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Designing for your clients, or for likes from your peers?

Fancy Dribbble shots, gratuitous animations, tarted-up Behance case studies, and unsolicited redesigns — what do these say about you as a designer?

Rockstar, award-winning, popular celebrity designer extraordinaire.

Is that your goal as a designer?

We all like praise and recognition. In a field that’s ever-changing, it’s comforting to get validation from your peers. It’s a great cure for imposter syndrome, or for a mild case of creative block or self-doubt. It makes us feel like we’re doing something right.

I must admit, the few times my work has won awards, I was chuffed. Of course I liked the recognition. When you’re proud of something you create, it’s only natural to want others to appreciate it too.

However, I can’t help but think that designer self-promotion has been taken over by an unhealthy addiction to eye-candy, shallow praise, and attention-seeking trickery. And what for? Does that sideshow attract better clients? I’m not so sure.

Are back-patting and thumbs-upping from random strangers across the world the kind of validation that matters? I think I’d rather get that validation from clients, when they gush to their colleagues about how I exceeded their expectations.

Are you working for cost-clients or value-clients?

Knowing the difference will mean everything to your freelance business.

I’m reminded of the sorry state of politics: that elected representatives must spend half their time schmoozing and fundraising for their next re-election, which leaves little time left to get real work done during this term.

For some designers, that schmoozing time is spent crafting intricate daily Dribbble animations, or shallow, trend-driven, unsolicited redesigns. Has keeping up that social pretence become a necessity now? I hope not, because I’m not very good at it.

I focus on delivering the best design results for my clients. Whether or not that’s on-trend or popular is of little concern. If it doesn’t make for a perfect Instagram share, so be it. That was never a goal of the work, and never a metric to measure its success.

I don’t mean to say that self-promotion isn’t required. Your next client needs to come from somewhere, and for some designers, showcases like Dribbble, Behance, and Instagram are a valuable, calculated part of their client acquisition funnel. But for every success story with a hundred thousand followers and too many work enquiries to handle, there are countless other designers who mistakenly believe that this is how you have get new work. So they play the popularity game, and it usually doesn’t go well.

Here are some questionable self-promotion tactics examined:

Hyper-innovative, “show off” portfolios

Sometimes you come across another designer’s or agency’s portfolio that’s simply drool-worthy. Chock-full of fancy micro-animations, editorial content layouts, and unusual navigation to boot. All the things you wished you had time to explore and develop for your client projects, but you never quite have the budget for it, or a client willing to take the risks.

It’s no surprise that when looking through award-winning sites, about half of them are the in-house portfolios of designers, agencies, and other creative digital companies. When you’re designing your own site, you can break the shackles of client restrictions and go crazy. The problem is when you go too crazy.

There’s no doubt that an over-designed “show off” site like this can be a valuable asset if done for the right reasons. Innovative work will attract clients who are looking for more of that style. And it may scare off more traditional clients who are substance-over-style oriented. This automatic client filter can work to your advantage and bring in clients who are more likely to match your ideals. But that has to be part of a calculated plan, where you really know who your ideal client is, and what does and doesn’t impress them.

It fails when you try to show everything you can do and throw the kitchen sink at it, without regard for whether those design ideas are actually the right solutions for your business goals. That comes across as a purely vanity project, made to earn recognition from peers rather than clients. Who is that serving, other than your ego? If it doesn’t help you gain better clients, what’s the point?

Of course all portfolios are meant to “show off” your work — that’s one of their key purposes. But you cross the line when you stop letting the work in your portfolio do the talking, and instead try to hide its weaknesses by making your portfolio site itself dazzle and impress.

How does this make you look?
It may look like you’re scared the work in your portfolio isn’t very strong, so you are trying compensate for it by adding all the bells and whistles to your website. Some clients may be impressed. Smart ones will notice the disconnect between that design and the other work in your portfolio, and the inconsistency will create a lack of confidence in your abilities.

Vanity projects & unsolicited redesigns

Looking through sites like Dribbble and Instagram, what percentage of the shots are real client work? It feels like less and less all the time. They’ve become a nearly pointless stream of images designed for the sole purpose of attention and likes. And a ridiculous number of people take time out of their days — as much as 1–2 hours every single day — to craft and post these attention-seeking shots.

The biggest offenders are “self-initiated” vanity projects:

Unsolicited redesigns — if done with a large amount of research and UX thinking — can impress and lead to better client work. I’ve seen a few examples where I was surprised that the designer did, in fact, improve upon the user experience of an already successful website. But ones of that calibre are few and far between. Trend-driven, eye-candy redesign with little accountability for user goals or success metrics is completely worthless as a design exercise. Except as visual design practice if you have spare time and need an excuse to explore.

There’s no question that some designers who regularly produce work like this have amassed huge online followings. However, I question whether a large following that consists mostly of easily-impressed noob design peers provides that much value? If instead, you spent all that time building new personal relationships with potential clients, wouldn’t you received way more direct rewards for your efforts?

How does this make you look?
Like you either:

  1. Can’t get enough real client work that you have to pad your portfolio with fake projects, or
  2. Can’t produce quality design work on real client projects so you have to design fake projects with no limitations in order to demonstrate your skills, or
  3. You have so much free time on your hands that you can afford to spend hours a day on purely self-promotional imagery.

None of those are very good looks for a professional designer.

Gratuitous animations

Nobody cares that much about fancy animations. Honestly they don’t.

Video and animation are taking over our eyeballs. It seems at times like static images are now second class citizens to the mighty animated GIF or short social video. That trend pervades all digital design, with video and animated content now the expectation.

However, think about the biggest, best, most successful websites, apps, and digital products: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, etc. Do any of them produce products with gratuitous animations or overly-dramatic, tedious, cascading screen transitions like you see every day on Dribbble? Nope. Most of the best design uses animation in a very restrained way. More micro. Way less macro.

Why then, do some designers feel the best way to show off their work is to share unrealistic, over-the-top, “wow” animated prototypes that more often than not don’t see the light of day — beyond the recognition they attract from 15 minutes of ogling design peers? When did this complete disconnect from design reality happen?

How does this make you look?
Desperate for attention. Detached from reality. Focused on superficial attention grabbing over genuine user-experience.

Over-designed Behance case studies

This is one that drives me mad, and no doubt you’ve seen these before. Elaborate Behance case studies that have so much over-design that you can barely see the actual client work anymore. They tart up an ordinary project with all kinds of extra new visuals, introduce a big bold design style that has no connection at all to the client work, all to try to make it look more impressive than it is. I wonder if many of these designers spent significantly more time crafting the case study than they did on the actual work it’s meant to showcase.

This is overcompensation for sub-par client work that doesn’t appear valuable enough on its own. It means a designer can deliver on-trend visual eye-candy design when free from client limitations, but that creativity doesn’t translate into real-world projects and complex design challenges.

How does this make you look?
Just like the over-cooked portfolio site, this makes you look “try hard”. Disingenuous. Overcompensating for sub-par work.

It’s time for this circle jerk to stop

Pardon my rude terminology, but that’s what 90% of this is. Designers all patting each other on the backs for showcasing imaginary projects based on nothing but the desire to attract shallow praise.

I, for one, am not impressed by it. I see this type of imagery and skip right by it like an unwelcome banner ad. So if not designers like myself, then who is appreciating these narcissistic efforts? If it’s done for validation and “likes” from peers, is it even working? And is that a good enough reason to do it at all?

You could say this is all harmless. If people want to spend their time focusing on self-promotional design work, so be it. It’s not hurting anyone else is it? The trouble is, once you start judging your fake projects by the praise of social public opinion, it’s challenging not to let that same thinking seep into your client work. And when that happens you’re doing a genuine disservice to your clients, which is dangerous for your own success and reputation, as well as theirs.

The best designers are business strategists

The old days of “visual design” are long gone. We need to think much broader & deeper to solve today’s design challenges.

So much of what you see on Dribbble, Behance, and Instagram is shallow eye-candy. What you produce for your clients better be way more than that. If you want to attract the best clients, show more of your real client work that they can identify with and relate to. Everything else is irrelevant.

Unless the goal of your design career is to get as many fleeting likes and social followers as you can — in which case, carry on.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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