News / Opinion

Craig Oldham dishes out brutally honest advice to new graphic designers

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In two extracts from his new book, Oh Sh*t What Now? Craig Oldham shares his top tips for graphic designers just starting out. One: seek out criticism; and two: learn how to talk about your work.

Nice is an adjective best reserved for biscuits

Friends – amazing, I’m sure you’ll agree. No, I don’t mean those people from that television programme who hang around in each other’s apartments, or that coffee shop. I mean your friends: the ones you do things with, like shopping or drinking or holidaying; the ones you share the moments of your life with, whose advice and approval you seek. Friends are great, but as far as seeking approval is concerned, with graphic design, friends are not necessarily the best place to look.

Approval in graphic design is easy-peasy; all you have to do is simply ask enough people – or even easier, ask the people you know are likely to tell you what you want to hear. Those people who say things like, ‘Yeah I like it’, or ‘It looks good’, or the dreaded and evil, ‘That’s nice’, rather than being straight with you or being too critical. We all know these people: we call them our friends.

Seeking opinions like these on your work won’t make it a good piece of graphic design. I guarantee it. You may think so, but it only means you’ve produced a pleasantly acceptable, “likable” and “nice” piece of work. A crowd pleaser. You will have proved to yourself that it’s good because others told you so – and you knew that they would. Which means they’ve assured you that it’s probably OK, but that it’s probably not great either.

These are not the opinions you need.

You get so close to the projects you work on, and work so hard on them, that it feels too easy for someone to just come in and say ‘blah blah blah … I don’t like it’. But graphic design is a subjective profession; there’s no escaping that: everyone and anyone has a opinion on it. Opinions are important, of course – whether good or harsh, they’re a part of life and intrinsic human behaviour. So get people’s real opinions on things. Get some tough love.

Don’t accept ‘I don’t like it’. Demand to know why. If they say, ‘Well, I just don’t like blue’ and offer up nothing more than a bit of trivial criticism, then you can dismiss this with reason, as you’re still in the position of whether to accept or ignore it. (That’s the one good thing about advice.)

But instead of asking, ‘Do you like this?’, try asking people, ‘What’s wrong with this?’ ‘What’s at fault?’ ‘What would you do to improve this?’ Then you’re more likely to gain a sincere response, one that will shed outside light on the problem – you may even get an improvement on your idea – but you’ll be heading in the right direction, away from ‘nice’ and ‘good’ and towards the ever-elusive ‘great’. This can only come from seeking criticism.

If someone gives you a convincing degree of relevant criticism then you have to take it on board and make an informed decision. Don’t just sit there all fed up because they don’t like your idea – share your thoughts with them. Tell them what you did and why, and open up a discussion about making things work better. Share your ideas: there’s a reason why they say that two heads are better than one. They damn well are.

But you know this. It’s called constructive criticism. So build with it. It’s the only thing that will stop you being ‘nice’, like biscuits (note: that’s some biscuits, not all biscuits, really. Not every biscuit is nice, is it? C’mon. Be honest.) and start you on your way to becoming ‘great’, like, well whatever you think is sock-off-blowingly great.

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Craig Oldham: Oh Sh*t What Now, published by Laurence King

Talking about talking about work

Now that you’ve got the portfolio done, and it’s immaculately designed and critically robust, it’s time to talk about talking about it. Which is just about as hard to say as it is to do. But before we get into some hard-and-fast basics on talking about your work and presenting, know this: the most important thing when it comes to talking about your work is that it’s spoken in your voice.

Of course I mean your actual voice – don’t present in the voice of Donald Duck or anything – but I also mean that you have to find a way of talking about your work that reflects you. Your personality. A way you’re comfortable with, and that enables you to get across all the ideas and things you want to mention. Do it your way, in your voice.

As people all have different manners and methods when it comes to presenting work, there’s really no right or wrong way to talk about it, but there are good things to make sure you do, just as there are certainly things to avoid like an incurable disease.

Starting positively – be positive. If you’re not enthusiastic about your work, how do you expect anyone else to be? It’s that classic adage: if you don’t care, who will? If you’re all gloomy and lacklustre about your own work, it’s not exactly going to convince people of your ideas. So don’t forget, whether you’re presenting work to get a placement, a job or work from a client, you’re on the sell.

You should also know your work inside out. Top to bottom. Like the back of your hand. This can sometimes prove a difficult thing for designers, I know. I’ve found some designers, when talking to creatives or clients, make assumptions about what others already know about their work. Because they are so close to their work, so familiar with it, as well as being in such a rush to show how clever a designer they are, they take for granted some of the crucial elements in providing a context and explanation for the work. Like what the brand might be, or why the problem was identified, or what the actual problem was, as well as why the design solution is relevant. And be honest. So set the scene, tee up the work so it almost sounds like it’s the only possible solution. As I said, you’re on the sell.

Rehearse. I know very few – if any – drama students are reading this, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. Interviews are always nerve-racking, tense things (hopefully a sign that you care for the outcome) and everyone reacts differently to those stresses and strains. So my advice is, always get down, in one place – whether it’s a bullet-point list or a long-hand, written piece – everything that you want to say about your work and in the order and way you want to say it. I’m not saying this is something you have to script and stick to – not at all – but it just helps give you cues for remembering what you need to cover and when. And when you’ve gone over it and practised it a few times, those key bits will be firmer in your mind when it comes to the main event. It sounds like a really odd thing to advocate rehearsal, but it is a presentation, a performance, and you need to know the lines. And more importantly, you need to know what’s coming up next if you’re going to improvise.

And when you’re in there, just try and relax yourself. Get any drinks on the table out of knock-out range; make sure everyone can see the work; get rid of any suspicious-looking stray hairs; talk with people not at them; be interested and interesting; answer questions and ask them too; and, as I said, of upmost importance is to be yourself. Always. You can’t be anything or anyone else, so don’t even try.

Talking Process

The biggest misconception about design is that it’s a visual discipline, one concerned primarily with the form and aesthetics given to ideas. But while an important part of the process, when you emerge from your education and enter the Industry™ you’ll soon realise that having the idea, even crafting it well, still isn’t enough.

The reality of design is that it’s a much larger process, involving a host of other disciplines, various kinds of people, roles, tasks, objectives to attain and objections to overcome, and somewhere within this whole intellectual exercise there’s a sort of “ad break” where the majority of what many understand as “graphic design” happens. This commercial break of type, image, colour and form is where this thinking is made visual, but alone, it’s still not enough. Without you and your ability to give your visual design the backing and support it relies on, it will quickly fall, and fail to emerge from the process at large. Design needs to be communicated first before it can communicate for itself.

A bigger part of the process than the actual designing is communicating what you’re designing and why, and more importantly, why it’s the right thing to do. Of course this is massively helped by your ability to convey such information and present your argument persuasively. In design you need to be able to explain your ideas and your designs – why they are both relevant and important. You may be technically brilliant. You may have strong ideas or good people skills. Yet the designer who can speak powerfully and persuasively in front of listeners will outstrip others every time. It might seem unfair, even a bit like cheating, that you need the gift of the gab (as my old dear mother says), but this isn’t about bullshitting or the hard sell; it’s about understanding what you need to say and saying it with the passion and belief needed to transmit it to others. Not just explaining your ideas, either, but adding to, critiquing and developing your own and those of others, and even you yourself. A powerful presentation will do all of those things.

Being able to talk about design, about your work and your thinking, and even yourself can be the most important weapon in your arsenal. It can be the difference between convincing that company you love to give you a placement, even a job. It can be the deciding factor in whether your design carries on as part of the project or is halted, and ultimately whether it goes out into the world, or drops back into the bottom drawer. Design is storytelling (a word I cannot abide, but…) – having the idea, thinking of the story, and crafting and delivering it well is important, but unless you can tell that story it simply won’t be enough.

Oh Sh*t… What Now?: Honest Advice for New Graphic Designers is out now, published by Laurence King.

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Craig Oldham: Oh Sh*t What Now, published by Laurence King

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Craig Oldham: Oh Sh*t What Now, published by Laurence King

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Craig Oldham: Oh Sh*t What Now, published by Laurence King

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Craig Oldham: Oh Sh*t What Now, published by Laurence King