Recently, a fairly well known designer bemoaned the practice of designers not working on “real” projects, implying a line between what he’d classify “actual” and “fake” work. He lamented those designing for the sake of practice and/or experimentation—classifying it as more a scourge than a validated form of artistic expression. He even posited a solution for designers who don’t have the work they desire of working for a nonprofit and not feeling the obligation to actually show your work while boasting a verbose portfolio of his own with several high profile clients. Ignoring the prescriptive nature of the post itself, what stood out most to me was its open lambasting of designers who don’t yet have the clientele they desire and offering a somewhat crippling solution. As if he could somehow filter what design was worthy of publishing, be it Facebook or Nike etc., and what design wasn’t fit for the web.
If you’re not taking the opportunity to put yourself out there and, dare I say, “fake” designing for projects that weren’t commissioned, you’re missing out on the valuable opportunity to challenge yourself in new, more creative ways. When I had just started illustrating, I took to getting my hands dirty multiple times a week—work that wasn’t commissioned. Work that no one was asking for. It was done for the sake of experimentation. It was done FOR the sake of attracting prospective clients. And it worked.
Your clients aren’t going to know what it is you’re capable of unless you show them. In my experience, there aren’t too many designers that have been hired to work on a highly trafficked product by looks alone or a really nice “About Me” section. That whole adage about missing all the shots you never take, while admittedly hokey, is admittedly true. You don’t sit back with an empty portfolio and wait for the clients to pour in.
I’d theorize that most of the fuss about this “fake” design is really based on the unadulterated possibilities of pleasing only oneself. With client work, you’re inundated with the specific needs of said client. You have CEOs and prospective customers to make happy. With self-initiated work, you’re free to tackle your process any way you wish. Perhaps some designers who are too busy with “real” work feel that they’re competing with an impossible bar where “fake” designers can propose and publish any solution—even if it dips into a compromise for aesthetics over functionality. That’s going to have to be your call.
It’s your responsibility to make time to work on projects that aren’t reliant on a paycheck—even when you do get a steady workload of clients. Those projects that merely stretch you to create solutions for problems that no one is paying you to solve. Maybe just to create an homage to a particular piece of fiction you hold on high. Truth is, you don’t have to wait for an inquiry to do something you’ve always wanted to do.
There’s absolutely a time to “ship it”. Take advantage of those opportunities when there isn’t.
That being said, there’s a clear difference between self-initiated work and work that riffs off an original design. If you want to discover how a design works, you can take it upon yourself to build it, but in those cases, don’t publish it. Learn from it, don’t claim it as your own.