Advice To An Old Friend

An article by David Brooks on November 13, 2012


I once had a friend approach me for design advice. He was a much better programmer then than I am today, and a really nice guy. He hadn’t been exposed to design like a lot of us had, and the internet was still rather young at the time.

He showed me his design and asked me, “so… is it good enough?” “Yes,” I responded after a second to take it all in. He looked at me as if I had just told him the lottery ticket in his pocket was the winner of the state jackpot. “The question I’d ask you, in return,” I said, “is it good enough for you?”

I don’t regret giving him that answer, and I think how good his work was at the time is irrelevant and always was. I could see by looking at it that he had done it himself, that it was honest work, and that he was trying to figure things out without ripping anyone off. The fact that he went out of his way to ask me made a difference, too.

At the time I was going back to school, taking some of the entry-level design courses that most designers had during their first time through college. So, twice a week I was sitting in classes with people who felt they had it all figured out. These kids were the future of design, or so they thought, professionals in the making. But yet, when their work rolled out and was placed in front of the class, the best ones always took in criticism and really absorbed what the person was saying. Sometimes the criticism was out in left field or was made with the wrong motive. The best of the best were able to see through that, to let it glance off them.

Returning to my friend, to be asked for my opinion without some agenda was a breath of fresh air at the time. Was it good enough? Sure, there are always things both above and below the quality of work you create.

If you ever get to the point in your life where you say to yourself, “I’m the best designer out there, there’s nobody better than me.” I think you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve become delusional. There will always be people better than you, it’s a fact. There can only be one fastest man or woman in the world, and the chances are very good that you are not him or her (respectively).

The rest of my advice to my friend went something like this.

1. Take a look at your work, and then look at some of the designers you respect. What are they doing that you love? What would you have done differently? Yes you’re comparing yourself to someone else here, but it’s academic. Never say to yourself “I’m not as good as that person”, it doesn’t help and only serves to set yourself up for defeat.

2. Learn from others, but be your own person. Set your own style. Ignore the trolls and those who praise you too loudly. They’re both up to no good. Usually they’re out to make themselves feel better or to further their own personal agenda.

3. Focus on the problems you’re trying to solve, not the aesthetics. You can make something look better but if you fail to solve the problem at hand you’re just wasting time.

That’s how I try to manage my design life, even today. If you were asked the same question, what would you say?

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About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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