#44: Stop Making Excuses

Even after being in the world of graphic design for close to 15years, I still encounter things I don’t know about or don’t know how to do. If you are a student or if you’re new to the graphic design world you probably encounter it even more. When this happens, we all have three basic choices: you can say you don’t know how or what to do and give up (lazy), you can do it to the best of your knowledge and wing it (complacent), or you can find out how to do it and learn it (proactive). What kind of designer are you?

There’s no excuse for not knowing how to do something, not if you want to learn. This applies to life in general, but especially as a designer. Being a designer is all about finding solutions and learning new things and new ways of working. How often have you encountered a design problem where you didn’t know what to do next? Maybe your client asked you to do something and you’ve never done it before. What do you do next? Do you settle for not knowing? Do you seek out answers? Do you give up? Or do you make excuses?

The Lazy Designer 

The lazy designer says “I don’t know…” and makes excuses. They make excuses about not knowing; not knowing where to find information, that no one told them, etc. Design walls are going to seem to come out of nowhere sometimes during design projects. The lazy designer generally just gives up because it takes effort to do anything else.  Since graphic design can be subjective at times, we often have to make educated guesses and choices based on our knowledge when we find these walls. Giving up is not an option-get educated.
I’m not saying that every graphic designer is or should be formally educated, but that they are educated in some way. 
Way too many people go into the graphic design field because they think it will be great to be able to make cool stuff and get paid for it and do whatever they want creatively. They don’t want to learn or educate themselves. Ultimately, this creates a trend of mediocre graphic designers and sets the bar really low for people who don’t know any better. Just  doing what you want without being educated implies that you don’t want to learn from someone else; you don’t want to know how to be a better designer. Having this attitude will eventually bring frustration and will stunt your growth.
As an art director and design professor, designers show me their work all the time. When I ask them why it’s unfinished or why they left out crucial layout elements, they replied “oh, I didn’t know I needed that”. I can always tell when it’s genuine and they couldn’t figure it out or whether they simply didn’t want to put forth the effort to figure it out. Lazy designers are happy to sit back and rest on what they already know, which usually isn’t much. Lazy designers are often arrogant and can’t take any kind of criticism (even constructive) because they don’t think they need it. Lazy designers will not go far if they go anywhere at all.

The Complacent Designer  

The complacent designer says “I don’t know and I don’t care, so whatever happens, happens”. They make lots of excuses. They say they don’t have time to figure it out or do the research, they don’t want to ask for advice or don’t know anyone to ask. They say they don’t have access to the knowledge they need. Maybe they think the client won’t notice the lack of research (or integrity) in their work. They are passionless.
There is nothing worse than a creative who doesn’t care about his craft and makes excuses about why they aren’t better.
If you’re given a project and you feel like maybe something might be missing – ask! If you don’t know about whatever you are being asked to design – research! I’ll give you an example I encountered recently. I was teaching a class of upper-level design students in design concepts. I assigned a dust jacket design for a classic books. All the students were given the same specs which were purposefully basic-design a dust jacket-that’s it. They had a couple of weeks to work on it and when presentation day came I was stunned. Over and over again virtually every student was missing a key element of a the design. When I questioned each student about why they were missing something, I was answered with some variation of “I didn’t know “or “I’ve never done a dust jacket before”.  I even had one say that they didn’t think it was important to know about designing a dust jacket because “people really only read digital books these days “. These responses were all at once infuriating, frustrating, and saddening. I couldn’t believe that students at this level were this complacent. This was when I decided that ignorance is just unacceptable.
“I didn’t know” is not only an excuse, it’s worse than an excuse. How is it possible to live in the world [as a designer] with the INTERNET, and feel okay uttering the phrase “I didn’t now”? The answers to almost literally every question are at your fingertips.
A simple Google search from your iPhone, laptop, desktop, or tablet, will bring up thousands (maybe even millions) of answers. It really takes only the slightest bit of initiative. Let me say that I would never hire a designer who couldn’t care less if they could figure out answers on their own. Art directors, senior designers, and creative directors don’t want to hold your hand and babysit you. They will not tolerate wasted time due to your lack of initiative. Don’t settle for not knowing.
Complacent designers won’t last long in the design business if they can’t solve simple problems. Solving problems is literally our job. If you can’t take a simple direction or assignment and fill in some “blanks” on your own, then how do you ever expect to find solutions for your clients?
Clients will [almost] never give you everything you will need to complete a project before it begins. It’s our job to see those blanks and missing pieces and either ask them or go out and find them. And I hate to break it to you, but honestly, more often this will be the case because your client is coming to you for your expertise, not so you can ask them how to do your job or what you need to do your job. Clients have problems, we are required to find/make solutions for them, sometimes with little information. If we are complacent about our job, our clients will eventually figure it out and you will be out of a job quicker than you can imagine. The complacent designer knows that they could seek out answers to a design problem, they just simply don’t care to look. The complacent designer is totally fine with knowing they don’t know and letting it be.

The Proactive Designer


The proactive designer says, “I don’t know, but I want to find out.” Proactive designers don’t make excuses, they find solutions. When I saw that the things that my students were missing from the dust jacket were things like an author photo, or they only turned in a book cover (not a dust jacket), it was very disconcerting. It wasn’t that they just had issues with hierarchy or typography or even image choices; these things are what they are still developing skill in. The elements they missed were things that would have taken all of ten minutes for them to Google. Things like “book dust jacket” or “dust jacket design” and just visually observe and research the things that are standard (title, author, bio, reviews, author photo, ISBN, etc.).


We are not living in 1983, or even 1993; there are so many unbelievable resources for everyone to find information that were not available anywhere but in books before. And while I do recommend researching in books and collecting them as design inspiration, the best way to look for the most current requirements for things like a dust jacket design, would be a Google search. If any of you have been following me or know me at all, you know I deeply respect and value a guy named Sean McCabe (SeanWes). He has a saying (on this awesome mug and also as a print) that says “Make excuses things”.

I love this because it is a reminder to be proactive. Don’t make excuses for why you didn’t do something. The only way you will ever make things or make yourself into somethings, is to do something about it-make it happen.
There literally are NO excuses to not knowing. If an instructor didn’t tell you, an art director left something out, or a client asked you to do something you’ve never done GO FIND THE ANSWER YOURSELF.
Being self-motivated is one of the biggest things that will propel you forward in your life as a designer; actually, in life in general. No one ever became a success by waiting for the answers to come to them or making excuses. The proactive designer seeks out knowledge. The proactive designer knows that excuses get them nowhere and they surround themselves with resources that will propel them to greater things. The proactive designer is not okay with not knowing and is constantly learning something new.

So seriously, designers, stop making excuses for not knowing something. It’s okay to not know, but it’s not okay to be good with not knowing and just make stuff with the knowledge you have already. It’s not okay to not try. Make a little effort to find answers, learn new things, and pay attention to details. Stop making excuses because the only person who is in control of your trajectory as a designer, is you. Being proactive doesn’t mean you figure everything out by yourself, but that you figure out where to find the answers, whether that means asking a more experienced designer, researching design books, searching on Google, or even listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos. Look for solutions, do research, and learn. That’s the real secret to being an amazing designer. Design is a wonderful world, I hope you’ll join me here. Because design matters.

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