The value of style-agnostic design
Don’t “niche down” on visual style, unless that’s all you want to be.
I often describe myself as a style-agnostic designer. That means my design process and outcomes are compatible with any kind of visual style. I don’t specialize in websites or apps that look high fashion, techie, youthful & edgy, or minimally brutalist. Not all of my designs include whimsical illustrations, glowing buttons, dense data visualizations, blank-faced female models, or whatever the latest design trend of the month maybe.
I’ve designed things with all of those styles, and with none of those styles.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have my own design voice or point of view. If you look at my work as a whole, you’ll find recurring themes and patterns that speak to how I think about design challenges. The way I emphasize type as a design element. The way I favor whitespace as a natural separator. Or the way I create rhythm and contrast within the content. But none of these aspects of my design perspective are tied too strongly to any single visual style.
That’s very much on purpose. And it’s a huge part of my value as a freelance designer.
Variety sparks creativity and learning
I crave variety. It’s a major reason why I’ve chosen to freelance for 17 years. I’ve been offered good money to work for innovative tech companies, but I’ve always turned them down because I cringe at the thought of having to work on the same product in the same design style for years.
That sounds like design purgatory.
I choose clients and design projects carefully to build variety into my schedule. If I’ve worked on too many complex web apps lately, I’ll favor an image-heavy brochure or portfolio site next, to give my creative muscles a change of pace. As a designer, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and fall back to using the same solutions over and over again. Variety forces you to learn new techniques and expand your design toolbox.
Timeless design instead of trends
I’ve made a conscious effort to ignore transient design trends. Instead, I focus on building solutions that will hold up for years without showing their age. There are macro trends and best-practices that evolve over time, and those are well worth adopting. But I stay away from whatever is trending on Dribbble’s homepage. In one month it will all be different.
Having a strong education in design principles helps create a timeless design, which is more valuable to your clients because it serves them longer.
Style-niching limits your clientele more than you think
Potential clients need to see work in your portfolio that describes design challenges similar to their own needs, otherwise, they won’t have confidence in your ability to deliver for them. If you focus too heavily on a single visual style, you’re drastically limiting your pool of potential clients. That’s why I choose to highlight a range of design styles and client industries in my portfolio.
You may know that you can work in other styles, but how do your clients know? This is why showing variety in your work is vital.
It’s OK to have a bread and butter style niche, but don’t risk getting pigeon-holed into that style unless you’re happy doing only that. If your niche down too hard, it’s time-consuming to “un-niche” and attract a broader range of work.
Don’t impose your style where it doesn’t fit
The biggest danger of getting caught in a style niche is that your design sensibility is tinted too heavily by your preferred style, and you start imposing that style where it’s not appropriate. Or even worse, that style is all you know how to do well, so you have no choice but to use it even when the context calls for something different.
There are some projects where the branding is so strong or unique, that you have no choice but to let it completely dictate the style of your work. I admit I’ve been caught in this situation more than once, and every time I’ve tried to finesse the branding a little bit towards a style I prefer (even one I think will be more successful) it doesn’t end well. Brand is king. Respect the king above all else.
Niche down on values, not on style.
When I think about my niche, it has nothing to do with my design style. It has everything to do with the type of clients I choose to work for. I choose clients who value thoughtful design in the way I do, and who’s business serve a purpose worth pursuing. I choose projects which offer unique design challenges, and who’s stakeholders will facilitate a smooth and meaningful design process.
That’s not to say I don’t have preferred visual styles. I’ll favor working with a brand who cherishes simplicity and elegance over one who’s known for being noisy and obtuse. But that consideration is always secondary because I get joy in creating design solutions that can benefit any business, not just the ones who fall into my pre-conceived stylistic boundaries.
Broad skills transcend design style
Perhaps being style-agnostic is the natural tendency of a digital designer who covers UX as well as UI design. Visual design is often only a part of my involvement in a project. I want to be contributing to digital strategy, info architecture, holistic branding, user experience, and interface/interaction design. It feels like a poor strategy to limit my potential clientele based on the most superficial level of output.
The next time you hear the advice to “find your niche”, don’t take that to mean narrowing your visual style. Instead of niching down, you may want to consider broadening up your skillset to involve more of the complete product design spectrum. This makes your value to clients far more than a trendy UI. Your visual design style becomes irrelevant and adaptable.
You gain the advantages of being a specialist, without the limitations of confining your work to a narrow niche. That’s the magic trick of a style-agnostic designer with a broad skill range.
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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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