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Why good designers can never do their best work

Do you find yourself constantly dissatisfied with your creative endeavours? You’re not alone.

This week I was inspired by Tobias van Schneider’s recent email newsletter, where he discusses why he has a hard time saying what his favourite project is, because he’s never 100% satisfied with any of them.

I relate deeply to this point. I feel it all the time in my own digital design work. It’s not uncommon for me to love the direction a design is going at the start of a project, but by the time it’s complete I’m cringing and wishing I did so many little things better.

When you’re first starting out this is a common feeling.

It’s not just imposter syndrome, it’s also that you have a gap between your vision and your skills. You can picture something in your mind — or you see inspiration elsewhere that you know you can match — but when it comes down to executing that vision, your skills and experience fall short of what you were aiming for.

A young designer who can recognise this gap is destined to become better, as they’ll always strive to improve their skills so they can start more accurately executing their aesthetic visions.

A young designer who’s always satisfied with their work won’t achieve much. Either their vision is lacking, so even a mediocre skillset is enough to realise it. Or their lack of attention to detail doesn’t even allow them to see their execution gap.

But as I got more experienced, I thought maybe that feeling of constant dissatisfaction would go away.

Surely after 17 years of digital design I’d get to a point where my skills are enough to execute my vision?

Well yes, they are. Most of the time.

But the thing about good designers is they are ALWAYS learning. Every project I work on teaches me something new about design. Every unique problem solved adds new tools to my design arsenal. By the time I’ve gotten through a complex design project, I’m already a better designer than I was when I started it.

So I look back on the design solutions from the beginning of the project, and they can already feel inadequate. All I see are the shortcomings and potential improvements, and it’s difficult to appreciate the successes.

Chances are my clients (and their users) don’t see those shortcomings. They don’t have a glimpse into my mind to know what the potential vision could have been, or might have evolved to. They may see the iterations I’ve shared and the final result, but not the intricacies of my design intentions or ideas that were never realised.

So I can take solace in knowing the inevitable dissatisfaction is reserved just for me, but that doesn’t make it go away.

I hope it doesn’t go away.

If I ever start feeling 100% satisfied with my design work it means I’m getting too complacent. I’m not pushing myself to improve. Not improving is the slow death of a designer.

Design truly is “never done”. It’s forced to end by timelines or budgets, and you do the best you can within those restraints. But every project could keep improving indefinitely. When you can see the chance for improvement but don’t get the opportunity to explore that potential, there’s always a twinge of “what if”.

Instead of letting that disappointment get me down or restrict my creativity, I use it as motivation to make the next project even better. Every project I do should be better than the last one. If it isn’t, all things being equal, I’ve done something wrong. I’ve failed my client by not offering the best of my abilities — by not using the full depth of my knowledge and experience to create the best design solutions for their needs.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may never feel like I’ve done my best work. I may never complete a perfect project. I will almost certainly never feel completely satisfied with all the details of even my finest work. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s good.

If you feel like you never do your best work, know you’re on the right track. That feeling means you recognise where you need to improve, and your next project will be that much better for it.

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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 17 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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