Getting to Great

January 12, 2014

In a perfect world, every design that I produce would be mindblowingly great. Clients would swoon and cut checks for massive bonuses; industry groups would shower me with awards; and complete strangers would record viral YouTube videos extolling my virtuosity. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. While I’m extremely proud of the work I do, I can’t honestly claim that everything I produce meets the definition of great. This post discusses some ways I use to try to consistently get from “gets the job done” to “amazing”?

But first: what is great work? What defines it? Although it’s always going to be a subjective concept, I think something must satisfy three criteria for me to consider it great. First it must impress the client. I’ve done plenty of designs that I thought were outstanding, but for one reason or another the client rejected. I could sulk and mutter to myself that the client has no taste, but that won’t improve anything, nor is it likely to get me future work with that client. Pleasing the client has to be the primary criterium.

Second, it has to please me. I’m pretty picky about my own designs, and as much as I hate to admit it, there have been times when I sent a design off to the client, knowing that it wasn’t my best work. Even if the client is ecstatic with the design, there’s a nagging feeling that I could have done better, and that pushes me to excel the next time.

Finally, for me to consider a design “great” it has to be effective. All designs have a business purpose that needs to be met — create an emotional connection, prompt a call or email, encourage a visit, test drive, demo, or simply amplify a specific brand attribute. Even if I think a design is fabulous and the client is in love with it, it’s not great if it doesn’t do what it’s meant to do. and that is to fulfill a specific business objective.

So know that I know what great is, how do I get there with each design?

    1. Understand the client. This is more than a basic understanding of the industry, it’s knowing the needs and motivations of the specific individuals that I am interacting with, how they fit into the organization, and what they are trying to accomplish both in the short and long term. I need to understand what sets their company apart from their competition, what marketing tools they’re most comfortable with, and where their weak spots are. If I know them on a deeper level, then I am much more likely to produce work they will love.


    1. Push my Boundaries. There’s a temptation, especially when deadlines are short, to “phone it in” and produce designs that are decent and functional, but not special. To deliver greatness, I have to fight that temptation. Sometimes it means putting a design aside for a day or to and letting it percolate. Sometimes it means deleting every layer in a Photoshop file and starting from scratch. Inspiration doesn’t come on command, but it does eventually come, and when it does it can be the key to a great design.


  1. Never Lose Focus. I always try to remember that great design not only looks good, it works. And it works not because it looks good, but because it has been designed to fulfill the business objectives that the client needs met. If it doesn’t meet those needs, it won’t matter how pretty it is. Great designs work, and that’s what make them great designs.

Ultimately, what I strive for is for my clients to tell their friends and colleagues, “he does great work.” If that’s happening, the rest will take care of itself. Let me know in the comments how you pursue greatness in your work.

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