FAQ 51: How important is developing my own style?

I don’t believe in styles. I am not arguing against a graphic designer having a point of view and values evident in their work. I believe a designer should strive to make things personal but not necessarily have a style and in that, I may be using an alternative definition of “style.” I am against “style” as I see it in its most prevalent usage today. A predominately aesthetic notion of repeated forms or themes applied from one solution to the next. A style as a personal affectation that projects are shoehorned into. An aspiration for uniqueness.

God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things.  —Pablo Picasso

What is a style? The way you decorate a thing? The process you used to find a solution? Capital “S” styles exist, art deco or swiss, or flat, whatever your flavor of choice, but a singular personal style? There is an air of self-absorption in how the term is used in regard to personal lower case style. Does having a style mean your work all looks the same? Personal style implies a predetermination. Predetermination seems the antithesis of the design process. What type of clients are you attracting if they want the same thing as the last guy? Repeating the same visual elements and tropes from project to project regardless of their appropriateness, is that style? Once your style is developed and established are you left with a portfolio full of sameness?

Even if you’re convinced you have developed a “style” it is never unique to you, dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people design work that looks the same. Styles exist independently of individual designers. Approximately 300,000 graphic designers* work in the US alone (not accounting for related professions, under-the-table, non-reporting, and other titles, for example, there are also 75,000 art directors*). Is the theory that each graphic designer has, or possesses the potential to have their own, specific style? If you have a style it is not unique to you. Your work may be distinctive in your vicinity but it is not unique. We should move past the notion of ownership of ideas.

I like the example of the Piscatello Design Centre. They produce what you might objectively call Swiss or modernist oriented work, which is certainly a Style, but it is a big bucket, over-arching direction, more than a limiting agent. They employ the Style as a philosophy, a set of governing principles rather than style for style’s sake. Threads connect the projects, but there is also variation as needed. The visual elements work in service to the solution. They adapt their process, their design values to the problem, not vice versa.

A “real” style is based on core beliefs and a set of governing design principles. It is bottom up not top down. It is not something you own, it is what you practice. “Style” in this sense manifests itself from process. “I believe in the modernist idea that san serif type is more legible and more universal, and tend to preference it over other typefaces”, would be a principle that leads to aesthetic patterns. It is not a collection of elements percieved as cool and repeated regardless of the needs of the project. And it can’t be reverse engineered. You can’t decide on a direction, a style and then disingenuously fabricate a justification after the fact.

I believe in developing a process and a sensibility, in finding a general location that is yours within the set of appropriate solutions. I believe in style as a way of thinking not of decorating, The answer to the question lies in that idea. Develop your personal set of values and priorities and the style will follow.


* US Board of Labor Statistics