Improve your design skills: Make things with weirdos, not clients

Improve your design skills: Make things with weirdos, not clients

Justin Kemerling's Layout avatar

A random idea about a guy who drives from inside the city to a remote gravel road where he goes for a quick run. This became The Sprinter, a short film about freedom.

A random idea for a website of activist posters for people to download, print, and post up in their community. This became a graphic design democracy project called Power to the Poster.

A random idea about funny T-shirts that joke about how Nebraska is everywhere. This became NE Ts, the finest shirts about our great state where we invite you, the visitor, to swim in our oceans, climb our mountains, and meet our six-legged cows.

Throughout my career as a designer over the years, these and other ideas have occupied a good amount of my design time. For all their randomness, they do share a common thread: They don’t have clients. While their direct financial benefit is slim to none, these self-initiated, collaborative projects have become an important part of getting better at design.

Collaboration is so punk rock.


Photo courtesy of Justin Kemerling

I was in a punk band in college. We played shows at the Cog Factory in Omaha, Duffy’s in Lincoln, and in lots of basements. We wrote a bunch of songs over the years. How we made the music taught me a lot about turning nothing into something.

Sometimes it was a beat, a riff, or a chorus. A random idea you brought to the band. All the members, unified in a common vision, then worked on this idea together until it became something we could run with. The goal was to have a finished song, and we got there through collaboration. When it worked, one thing led to another, each thought amplified another thought, building and building, and the whole was better than its parts. And when it didn’t, it was contentious, frustrating, and annoying.

That process of making stuck with me from those punk rock days. Now, alongside client work, I always have to have something random happening, where ideas go back and forth and interesting collisions occur. It keeps the brain moving in different directions and can help get me unstuck if other client projects aren’t going anywhere.

Look for fellow makers, thinkers, and weirdos.


Photo courtesy of Justin Kemerling

We all have people we love working with. We may admire the work they do, they elevate our own ideas, they always deliver, and so on. For example, the projects I mentioned earlier were all co-created with Jason Hardy, a stellar creative maker who exists in a very similar sphere of ideating. We complement, push each other, and jive well. That’s not to say we don’t ever disagree, but there are similarities that make our collaborating highly fruitful.

Working with kindred spirits and other creative folks who are a little weird has been great practice for dealing with client relationships, especially ones that can be more challenging. You get comfortable with communicating ideas, fusing different perspectives, and seeking out honest feedback to make the final, realized idea the best it can be.

Make things that don’t need approval


Photo courtesy of Justin Kemerling

Following the creative brief to provide a solution to a problem is one way to design. But there’s also taking an initial idea and just jumping in. The idea can come from your Field Notes, a late night conversation in the bar, listening to the news, or walking the dog. There are times when you just have to make something  –  a poster, a t-shirt, a sticker.

Design when you aren’t making something that needs to be “approved” is interesting. You’re making it to exist. To be relevant, compelling, funny, thought-provoking, whatever. It’s a different kind of design, but it’s still design.

Making things over and over is the best way I know of to learn how to improve your design skills. You get into the rhythm of thinking and making where you’re comfortable with your ability to deliver. Then you can focus more on the needs of a client and make sure what you provide them appropriately solves their problem.

More personal/passion/side projects with others, please.


Photo courtesy of Justin Kemerling

Call them what you will, I want to see more of them from more and more designers, young and old. Not only are they opportunities to practice your own point of view as a designer, they help guide the types of paid clients you take on and can ultimately lead to your ideal, make-a-living job doing what you love. And these types of projects are opportunities to work with more creative people who can help teach you things you wouldn’t have learned on your own.

Get involved in a group of creatives putting on a community event, making an online store to sell t-shirts and prints, an art show to address issues in our society, or whatever it happens to be. When you’re a designer, you’re interested in pretty much everything, and designers are particularly well-suited to become their own culture creators.

Using technology, networks, and process skills, we as designers are in full control of making what we want to make. We don’t need to wait for the ideas to come in the door from a client. We can just do them. Participate in the culture, make our voices heard, and get better at the craft of design.

You’ll get better — I promise.


Photo courtesy of Justin Kemerling

Because of self-initiated, collaborative projects, I got better at kerning. I got better at seeing the big picture. I got better at recognizing when an idea I had wasn’t very good. I learned how to keep a project moving, how to have ownership in the work, and why opening the project up to collaboration gets me to a place I never would have reached on my own.

Because of these projects, people notice. And more and more client work comes in the door.

Comments ( 3 )

  1. Thomas Ritchie

    August 14, 2014

    Great piece - good advice, too. Thanks for sharing. TR

  2. Caleb

    September 2, 2014

    Wow, Justin really articulates the sometimes murky practice of play, exploration and collaboration. Looking back, it's what has kept me inspired, recharged, equipped and open to possibilities.

  3. Richard

    May 10, 2015

    Yes! Although to be fair I don't know anyone truly creative who needs any encouragement to just make neat stuff for the sake of it.

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