Mike Dicks (aka Descience) has long been a champion of flat design. He’s mastered the cohesive look, crafting everything from logos and icons to book covers and postcards. As a self-taught freelancer, the UK native works an eclectic set of jobs with a focus on design, checking in on 99designs nearly every day and selling prints and greeting cards locally inspired by iconic music.
We spoke with him about his top tips for fellow designers, why design is important, and how to separate great work from the mediocre. Check it out.
Name: Mike Dicks
99designs profile: Descience
Location: Brighton, UK
How did you learn design?
I’m a self-taught designer. I did study art and what we called “technical drawing” at school, but ended up leaving early to work with computers. I found myself selling PC’s and discovered that I could use them to design, then used my design skills to sell them to advertising agencies and marketing departments.
My career (as I loosely call the various jobs I got, then lost) took me off towards the media and digital storytelling. I secretly used my design skills to make better PowerPoints or pitch documents and kept it as a hobby, designing cards for family birthdays and posters for school events.
A couple of years ago, circumstances led me to turn to these skills again as a source of income and I’ve worked hard to improve them every day. I sometimes wish I’d gone to college to learn the basics earlier on, but I think my style has benefited from real commercial exposure and an understanding of various businesses.
Describe your design style.
I like simple, flat and minimalist design. Design that conveys a message in an iconic way, that is funny, different or unexpected. Less is often more in design terms.
How do you get your inspiration?
I like to gather styles and ideas from everywhere. I find myself looking at signs, shops and trucks all the time, trying to work out why a logo or brand works or often doesn’t work. I visit art galleries when I can and look through design sites and magazines, but these days it’s mainly from the web that I find inspiration.
Do your surroundings impact your design style?
Yes, I live in Buckinghamshire and work in Brighton; two very different areas of the U.K. I am constantly inspired by Brighton. It’s an incredibly creative city and its sky, beach and sea can’t help but make you feel creative. Also, its a bustling seaside town where the posters and signs are designed to attract your attention.
Buckinghamshire is quiet, leafy and very BRITISH. To be honest, I find it much less inspiring. I have lots of reasons to be in London (I live 20 mins away) and places like Shoreditch and Soho cannot fail to give you fresh ideas.
Are there any other mediums or forms of art you like to work in?
I’ve recently started selling prints and greetings cards of some of my designs—specifically of Brighton and a series of illustrations of iconic music. I’ve spent a career making web and social digital content, but the rewards of seeing your work in a gallery or on the shelves of a card shop are far better than a few likes on Facebook.
Are you a freelancer or do you have a full time job?
I’m freelance. I have an eclectic set of things I do to earn a living—increasingly and pleasingly the majority comes from design or art and I like that.
I’ve never enjoyed having a boss. I think I’ve always had a rebellious chip on my shoulder that struggles with authority. So freelancing suits me, but it is insecure by its very nature and certainly isn’t an easy option. As a freelancer you have to be your own sales and marketing team, accounts team and make your own coffee. I drink gallons of coffee.
What do you think is the most important part of the design process?
A good brief is important, and in its absence a good period of finding out about the client, their market and what they do and don’t like. The briefs I avoid are the ones that say, “You’re the creative. Do anything you like.” Design is best when it’s done within a few restrictions. Understanding what a client wants gives you the opportunity to break those restrictions and try new ideas based on their needs and help them to be a part of the creative process.
I’d add that the moment of inspiration is also important. Once you have information from the brief—and you’ve sat and thought about it for a while—the first idea that comes to you is often the best. The only reason it might not be chosen is often your inability to deliver it in the way it popped into your head.
What led you to start using 99designs?
I was diagnosed with cancer a while ago—luckily not a deadly one. It slowed me down a lot and eventually led to me having to go through chemotherapy. I decided to drop the more active parts of my work, and find a way to make money at my desk.
I found 99designs somehow, I guess through a random search, and gave it a go. It gave me a lot of confidence. I think I won a competition fairly early on, and it provided me with access to an endless supply of potential clients around the world.
I love the fact that you are simply judged on the quality of your work, not the BS you spout in a pitch. And I’ve learnt a lot from the forums and the constant creative challenges.
Currently, how often do you use 99designs?
I check in every day. And unless I’m away from my PC, I try to enter at least one competition a day.
It’s a bit of an addiction really, checking how a competition is going or finding a new challenge. If I have a big project on for a client, I tend to visit less. But if I get a creative block, or I want to procrastinate over something, I’ll do a quick entry or two.
What is the best thing that’s come out of working with 99designs?
Access to potential clients that you’d otherwise not even know were in the market for a design.
I’ve honed my design skills entering competitions and recently that has changed my life completely – because a series of cartoons I do about my dog, Scrabble, have been commissioned as a book that launches around the world in February 2017 you can find out more here.
What kinds of client relationships have you built? Feel free to share specific relationships.
My favorite client is a Harvard Professor who ran a contest to see if designers could depict the concept of “Average” in a unique way. I loved the challenge of that and came up with a simple design that the client chose as the winner, which led to us collaborating on a dozen designs for their book in which I got a credit.
I still get requests from teachers and speakers asking for permission to use my images in their lectures – which is a real thrill.
What are your 3 tips for designers who want to build their clientele and skills from 99designs?
1. Be picky. Choose clients and projects that you’re interested in, and that you believe you can do within your style.
2. Be Regular. Try to enter 2-3 contests a day to some extent this is a numbers game and it’s the only way to get a sustained income
3. Don’t do cliché. Develop your own style, don’t copy others and don’t do the obvious solution
Why do you think design is important?
Without it (or with bad design) things are either bland, ugly or ineffective
With it (or with great design) things are interesting, beautiful and effective
How would you sum up graphic design in one sentence?
Best use of space.
How do you see the field of graphic design changing in the next few years?
Design, like fashion, goes through regular changes and if I could predict where it was heading I’d be wealthier than I am now. The industry is changing because of sites like 99designs. More and more people are trying out their design skills and that is both good and bad—good because it widens choice for clients, bad because it makes it tougher to win them. Ultimately I think great design will always bubble to the top and be valued.
In your opinion, what are the key differences that separate great design from poor or mediocre design?
Great design looks effortless and is simple and clear without revealing the hard work it took to produce. Mediocre design is a collection of fonts, lines and colors on a page with little or no intent.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Now is the time to tell us. 🙂