Steph Doyle, Author at CINQ Creative

5 Habits That Can Help Build Professional Relationships

Illustration by Steph Doyle

As I have grown throughout my career, I have discovered that there is a consistent pattern to employing habits that have lead to my success—not only in my professional life—but in my personal life as well.  I am happy to share this list of 5 habits that have helped me to grow professionally and build lasting relationships with those I engage.  It is my hope that by sharing these habits, they can help you too!

1. Be Natural

“By being natural and sincere, one often can create revolutions without having sought them.”
― Christian Dior

One of the hardest things to do in our profession is to be natural. It’s hard to not pretend to be something that we’re not when faced with so much competition. By being natural, it allows us to build sincere partnerships that benefit those we work and associate with. Taking a genuine, thoughtful and honest approach to creative challenges and problem solving allows for many positive outcomes that may go way beyond what we originally intended. Being natural also allows us to openly explore ideas that can reach beyond the scope of expectation and leading us to gratification while inspiring those around us. As mentioned in Dior’s quote, we can create revolutions serendipitously by just being natural.

Illustration by Steph Doyle

2. Listen

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
― Stephen R. Covey

God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak. That is what my mother always told me when I never listened to her. And she makes a valid point. How can we as professional communicators offer creative solutions without knowing all the variables surrounding a defined problem? Listening more and speaking less allows us to absorb the details being presented, and also the time to think critically about what’s being said. Effective listening takes practice and determination to not be so eager to get our two-cents worth into the conversation. Listening and then digesting what’s been said before speaking can lead to clear understanding, stronger relationships, fewer mistakes and less wasted time—and it can save us from that proverbial headache in the future.

Illustration by Steph Doyle

3. Be Vulnerable

“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”
― Criss Jami

Criticism is a tough pill to swallow, but it can be an effective method in measuring results. Dealing with critique of our work is never easy. On the contrary, creative thinkers are generally convinced that their way is the only way. We feel we have put our heart and soul into the work. How can someone find fault with it? I have seen it all too often when a discussion amongst creative thinkers soon becomes contentious due to critical observation of their work. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Opening ourselves up to the whole picture, and not just seeing it from the creative side but from an outside perspective as well, strengthens our understanding of the feedback we receive. Rather it is positive, or negative feedback, making ourselves vulnerable can lead to empathy and clarity, which leads us to implementing the right solution and benefiting all those involved in the process. Through this experience we become stronger and better equipped to handle future conflicts with thoughtful and inspiring results. So Nietzsche is right! That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

Illustration by Steph Doyle

4. Be Courageous

“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
― Muhammad Ali

The status quo should never be our benchmark! Implementing methods that go against mundane paradigms will often led to successful results and often open the door to collaborative exchanges. Generally we are asked to create things that are safe and likely predictable. Don’t be afraid to explore outside of your comfort zone and present ideas that break away from cliché boundaries. And be prepared to go to battle in the likely event that these concepts are quickly discounted without much thought. Be courageous in your presentation and have plenty of research to back up your pitch. If done with genuine confidence, progressive ideas and new perspectives will come out of this conflict and will lead to a better solution for all involved. Once you have accomplished your mission, take a deep breath, get yourself a comfort drink, and quietly celebrate your victory.

Illustration by Steph Doyle

5. Be Direct

“Nothing travels faster than light, with the possible exception of bad news, which follows its own rules”
― Douglas Adams

Being the bearer of bad news is disheartening and necessary. In the end, the truth never hurts. We must take pride in being direct and upfront with all parties involved in the effort, even if something has gone wrong. To reduce the sting of being direct, thoughtfully explain what went wrong and how you responded to them. Don’t offer false hope. Offer a solution that will address the problem and get the project moving forward. In the end, offer your gratitude. A genuine word of thanks creates a context of goodwill and may help to keep the relationship intact.


The most important message to take way from these habits is that of relationship building. We must value them as a part of our creative equity and strive to keep the dialog open with clients, colleagues and partners long after projects have gone out the door. A philosophy evolving around positive and open relationships with a goal to build and sustain effective communication will always lead toward continuous and successful results.

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The Importance of Experimental Work

Idea Garden - © Steph Doyle

Is Design Art?

Through my many years of being lucky enough to have a job that I truly enjoy, I have discovered the importance of experimental work and the role it plays in developing creative expression and sometimes problem solving for future projects. If you ask any working designer if they work on paid projects that let them truly stretch their artistic wings, most will answer no. A majority of the work we do has to be relevant to our client’s message and therefore most of the work has a very narrow margin for expressive creativity. Graphic design after all, is about effective communication rather than free artistic expression. This is the argument I hear from many seasoned professionals in our industry and I tend to agree with this statement to a certain degree. So to answer the question—Is design art?  I would have to answer—maybe.

A Creative Outlet

Experimental work is important as part of our professional development and can be an effective outlet to lead to some interesting results which otherwise would not occur within the normal scope of a paid project. The creative process requires some type of motivation to set a designer on fire. A designer’s fuel is passion. Without it, the creative engine will stall.

All too often searching for inspiration through the work of other designers or artists may lead to duplicating concepts or techniques rather than pushing an idea beyond the original intent. I am reading all the time where designers are complaining about how other designers have duplicated their concepts through the practice of scouring the internet for visual references. Experimentation can be counter to this practice and usually most outcomes give rise to an effective tool for inspiration. When experimentation has no specified outcome or deadline, the pressure is off and many accidents may end up as something stellar.

Starbucks Doodle Cup - © Steph Doyle

The Process

The process I use follows a few basic guidelines that I try to stick with.

Move along, nothing to see! Move along! When developing something tangible from my eccentric and often obsessive random thoughts, I find that when I start from inside Adobe Illustrator®, I end up staring at a blank page until I am either distracted, or bored to death. This usually ends with me surfing the internet or reading email and heading way off of the originally intended path. I don’t use the computer as tool until I am ready to do the finished work and prepare for presentation.

2. Start with good ol’ pencil and paper

Old fashioned you say? You bet! I find that doodling out my thoughts with pencil to paper to be liberating. Scratching out lines or geometric shapes, unintended squiggles, and even text in No.2 graphite can lead to some great inspiration. One rule I always impose on myself during this exercise is to never erase anything. I will cover the complete sheet of paper with ideas until I run out of precious wood pulp real estate. So make sure you have plenty of paper.

Zebra - © Steph Doyle

3. The first idea isn’t always the best

Seeds take time to germinate. So should ideas. The practice of pushing an idea to almost the absurd can lead to many new discoveries. Some of which you had never considered when you initially started. I remember a project I once started that was supposed to be a racehorse and ended up becoming a zebra composed of lightning bolts. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and push ideas beyond your core of experience.  Seeing this evolution on paper can be very inspiring and will spawn many new ideas and concepts beyond your original intention.

4. Share and seek out collaboration

Sharing is interacting. One form of experimental work I have been involved in was to participate as a part of a creative group. One group I enjoyed in particular was the HOWiezine Project. This project started back in the good old days of website forums, namely the HOW Design forum. The objective was to create a page within a specified template and around a single word or topic. The first “zine” I participated in was Pirates. There are many other groups or sites that offer this type of outlet.

Here are just a few I participate in:

Pirates - © Steph Doyle

5. Stretch your wings and fly

It’s okay to fly high, just don’t get too close to the sun. I think the most rewarding part of doing experimental work is seeing the finished product in action. Many of the pieces I have composed over time have led to recognition in one form or another. Other works have brought out some not so constructive critique. One thing I have to keep in mind when presenting my work is to keep my ego in check. Experimental work can be quite a bit more expressive than the graphic design work we do professionally. It’s hard to not let your passion cloud your judgment of others responding to your work. By keeping a level head, you will be doing yourself a service and will flourish among your peers and professional colleagues.

So get out there and break the sound barrier with that idea you’ve kept bottled up for forever. I’m sure the experimental piece you come up with will be stellar! And please, share it with me. I would love to see what you come up with.

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5 Reasons Why You Should Hire a Professional Designer

photo credit: owlhere via photopin cc
photo credit: owlhere via photopin cc

Have you ever tried to fix something in your home that maybe you shouldn’t have?
Just recently I had a pipe burst in my house in the second story bathroom.  And rather than call a professional plumber to fix it, I decided I could do it myself. How hard could it be to piece together a few pipes inside the wall? Well, after turning the light fixture in my kitchen into an amazing waterfall, and a few thousand dollars later in floor and ceiling repairs, the pipe was fixed. By a professional I might add. Had I have called the plumber in the first place, the repairs would have only cost me a few hundred dollars. Lesson learned!

I am seeing this same do-it-yourself practice in small business when it comes to their marketing efforts, mainly in the area of visual communication. Many business owners are doing their own graphic design while at the same time trying to run operations.

They have PowerPoint and a huge amount of clip art with hundreds of free fonts. Or they buy a logo for 50 bucks and stick it on everything. But somehow their effort never looks the way they intended it to look.

Often the end result of this time consuming chore gives off the impression that the business itself isn’t all that professional.  Due to the damaging visual perception of their efforts, targeted customers or clients are now moving on to the competition with the professional presentation. In the end, the price of doing-it-yourself will cost much more than if a professional graphic designer had been called on.

Here are five reasons it’s best to hire, or even consult with a professional designer

1. Designers don’t just make pretty things

Is it design, or decoration? There is a strategic path a designer takes to effectively convey your message visually to those you desire doing business with. Positive perception is everything! A first impression is a lasting impression and in today’s fast moving world, you don’t get a second chance. Before anything is created, a professional designer must first know the product or service you’re selling, the culture of your business, internal and external perceptions, and truly understanding your targeted market and competition. This is just a small sample of the research that goes into exploration and developing concepts that work.

2. Designers know the rules

No, we’re not talking about a certain set of design laws that can’t be broken or else the world will go up in flames. We are talking about the thoughtful use of design theory and principles, grids and ratios, psychology and color theory, and the skillful use of type to pull elements together that will reinforce a message and build brand loyalty.  This professional knowledge and experience goes into building effective visual solutions that will ensure you stand out from the competition and attract potential customers and clients to your business.

3. Designers are pragmatic

Information hierarchy is king! From a pragmatic standpoint, a professional designer is concerned with the “how” and defining “when” things happen, and in what desired order. There are also many variables that affect outcomes since logic and intuition interplay with one another. A professional designer can narrow these outcomes down to a practical solution that will successfully return the best results.

4. Designers see through the visual clutter

Have you ever heard the term, “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” With the heavily media saturated world we now live in, it’s becoming more of a challenge to remember even one of the thousands of brands that are throwing their logo at you from every direction. A majority of these icons are unremarkable and equate to nothing more than visual clutter. Many business owners have a vested bias toward these works they themselves designed so it’s difficult to see not just the faults but also the strengths of having their visual marketing done professionally. Design professionals offer an objective vision to assist in developing strong concepts that will stand out in this visual clutter, revealing the best design solution for marketing your products or services.

5. Designers help you to clearly realize your vision

Use a designer’s vision to realize yours. Professional designers can creatively take your vision and bring out strong visual concepts that will reinforce the message and communicate it clearly to your intended audience. Business owners have enough to worry about when it comes down to improving their bottom line. Hiring a professional designer can take the burden off their marketing efforts and help to articulate a positive perception with strength and clarity to the right crowd. A professional designer can also be a trusted adviser and partner, building long-term and lasting relationships that can benefit the business owner for many years to come.

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Why We Don’t Do Spec Work

Spec work and spec-based design contests are a growing concern within the graphic design profession.  With this ever-growing problem manifesting itself with presidential campaigns, book publishers, and large retailers buying into the crowd source and design done on spec, I thought I would write to those interested in working with, or for us, and explain why we don’t participate in this valueless practice.

What is spec?

No!Spec logoFirst we need to understand what spec work is.  According the site NO!SPEC, “spec work has become the short form for any work done on a speculative basis.” In other words, any requested work for which a fair and reasonable fee or compensation for time has not been agreed upon, preferably in writing. An example would be when a designer is asked to provide a sample composition of a defined project without a written agreement for compensation of their time and work.

What’s so wrong with that you ask?

It gives us the impression that those requesting design on spec view our time as worthless, to have no perceived value other than free promotion for their own gain. Often with the risk of having our ideas and solutions retooled with no compensation or credit for our efforts.

Andy Rutledge, a successful designer in Texas states,

“Spec work does not make a professional name for the designer or firm that participates in this unethical practice. Rather, it solidifies a reputation for being perceived as a valueless provider.”

Overall, the impact this practice has on our profession is detrimental in that business owners get the impression that graphic design is a cheap and easy commodity. The service the design profession provides is, in fact, just the opposite.

Every problem is unique

Professional graphic design is about creating strategic solutions to specific problems, not cliché concepts based on a short brief that has little or no content relevant to the client’s business.  The value of design lays in the ideas and solutions generated to solve specific problems.

Approaches to problems need to be thoroughly researched and evaluated before a tangible concept can be born. Without a comprehensive understanding of the business or the content, any design presented at that point is mere decoration, being convenient stand-ins for real ideas and genuine skill. Presenting real ideas and well thought out concepts is what the true professional gets paid for. So to ask for design samples done on spec is asking for work to be presented without compensation.

What about the promise of fame?

We are tenured design professionals with years of proven successful results behind us. Doing work on spec isn’t going to launch us into fame because we did it for XYZ Company for free. In fact, we view doing this type of work as having the opposite effect. The perception that our time and effort have no actual value is not where we want to be. With this type of fame, there is no fortune, just a mired reputation.

What about pro bono?

Pro Bono work is based on a formal agreement between the designer and the client. Most projects involve a firm belief or desire on the part of the designer to volunteer services to non-profits, churches, and other social programs that offer outcomes that the designer is passionate about.

In these cases, projects are approached in the same professional manner as if they were paying clients. Even with these projects, there is some form of equity for the designer or firm that participate in the practice of pro bono work.

So what’s the best approach?

An effective way to decide if you want to work with a specific designer or firm is to take the following steps:

  1. Look at their portfolio. Does their work represent the type of solutions that would align well with your business’ objectives? Is the work professionally executed and communicate well, or is it just trendy decoration?
  2. Set up a meeting. This is a great time to get to know the personality and thought processes of the professional to determine if they would be a good fit for the project. How well do they take criticism? Be aware of their mannerisms like eye contact and how well they articulate ideas.
  3. Ask for references. Testaments from past clients can offer great insight concerning the process and obstacles that may have come up during their project and how they were dealt with in a professional manner.


Please remember that graphic design is a practiced discipline based on years of formal training and the professional development of creative talent to help others communicate their messages effectively. Viewing designers as fellow business owners can make it easier to see that our time too, has significant value in the market place.

For more about the graphic design profession and the opinions of other professionals concerning spec work, please visit NO!SPEC, the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA), the Graphic Artist’s Guild (GAG), and the Design Management Institute (DMI).

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