“As designers, we have to work constantly to remove the roadblocks that keep us from achieving higher levels, and defending quality work when challenged.”

A great friend and mentor of mine taught me a principle of success found in a simple technique he’d incorporated into his everyday life. Each morning while filling his pockets with all the bits and pieces necessary for the day, he’d slip in a small painted stone, which he called his boulder. The principle was simple – whenever he faced a challenge, be it fear, hard work, or unexpected circumstances, he’d remember the stone in his pocket as a call to boldly face any obstacle.

While I don’t always have a stone in my pocket, the principle stuck – and I’ve found it to be priceless in an industry where work is both an expression and communication to all who come across it. As designers, we have to work constantly to remove the roadblocks that keep us from achieving higher levels, and defending quality work when challenged.

The designer roadblocks

Daily, we experience roadblocks on the way to success. These blocks come in infinite form and variety; all of them serve the purpose of holding back our potential and ambition, unless they are overcome through a bold attitude to move forward. However, when these blocks are removed, the doors of possibility swing wide and some of our best work is realized.

An example comes to mind in the form of Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain’s superb work for Steinway & Sons. In an article that explains his process, he describes an assertive approach toward moving past hackneyed techniques into fresh and untested waters:

One of my personal goals for this project was to get away from relying on the same techniques that I’ve become comfortable with over the years… and it was actually harder than I thought it would be.

The end result of his work was stunning – fresh approaches to many old techniques were used, and the final product was above and beyond.

It’s time to be bold!

A favorite expression of mine comes from my father – when attempting a daring move that makes James Bond look like a sissy he’ll shout, “It’s time to be bold!” Again, I’ve not always adopted the phrase, but the lesson to act without hesitation when you know the right course has stuck fast.

Our work is constantly thrown into the fire of challenge; and don’t get me wrong – when it comes from the right source it’s a very good thing, but coming from the wrong source it can turn an otherwise successful project into a disaster. When Client X decides to change the navigation to blue and yellow in support of their favorite team (MI Wolverines) – it’s time to stand up and defend your work.

Whitney Hess has a lot of experience with safeguarding her work and her process. In a stellar article outlining simple steps and reasons to say “no” she describes herself as “a human brake pad.” It’s a good metaphor, and perfectly describes what we must become in order to keep our work at the highest quality. Introducing her subject, she poses an excellent question:

No. One word, a complete sentence. We all learned to say it around our first birthday, so why do we have such a hard time saying it now when it comes to our work?

Why indeed? Well, among reasons of civility and politeness, I think it’s sometimes hard to confront the person paying the bill and say, “No, you’re wrong.” Of course Whitney explains how it’s not enough to just say no, it must be backed by industry standards and real data – but when you know the right course, then it’s time to be bold!  Your work represents your talent, and your ability to present clear communication through design. When your best work comes under fire from clients or peers, you have to stay true to the correct course and not give into the arbitrary and capricious demands of the ill informed.

That’s it folks

The ultimate goal of design is to communicate a message. We cannot let that communication get lost through bad input, or get slowed down by the designer roadblocks. In each case, we need to remember to be a little boulder.