Escaping the Design Echo Chamber

September 08th, 2016

Becca Hand

Creative Director

Are you a designer? If not, let's imagine you are one. Let's say you have a new project assigned - a logo for a new restaurant (let's also assume you get great projects all the time, as long as we're being hypothetical). You've received your creative brief or chatted with the client, your scope is laid out and you're ready to start sketching. What's your first step? 

For a lot of us, it's the internet. Specifically, it's places like Dribbble or Behance. And sometimes, that can be a problem.

Behold, the Zone of Similarity

When you have the latest work of the designers and illustrators you most admire in front of you constantly, and you can see the hearts, likes, and comments they're racking up on a daily basis it can be all too easy to start thinking there's only one way to do "good design". Right now, it's single-width line illustrations and sexy serifs next to a slick iphone mockup. Next year it might be something else entirely. Remember the brief reign of the superlong shadow? 


~*~Hello 2012 My Old Friend~*~ source

Trends in design have always and will always be present, but with the addition of sites like Dribbble and Behance to the mix the speed of trend turnover has gone turbo. And that means that if we're not careful, our currently very popular illustration style could look dated (or worse, like literally everything else) in a matter of months. 

To be clear, I don't mean for this to be another one of those "The Internet Is Ruining Everything!!!1" articles - being socially connected is just a fact of life now, so complaining about it "old man yells at cloud" style is pointless. What we can do though is attempt to vary our sources of inspiration so that trends aren't our only starting point, and so that when we begin projects we have a visual toolbox to reach into that's deeper than a search field.

The Escape Plan

Step 1. Start with words.

If you don't have a solid creative brief for the project, this is a good place to start. Make sure you have clearly defined goals and needs for the client. Where does this piece you're working on fit into the grand scheme of their business? Is this logo going to mostly live as a 50 pixel square on their website, or is it going to be on huge billboards, or both? How will this mark fit into their story and inform their personality? Ultimately you're designing a solution to a visual problem, and making sure you're orienting yourself toward that instead of thinking about whether it's going to look nice in your portfolio can help you start out in the right direction. 

Once you've done that, pull out your thesaurus and pick 3-5 words that describe the aesthetic, or "feel" you think will best fit the problem. Defining the look without using other people's visually complete work as reference will give you a lot more wiggle room when you begin to sketch out ideas.

Step 2: Expand your inspiration diet, and maybe hoard a little.

What are you excited about right now that's not designing logos? Have you seen patterns you love popping up in the interior design sphere? Maybe you semi-ironically enjoy the mid-90s internet. Follow that. The important thing is that it's (A) Not what's "in" right this minute and (B) Something that you just like. For me, it's Charley Harper illustrations and 70s sci fi paperback covers. Collect physical objects and books that inspire you, if you aren't already. While this may not directly help you design this particular logo, it is an important part of a healthy designer diet, and creating a library of visual inspiration you love that's not only popular current designers will help you define your personal viewpoint as a designer.

More immediately, create moodboards with nothing from your usual online sources. (You can still use Google, I'm not a monster.)

Step 3. Get input from non-designers.

Some of the best brainstorming you can do is with people who approach problems from a completely different background and skillset. Utilize your coworkers, your friends, your developer uncle, and your client to find fresh eyes and unexpected solutions. While you might not have access to every age, race, and profession in the world, I would hope you can think of at least a few people you know that aren't white male designers between the ages of 20-40 that can give you a more unique perspective. If you can't, well, you should make that your new step 1.


Step 4. Don't let instant online gratification be your only motivation.

This is the hard one, because dammit if that orange heart or pink circle or "ding!" of a compliment in your inbox isn't addictive. Sometimes designing feels like a thankless job, and an online community of your peers telling you that your latest project is AWESOME can sometimes feel like the only reason to put in those extra hours on that homepage or make that illustration pixel perfect. And that's okay! But don't let that drive for validation replace the passion for problem solving and love of storytelling that got you into this career in the first place.

Optional Step 5: If the trend fits, wear it. (Because hey, nothing is original.)

At the end of the day, trends are trends because there's something compelling about them, something that says "this is what now looks like". And for some projects, that fits. If your restaurant is a farm to table edison-bulbed and subway-tiled extravaganza smack dab in the middle of downtown Nashville then it's not the worst thing in the world if it looks like one of these:

from here and here

Because those logos communicate exactly what the business is, probably appeal to the desired audience, and ultimately solve the client's problem. 

If your process takes you here, that's okay too. Just don't skip the journey. 


Further reading: 

The Dribbblisation of Design

Every Website Looks the Same, and That's Okay