Freelancing

The guide to finding your design voice

4 min read
Zachery Nielson  •  Jan 17, 2019
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Something we designers fail to understand is that we are free to work as we please.

We’re free to design for clients with the same passions and interests that we do. We’re free to bring our own ideas to life.

If you’re into something niche—my callings are custom car shops, fashion blogs, news publications, restaurants, and clothing stores— you can claim those spaces as your own.

Our field gives us the rare opportunity to match our design skills and our interests, and merge our talents with the issues we care about. This space is where our design voice thrives.

Setting the stage for your voice

Understanding what moves you and draws out your true creativity will lead you to your “sweet spot”—that voice we keep talking about. Working on projects that you’re proud of—and that you’re interested in—will take you there.

Work with people and brands that honestly interest you in some way. Passion begets excellence. You shouldn’t limit yourself to mediocre projects, unless, of course, you want to be a mediocre designer with a bland voice.

Finding your voice

Over a decade ago I began the footsteps of my design career. In those days I was being taught by my grandfather to become a web developer. It didn’t take much time for me to stray from that path and pursue actual user interface design.

My first website was black—as was my most recent one, and most of the websites that I’ve designed in between.

Dark interfaces have been my specialty, and personal design aesthetic, from the very beginning. I have always been drawn to darker clothes, pencils, notebooks, phones—whatever it was, I wanted it in black. It’s something that shows clearly in my client work; when meeting with clients, I try and convince them to at least incorporate some black into their websites or apps. It brings elegance, I say. It screams confidence.

It’s why you hired me.

This is the short version of how I was crowned the “king of dark mode” by Michael Chaize (Former Head of Adobe Live); in this process, however, lies a much more challenging process that I still feel needs to be refined and improved. Royalty or not, I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with my design style—and I completely believe that is a good thing.

If we get stuck in the same exact style and processes for months, years, decades, we become bland. We become less of a designer and more of a machine.

“If we get stuck in the same exact style and processes for months, years, decades, we become bland. We become less of a designer and more of a machine.”
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Creating and developing your own, unique design aesthetic, style, taste, signature, whatever you want to call it is about being adaptable and open-minded. Always. Be willing to experiment, try new things, ignore trends, and do something weird. Bring your culture into it. Bring your personality into it. Enjoy the process and let creativity flow.

Too often we professional creatives become boring and too practical—when our best work lies in the great expanse.

“Too often we professional creatives become boring and too practical—when our best work lies in the great expanse.”
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Experiment at every opportunity

I’ve learned many times that trying something new, different, weird, crazy, or stupid-seeming has created my next big design piece.

Or my worst work. But not as often as I’d think.

Related: Your skills aren’t enough anymore

Great design goes through trials and tests—it demands the bravery to try all of your ideas, instead of just assuming they won’t work.

And each time it’s a surprise—but my experimental work is what’s the most inspiring to my clients, the most viewed on my Dribbble, and produced the best results in data testing.

It pays to be a designer rather than a machine. It pays to be yourself. It pays in actual money.

To create unique and original work, you have to expand on being yourself at every opportunity.

Since my aesthetic tends toward the dark side—so I’m always excited to work on a dark mode project. Each project takes me back to the first magical day I ever designed anything and created something from nothing without the restraints of a client’s guideline or a design system.

Seeing what you built from that empty screen is the most joyous part of being a creative.

The fundamentals still matter

Pablo Picasso mastered classical art far before he became famous for his original cubist art. He mastered the fundamentals of painting and understanding the pure details that go into a classical painting.

Consider that inspiration for mastering the fundamental art of great classical interfaces. The ones that are purely functional. Understanding how to design pure function first is a necessity in creating usable-yet-original work.

Picasso learned that by doing. He created incredible original art by taking his skill in the fundamental and daring to work into his own style with that knowledge in hand.

Related: How to price your freelance design work

I always knew I wanted to design dark interfaces—and to explore the expanse beyond black background and white text. The magic of a dark mode is the balance of darkness and contrasting colors: mastering the color scheme, and perhaps just as importantly, mastering typography. How? Practice.

Practice makes better

You need to practice every single day.

Related: How I learned—and mastered—the fundamentals of motion design

The most talented designers, basketball players, musicians, writers, architects, anyone, didn’t become great by making 3 projects a year. They were in their studios, courts, and fields every day getting better—and with devoted practice, they developed their unique expertise.

There is no reason you can’t spend at least an hour a day designing something when you call yourself a designer. It is work. You are designing when you practice design, it should be a vital part of your process.

Practicing isn’t just designing landing pages; it can be you designing the website for your dream company, or a completely made up brand that you would love to work on.

After all, every time you open a design tool you’re handed a blank canvas to recreate yourself on.


“Every time you open a design tool you’re handed a blank canvas to recreate yourself on.”
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You aren’t being paid hourly to practice, but you’ll see the money in your results. I practiced, and still do practice, every day for over a decade, and I’m just getting to the point where I’m told my portfolio is full of unique work.

Your practice may seem un-impactful on the surface, but in reality, it’s what will make you exceptional. All of the hours of practice will pay off in the next project when you can produce phenomenal work in a tight deadline because you have already done it hundreds of times.

With practice and hard work, your voice will shine

Mastering the fundamentals of your craft makes you a great machine. Mastering your own design style makes you a great designer.

Understanding the basics is crucial, but it’s by no means the only thing to master. You shouldn’t stop design challenges and practice once you graduate design school or get a design job; rather, you should embrace these points as the very beginning of your ability to design well.

You need to go further than functionality. You need personality.

Push your bar higher and bring yourself into your work.

Create your signature: it will help build and develop your design voice. Put your heart into the work and don’t compromise on the things that matter.

Work done without heart will always be like day-old coffee; it will still get the job done, but it won’t be anything worth remembering.

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