll always regret settling and will feel that you could have come up with a better solution. The most valuable designers find a way to work around any restrictions.
• Sketch. Use brain-to-hand-to-pencil-to-paper to work out your ideas. You can draw up more rough ideas quicker on paper than you could ever do with a computer. Fleshing out concepts this way ultimately leads to better ideas and results in less time spent finalizing them digitally. Sketches don't have to be Rembrandts to convey the concept.
• Try as many variations of your idea or solution as possible. I’m surprised by how many designers get hooked on one concept and force it to work no matter if it’s a relevant idea or not. They "rearrange the furniture" moving elements around without introducing anything new.
• Never be satisfied with your final solution. Be somewhat happy with it, but there will always be a better way of solving the problem that won’t come to you until you see the final design in print or manufactured. If you ever become completely happy with your work, then it’s time to quit and go surfing.
• Never apologize for your work. No need to be arrogant about it, but you don’t need to explain to people that "It could have been better if I had more time or money, blah, blah.” You can defend your work or justify it.
• Be passionate about your work, no matter what you do. You have to love your profession when you have the prospect of spending 30, 40 or more years doing it. Passion also allows you to become more open to change, innovation, and education. You'll never stop learning!
• Be a socially and ethically responsible designer and human. This may be as simple as specifying 100% recycled paper for a brochure printing, or it could be more significant, like refusing to work for a client that manufactures cigarettes. This always is a personal choice and may come down to paying the rent or not. Ethically, this means being a good businessperson and a consummate professional, treating clients and associates well, keeping promises, being honest, trustworthy, brave… most of "Scouting's" code of honor would work here!
So thank you Steve Jobs, for changing the way we work, how we appreciate music, and how we communicate…and especially for your creativity and passion!
Steve James owned and creative directed an advertising and design studio in Buffalo, NY with the un-snappy name of SteveJamesDesign, Inc. Steve and his family now live in Indianapolis where he worked as a Creative Director and he is currently in transition, flux, metamorphosis, segue, or whatever looking for work is now called.