But it’s already been done

Don’t avoid a design style simply because it’s “been done.”

Do we design something “new,” or use something “off the shelf?” Do we break new ground, or stay on the beaten path? These questions are based on an assumption that I believe is false. They are based on the assumption that designers are inventors.

As designers, I believe that “standing out” is not our guiding light. Most companies don’t need to stand out. They simply need to stand. Stand strong, stand true, be real. Design, correctly applied, is not something we dream up; it is the look of the world we live in. So much poor design has been made in the pursuit of “originality,” “creativity,” and “grabbing the viewer” (don’t try this in person).

When we designers put the visual face on a business, we are not inventing the face but expressing what already exists. This is a wonder and a marvel. Every person is unique. Every business and adventure, therefore, is unique. It’s amazing (and not always difficult) to peel back the layers, get to the heart and soul of the thing, and put that on the page. Capture it, and you’ve captured the company. Express it, and you’ve expressed the company. I’m talking here to the professional. Find the heart and soul of a company, and you’ll never again worry about being derivative, because every company is naturally unique. Fail that, and your work, no matter whether derivative or “original,” is basically a song and dance. Do you see the difference?

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30 Responses to But it’s already been done

  1. Diane Hokans says:


  2. Mary says:

    I struggle with this working for a non-profit. We do not have the luxury of time to re-invent design. We often recycle designs by updating color palettes.

    I have to remind myself that I am probably the only one who knows that the design is recycled, and that as you said in your post, we do not need to stand out, but rather we need to stand behind our mission.

  3. Dorothy says:

    “So much poor design has been made in the pursuit of “originality,” “creativity,” and “grabbing the viewer” (don’t try this in person).”

    I couldn’t agree more!

    Question: With your extensive experience, how do you or would you “diplomatically” explain to potential new clients that just because a design (style) is “cool” or “grabs attention” doesn’t necessary make it the right solution to their specific project?

    Thank you.

    • Cathy says:

      I would try to re-focus their attention to who their customers are. Sometimes my clients get bogged down in what they personally like and forget that their #1 job is to attract their customer. Another good strategy is to put some adjectives to the style and see if it fits the business. Does “modern” and “hip” describe your company? Is that where you want to go? If not, you may want to consider another design.

  4. Brian Diehm says:

    Thank you for that observation; simple but profound. It applies in some ways to ourselves, too. Our job as human beings isn’t to be unique, or new, or something we invent about ourselves. We are to be, instead, truly ourselves as fully as possible.

    In design work, I think this concept translates to a fundamental honesty of expression and projection of “image.”

  5. Katherine says:

    John, you are so right. I think a lot of designers are actually frustrated artists (hence their focus on “originality” and “creativity”), and they lose sight of what should be their focus (solving a client’s communication issue). This may be partly why we see so many “beautiful” logos that look like an ink blot in black & white or like a squashed bug at small scale. Any why we see ads that give nary a clue about what the company does or sells. Or fabulously cool promotional materials that would be horrifically expensive to produce.

    Obviously there is a lot of overlap in the skills, tools, and temperaments of artists and designers (and some folks can be both). But art is usually about making an original statement about yourself or your world (focus on the artist), and design is not.

    I also want to say “Thank You” for all you do for and share with the design community; keep up the fabulous work :)

  6. This is spot on, John. I recall a large quote at the bottom of an infographic, “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.”

    My design work for many small businesses often becomes an exercise in business planning or strategic development because they don’t really know who they are or why they are unique. This is the reason that we as designers simply cannot serve our clients well if we are just artists. We must be businesspeople and communicators long before we can employ our art to serve our clients.

  7. Milmon says:

    Thanks so much, John! I commented on another of your posts a couple of months ago, and I find that I had to chime in again today. I’m a 50-ish, second-career student of web design, and I find that I am often overwhelmed with all the technically dazzling sites that I come across looking for “inspiration” or simply to broaden my own design vocabulary. I notice, however, that it isn’t always readily apparent what the product is, who the client is, or what actually is the prime objective of the site, other than to showcase designers’ skills. Of course, this makes sense for portfolio sites (or pages), but it is not always in the best interest of the client or, more importantly, the user.

    Your post today comes as a word of encouragement and affirmation that I’m on the right track in my pursuit of apprehending fundamental design principles and being clear about the charge of a designer, rather than simply looking for new ways to dazzle users.

    Thanks again.

  8. A good point well made, John. A closely related question about overused typefaces came up not long ago on graphicdesign.stackexchange.com, and I gave essentially the same answer. It’s not about being original.

    Good design is about communicating effectively, and you can’t do that unless you know the DNA of the company or the brand, to which I would add “and its customers,” because that’s who responds to the design, or doesn’t. Your “Which ad sold the jeep” example a while back makes that very clear.

  9. Hi John,

    Great piece! I find out who my client is, who their ideal clients are, and that drives the design. If they are edgy, they would need edgy. If they are warm and caring, they get warm and caring!


  10. Paul says:

    I believe an “amen” is called for.

    How I answer a specific design question is always a mix of motivation (my brief), inspiration (my influences), perspiration (my workmanship), and gratification (my pleasure)!


  11. Soren says:

    “Stand strong, stand true, be real.” Should be the guiding voice from behind when tempted to . . .

  12. So true . . . this post peels back the layers and captures the essence of great design!

  13. mary ramirez says:

    Thanks for the insight, John. I agree with your comments about capturing the soul of the client or business. I find in my local print shop environment that most of my customers are small business owners and that some of them are not even sure about how they want to portray their business. I ask them to bring me samples of what they like in other advertising or corporate packages, and in that way I can at least see what catches their eye, and maybe bring a focus to their vision. It’s one way to learn how they feel about themselves and their business.

    From there we can start a dialog and, using existing formulas, we can construct a very personalized campaign. I save all of my old files, some going back several years, and recycle layouts when they work for the current project.

    I cringe when the customer says to me, “Just do whatever you like.” Well, 90+ percent of the time, what I like is not what they were looking for, but at least we find out what they Don’t Like!

    • chris says:

      “. . . do whatever you like.” So true! One of the great challenges is to get customers to understand the idea of a proper brief. If they do not have a clear idea of what they want to achieve, how will they know if my design solves their problem?

  14. Saya says:

    Yes, when you don’t know how to ride a bike, don’t try to perform extraordinary acts. I guess what you mean is that originality and being unique is rooted in knowing your customer well rather than forcing something new that you don’t know.

  15. Cat says:

    Very good point, John. It can be hard as a creative to remember that — to withhold your desire to impress someone, as when trying to win praise for your design. It’s important to leave out one’s creative personality and not have it interfere with a company’s personality, especially when brand image is important to a company. The best measurement for good design may be if the client is so happy with it that they claim it’s perfect for them. There is a place and time for breaking out of the box or standing out with a creative design. But quite often it is not for a traditional or conservative business client.

  16. Kirk Nurse says:

    I agree with the article 100%. I have often found myself telling younger designers that there’s no such thing as an original thought; it’s how you spin it. The quest to be unique may cause you to lose sight of the intended message. Design 101: Less is more.

  17. chris says:

    Most of the time we’re asked for “something new and different,” but most of the time what my clients mean is “something similar to work I already see around me.” Truly different can often be too challenging for people because it takes them outside the comfort zone of what they are familiar with. Fortunately there are many, many great ideas out there — and finding a new application for an existing idea is just as valid and exciting.

  18. Sabu George says:

    I always considered messaging of the utmost importance in design. Everything else in design follows this! This post confirms this belief. Thank you :-)

  19. Chuck Arnold says:

    Printed and posted in my cubicle as a deep reminder of what I “should” be doing, how to communicate the message to my clients, and how to avoid going off the deep end.

  20. Skip Savage says:

    You said it, John. I can’t help but notice that authentic and honest portrayals dominate the Academy Awards every year, while visual effects are listed down there with sound and makeup.

    That reminds me of the previous post where you said, “The money is in the story,” That hit me square in the cortex. Story IS all, and although you don’t want a corny tag line, you must tell a story. As Warren Buffett pointed out, the markets pays a lot more to entertainers than it does to educators.

    About the topic of this post, if you watch the arrival and departure of fashions and trends, which no industry seems immune to, you see people scoffing at the new, admiring the recently new, and snickering at the ridiculous out-of-style thing.

    That’s life. No getting around it. My hunch is that we don’t even realize we’re being stylish most of the time, because we’re immersed in it.

    For example, my wife and I are about the same age, but we grew up in different cities. But one look at our high school annuals says we both graduated in the disco era. Was it that all the guys wanted to be John Travolta? And the girls, Farrah Fawcett-Majors? My point is, style is unconscious and probably can’t be avoided.

    Besides, where would antique appraisers be if they couldn’t recognize when a piece was made just by looking at it? No shame in accepting that design is also is subject to the unstoppable forces of fashion, even B&A back issues ;-).

    Put me down in favor of story first, art second, and style third.

  21. Amen. When I asked an Italian design firm to create my website and logo, I was very clear that I wanted these elements to precisely reflect who I was as a Voice Actor — electric, exciting, young with good range, stylish, and yet they needed to convey my 25+ years in the business. They created a simple-yet-strong logo with a slightly vintage Times Square backdrop that I think sums up my brand very well.

  22. Amber says:

    As others have said, when I’m working for a client, “unique” is not the point. I need to be communicating their message in a way that best speaks to their target audience. So far I don’t have any clients who would be well-served by something completely outside the norm. Maybe when I land a gig with Apple? Or whoever “the next Apple” might be?

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  24. Scot says:

    Nicely penned. Focus on the message, maintain the essential branding elements, and let the content drive the direction of the creative. As we used to impart to each of our prospective clients at one of the branding agencies I used to work at: “intelligent design must first successfully communicate your message before it can be beautiful.”

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