The process of discovering who you are as an artist and developing your own unique style is a challenging one. Over the course of your career your work is always evolving, but that first moment when it finally “clicks” can be especially elusive. As if it weren’t hard enough, the very sources you find for motivation and inspiration, can also discourage and lead you astray.
Early in my career, I had a very hard time overcoming the gap between the style of work I liked vs the style of work that came most natural to me. My entry point into design took place in the grunge era of the 90s. I was a fan of designers like Margo Chase, Rick Valicenti, Carlos Segura and Charles S. Anderson. The general trend of this period was rebellious and experimental, exploring the deconstruction of traditional clean grids and typography.
Next to this dark punk vibe, my work looked so cartoonish and playful. As I continued to hone my craft, I kept veering off into detours of exploring and imitating these trends. It took me some time before I eventually accepted and embraced my natural skill. This path of discovery taught me several lessons I’d like to dissect in this post.
1. The trap of imitation
Analyzing how other designers/illustrators solve problems can be very a fruitful learning process. There are plenty lessons to be gained including understanding tools and new techniques, methods to problem solving, mistakes to avoid, discovering fresh perspectives, etc. If you find yourself taking bits and pieces of the things you learn and incorporate them into your craft, this can be a healthy way of learning. But, if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to tip the scale into copying others, chasing trends and ignoring your own talents.
2. Comparing apples to oranges
When you’re first starting out, it’s incredibly easy to get discouraged comparing your work to other, very polished portfolios. Even a seasoned pro can fall prey to feeling like a hack looking at all the incredible talent out there. It’s a particularly difficult trap for the young designer who is still trying to discover their voice and whose skills are still maturing. It’s easy to forget that once upon a time, a designer whose work you admire had to start from somewhere. Before they could build those killer pieces, their early work began crude and unrefined compared to what you see today. Sharpening your skills and craft takes time, don’t be discouraged by those that have already invested that time.
3. Fighting against the grain
This lesson expands well beyond your craft, it can apply to many aspects of life. When you cut against the grain of who you are, you keep from realizing your full potential and increase the chances of underperforming. My worst project experiences were ones that asked me to be something I am not. I learned long ago it is better to decline those requests than to deliver a poor result. Instead, learn your own unique strengths and natural talents, and focus your efforts toward nurturing and developing those skills. Be the best you you can be. Work with the attributes that come most natural to you and you will blaze your own trail to success.
If you’re trying to find your “style”, this is the best advice I can give. Stop looking outward for the answers. Instead, search inward. Shut out all the noise of trend, the distractions of someone else’s cool portfolio, the advice to be something you’re not, and embrace what makes you uniquely you. Because nobody can be better at you, then you. Once you make that discovery, you’ll find that elusive moment when it finally “clicks”. And when it does, your development will accelerate and your skills will sharpen and refine.
Remember, this is your path. No one is going to make you get on it. There isn’t any reason to wait for the right project or the perfect client to begin this journey. All you need to do is grab your tools and make something.