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The Best Designers Are Both Creators and Curators

How to find the perfect balance of new and old, according to your strengths.

As designers—whether it’s UX, interactive, branding, or graphic—we think of ourselves as creators. We’re proud to be makers, not just consumers. We take a blank canvas with a set of initial constraints and bring fresh ideas to life. We’re happiest when we’re making new things.

But take a moment to think about the work you’ve done this past year. How much of it is really new?

How often do you fall back into reusing tried and true patterns rather than exploring innovative solutions?

How often has your work been influenced by a collection of all the best ideas you’ve seen elsewhere (sometimes subconsciously), with few truly original concepts of your own?

Don’t fret. We’re all like that. It turns out that a huge part of design is just effective curation.

You’re a curator

You’re a curator when you search your library of fonts to find just the right typeface for a new brand. Even a type designer rarely creates original work — most new typefaces involve rehashing inspirational forms from the past.

You’re a curator when you troll through stock photos to locate the perfect match for your hero statement. Even when you art-direct custom photography or illustrations, you’re influenced by trends you’ve absorbed before.

You’re a curator when you call upon your years of honed designer’s instinct and pluck out design solutions you know will work without having to explore alternatives. That button style or form control doesn’t need to be reinvented for every project. You curate to save time when creating from scratch is inefficient.

Do you work on an established product with a mature design system? You’re rarely creating anything new, but that doesn’t mean you’re not designing. Thoughtful curation of your design system’s options lets you pick the right combination of solutions for each context.

Your entire job may be different forms of curation, with only a rare chance to truly create.

Curators remix

The key to curation is to remix old ideas in new ways to make something fresh and fit-for-purpose. You want to build something that appears new because it’s a unique combination of old. Once its newness gets recognized, it gets copied over and over again until it becomes the new normal.

Yes, that typeface has been used thousands of times before, but maybe it hasn’t been paired with the same display font. Your color scheme is almost certainly not unique, but it can look new through the unexpected ratios you apply to it. Your layout grid is used by every other designer on the block, but not necessarily in the same proportions or with the same propensity to intentionally break it to create variety and rhythm.

We see this all the time in fashion design, architecture, and automotive design, too. There are no new ideas under the sun. The best designers are master curators who know when to recycle inspiration and refresh old ideas into something purpose-built for modern design problems.

You curate your own ideas and those of others. No concept is off-limits because you care only about finding the best design solution no matter its source.

Don’t get me wrong, original creation should always be strived for. A good designer knows when and where to invest in originality, and when curation is more effective. A good designer never directly replicates an old idea, even if it’s their own. Every project has different requirements, so every remix of curated ideas requires something unique to tie into its new purpose.

The most efficient designers find the perfect balance of creation and curation, according to their own strengths.

Creation versus curation is universal

After 18 years in the UX/UI design profession, this has slowly become crystal clear for me. But the concept keeps popping up from other angles to remind me again and again.

Like most creatives, I like to have a side-hustle to learn new skills and create variety in income streams. After selling an old side business a few years ago, I struggled to come up with my next big idea. I started and later abandoned a few concepts before finally realizing I couldn’t passionately commit to any of them because they were all forms of curating other people’s content. And when all you do is curate, you’re not creating new value.

Then it hit me: I have to start creating my own content. I have to start creating now even if I don’t yet know where it will lead or how it might make money. I started writing about design and freelancing the next day. I’ve been doing it consistently for 18 months now.

Even if my freelance design job becomes 80% curation, writing original content has made me feel like a creator again. I’m happiest when I’m making new things. Sometimes those things are just words.

Create when you can, but make peace with the fact that you’ll always be a curator, too. You’re an incomplete designer until you’ve mastered both.

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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.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, and Entrepreneurship.