Design Versatility

This year I designed for some new platforms (iPhone, Symfony) that interested me. I considered whether I should learn to design on platforms which don’t interest me to diversify my skills or surprise myself.

I also considered whether it was smarter to market myself as a designer of WordPress-based sites, specifically, or a jack-of-all trades open to anything. I thought about what clients like to see in a portfolio vs. what I wanted to show.

One question I wonder each year is this:

Is it more attractive when designers can…

a) design like a chameleon in any style or genre appropriate to the project, or
b) design over a period of years in a consistent, signature style

What designers out there qualify for each of these categories? Which marry the two effectively? I’d love to know what others think, from the perspective of both fellow designers and people who have been in a client’s position.

  • David Perel

    I also ask myself this question everyday. Some time last year I asked my readers a similar question and the response was mixed.

    The majority of the people said that if you stick to one style you can become ‘out of date’ so to speak.

    I disagree though and believe that if you can master one style you become the go-to-guy when the moment arises. You can build your brand around your particular skill.

    • Darren

      True. I think if your signature style is strong and you adapt well to change, your style won’t likely looked dated. I would say David Carson’s work has changed slightly, but it still looks like his own.

      • neo


  • Nick Dominguez

    I think most well known designers on the web are known for their “signature styles” but I’ve always admired the designer that could tackle any style and execute it really well. This in my experience is what I was taught in design school. I’m not entirely sure if this is a good metaphor or not but I always think of the great actors that take on very different roles and just nail them perfectly. I’d be happy if I could look back at my work and see variety and not just one certain style executed every time.

    • Darren

      Good point about actors, the best ones are recognized for their ability to disappear into a character. If someone with an identifiable style like Dan Cederholm switched gears and designed something radically different as this, I think I’d be doubly impressed.

  • Octavio Corral

    For sure its more attractive when a designer has a consistent, signature style because it looks ‘really cool’, but the reality is that unless you’re doing highly artistic work for print ads, you should prob stick to designing like a chameleon.

    It is our job as designers to communicate with clients and extract what makes them unique. I doesn’t make sense just copying and pasting your style to every industry that approaches you. (unless they specifically want that).

    A) feels like contracting to solve a problem through design

    B) feels like commission an artist for a painting

    • Darren

      (unless they specifically want that).

      Not as common, but I know there are businesses that handpick well-known designers specifically for their signature style because it lends them a bit of credibility by association.

  • Yaili

    This is an interesting question, and I don’t think there is a right answer to it.

    I feel that the best designers usually have their own style, even if it’s quite subtle and hardly noticeable in some instances — there is always something of their own that they added to the work. And when I don’t immediately recognize one of their work, when I finally look at it, I will usually say “Ah, now I see it.”

    While artists have usually a more evident personal style, designers go through their professionals paths adapting their work to the requirements. Artists don’t do that. But we both evolve throughout the years and, in my opinion, we both walk towards a style, or a way of working even, that is adapted to ourselves.

    Thanks for bringing this question up — I may write a proper blog post in reply.

    • Darren

      While artists have usually a more evident personal style, designers go through their professionals paths adapting their work to the requirements. Artists don’t do that.

      I envy that. I know traditional artists develop a personal style over time, but the path to developing it is pretty different than a commercial designer. I used to play and record a lot of music and loved being free to play in and out of whatever phase felt right at the time, not be held to anyone’s expectations about style. Of course, I never had a record label or a large audience to please ;)

      Thanks for bringing this question up — I may write a proper blog post in reply.

      Do it!

  • David

    Starting out every designer wants to be able to land every client they meet. So being able to adapt into character as someone put it becomes attractive to the client. What I’ve seen from some of the top designers is the ability to have there own style… as well as set trends for others to follow while still being able to adapt as the situation arises, sort of like a painter leaving his signature hidden in plain view of sorts.

    In the end it really is left up to the designer to choose what path they really want to take but often times we as designers are often forced into various paths just to make ends meet.

    As the saying goes do what you love and you will never have to work again ends up proving itself right each and every time.

  • Jauhari

    I think the most important is ….
    The Design That Work, Happy for client happy for designer ;)

  • Daus

    I don’t think those two questions is a “polarized” questions. A good designer can have their own signature style, while still managed to update the trends. The best examples are Khoi Vinh, Mike Kus, or Jason Santa Maria.

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  • gfrederick

    I think the answer largely depends on your situation. If you freelance or own your own firm, there is benefit to an identifiable style. If you’re on staff somewhere, you might be expected to handle whatever the day brings.

    It’s not completely and either/or question. Even versatile staff designers absorbed wholly into the needs of their projects will develop a signature approach. It’s all part of perspective and personal growth.

    I’ve been an art director for twenty years. I’ve never hired a staffer who could do only one thing, and I’ve never hired a freelancer that did a little bit of everything.

    • Darren

      Very good point about working freelance vs working on a team. If you’re freelance, that distinct personal style can certainly be part of how you advertise and charge since your ‘stamp’ is part of what they’re getting.

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  • Jason

    In my experience, the designs i work on are for a need the client has, or recently i work up the clients idea’s to suit the media. So very little is left for a signature style, and frankly most of it is difficult to use as a portfolio piece.

    Also jumping from industry to industry i notice that clients mostly want to see work with a similar theme to their particular project, for instance the Heavy Metal band cares very little for the Tractor Sales Brochure that was pure genius.

    Looking back at the my own body of work over the years, the only consistent pattern i can see is the clients needs / wants / desires.

    As much as i would love to have a signature visual style as a designer, the chameleon approach is the only economically viable option for me personally. But that is why we all have the pet projects where we go mad on from time to time.

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