the 5 pillars of great design (in my opinion)

1.Design to create value

When I decided to go to school for fashion design, the general feedback I received was how are you going to make money. To them, design wasn’t defined as something that provides enough value to be a legitimate career path and way to earn a living.

I’m here to tell you that is totally false.

Fashion designers create value in a variety of ways. Whether you’re creating a technical solution like a rainproof shell jackets for hiking, a fit solution like a new curvy fit jean for customers with unique proportions, an outfitting solution like a perfect cropped top for super-hight waisted jeans, or making someone feel great about themselves, you are creating value!

A great designer empathizes with the customer, has a sense of what they need or want, and creates products that resonate with them. This is the structure of creating value: fulfilling needs and desires. Whenever you create value, you are compensated. This is a law of nature. 

While training to become a fashion designer, you learn a variety of technical skills, but the most valuable thing you learn is how to think in terms of perceiving needs and creating value. This is a mindset and a skill that will make you successful wherever you go, regardless of the industry. 

2.Sharpen your lens

The thing is, unless you’re a magic genie, you can’t fulfill all needs. This is where focus becomes the greatest asset to a designer. Attempting too many creative solutions at once weakens focus and impact in one particular area.

The more you can zero in on a specific population, or target market/ customer, the more you understand and can empathize with them, the better positioned you are to be able to deliver high quality, life enhancing product to that specific group. In short, know your customer, and be intentional with your time and design. 

Every decision you make about every step of the design process: silhouette, fabric choice, neckline shape, length, etc will be originating from a data point about your customer. The more data points available to you, the better chance you will be able to design something that resonates with your customer. 

In fashion school, one of the first projects assigned to us was to create a target customer profile. I remember feeling a little lost, like I had to pull a person out of thin air. I ended up assigning my “customer” an arbitrary age, occupation, and income, then designed a meaningless collection based on a phantom person. The collection stunk because it wasn’t grounded in a reality. 

I suggest not making anything up. If you’re not sure, walk the path of discovery. Try picking a company that resonates with you and find out everything about their target customer. Visit the store, read customer reviews, research their collection for visual cues about the customers age, socioeconomic background, aspirations, etc. 

This is good practice for when you’re in the industry—whether you’re working for small or large brands, or have your own company—there is always work to be done understanding your customer. Even if you’ve totally nailed it with understanding your customer—it’s only temporary. Your customer grows up, they evolve. Companies fail because they think their customer is exactly the same as ten years ago. They fail to stay relevant by neglecting their customer. 

Students and beginners often start designing for themselves. It’s a seamless process, as we know ourselves best. Eventually, it’s a good practice to design for a muse or company with a slightly different customer and aesthetic than your own. This will teach you to adapt and flex the empathy muscle. 

Not everyone is capable or willing to design for a specific customer. This is something that takes practice, skill, and humility. Having the ability to design for a variety of customers will make you a more professional, versatile, and creative designer.

3.Hone your point of view

If you have your own brand, and that brand is a direct result of your personal aesthetic, your point of view will be pure and unfiltered. The reality is that most designers will work for a few different brands as a career, or they will work for different brands before starting their own company. Because of this, it’s important to learn how to balance personal aesthetic with the aesthetic of the brand you’re designing for.

 I have to admit, because I started working for brands early as a student, I delayed cultivating my own aesthetic. I mistakingly thought denying my personal preferences made me a greater asset because my whole self was available to serve the customer of the company I was working for.  It took me a while to give myself permission to privately indulge in fantasy and cultivate my own aesthetic.

It sounds contradictory but increasing awareness of my personal preferences gave me greater power and precision over professional design decisions. Without boundaries, or the ability to separate professional from personal, I was more likely to act on instinct in situations where it was not appropriate. For example, I naturally prefer more androgynous silhouettes but the customer might prefer feminine silhouettes. Because I’m aware of the disconnect between my personal aesthetic and the aesthetic of the brand, I’m not unconsciously going to assert my aesthetic on the customer. If I do, it will be done conscientiously and under the right circumstances. Because I’m aware that I am biased, I can overcome it and design objectively.

The thing is, your inner nature and personal aesthetic is inside you, waiting to develop. There is no sense denying it. It will rear it’s head unexpectedly and beyond your awareness, where it has the potential to affect your work negatively. 

When cultivated, your personal aesthetic is your greatest asset. Your personal aesthetic filtered through the lens of your target customer is your unique point of view. A collection designed with a pure algorithmic approach that pleases every data point of your customer, void of creativity and gut instinct, lacks luster.

4.Develop a critical eye 

As visual people, we often can sense when a design doesn’t “feel right.” It takes practice and skill to be able to identify which element or combination of elements are interfering with the harmony of a design. The ability to identify issues and communicate those issues, whether it’s a fit, fabric, design detail, or sewing issue, is one of the most important skills as a designer. After all, good design is a series of successful edits.

If you work on a team, your ability to identify and effectively communicate issues in a product will help mobilize the entire team to find solutions. For example, if the product looks too flimsy, the silhouette is too boxy, and the sewing workmanship is sub-standard, the fabric team can source heavier weight fabric, the tech team can make fit edits, and the pre-production team can advise better sewing wokmanship or find a new factory.

Developing a critical eye is essential to design and can be practiced anytime. When viewing or trying on a garment, explore which element or combination of elements are displeasing to you. Is the fabric appropriate for the design? Is the pocket too small? The neck too high? The rib height too long. How much shorter should it be? 1”? 2”

As a designer, you have permission be critical. Lean into that. Beauty is in the details and sometimes 1” makes all the difference. 

5.Seek feedback

I’ve designed some true stinkers, and you will too. The point is not to get it right every time, but to learn each time and improve. 

For that reason, I think customer reviews are a goldmine. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain reviews that can be dismissed, but generally you’re customers knows what’s up. If they don’t like something, listen and find out why. 

After a collection launches on the website, I wait with angst for a week and then look at every review. I do this periodically through the garments lifespan on the web. This is an amazing, high return on investment opportunity.  As a beginner or student, you are privy to the same feedback loops as designers. When you’re online shopping, why not read reviews to learn more about how consumers shop and their criteria for good or bad reviews. 

Customers will offer priceless insight. They will call out fit, design, fabric, and outfitting issues and may even post photos. Hearing your customers feedback, will make you more critical, discerning, and connected. 

Most importantly, when your customer has a voice and a face, it makes the work more personal and meaningful.

summary

Creating life-enhancing products to a specific population, honing your personal aesthetic and unique point of view, developing a critical eye and communicating edits, and lastly, regularly seeking feedback from your customers will make you a successful designer.