How to Become Designer Without Going to Design School Pt2

How to Become Designer Without Going to Design School Pt2

How can you become great designer without going to design school? This is the question we are trying to answer in this series. My personal belief is that school of life can give as much as any design school. Today, we will take a look at the last five steps that will help you create perfect design curriculum and also design career. We will discuss shadowing and imitating work of great designers. Then, we will discuss copywriting, finding your favorite tools and developing your personal style. Lastly, we will also discuss why deliberate practice and continuous learning are necessary if you want to stay on the cutting edge.

Tips 1-3 are in part 1.

No.4: Shadow, copy and imitate

Let’s assume a couple of things. First, you know the fundamental principles and basics of graphic design theory. Or, you at least have a specific plan to acquire this knowledge. Second, you are either familiar with history of graphic design or you are on your way to it. Third, you have one or more role models and also relatively clearly defined roadmap. With these pieces of your personal design school curriculum in place, your next steps will be focused on practice.

If you remember, in the beginning of the first part we discussed that many designers are making the same mistake. They start to play with Photoshop or Sketch before they learn to see. However, you’ve already completed the first three parts of your personal design school curriculum. As a result, your abilities to see the design principles and patterns in designs around you should be quite good. Therefore, it is time for you to open your favorite graphic editor and start … Copying.

Sharpen your design skills with copying and shadowing

You read it right. The first you will have to do on your path to becoming great designer is copying the work of others. By the way, this is also when you will use your role models once again. From now, you will spend quite significant amount of time copying and dissecting the work of people you admire. You will gather examples of work made by designers you admire and you will shadow it. I understand that you want to start designing your own things, but don’t do that yet.

At this stage, it is high likely that your design skills are not so sharp. And, if you try to design something right now, chances are that you will fail. At least this was my experience. When I tried to create my first design, I failed miserably. According to a couple of people I asked for feedback it looked good. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people use “good” as a response to almost anything. The truth is that my “design” was terrible. The issue was not my knowledge. I spent a lot of time reading everything I could about every aspect of design. So, where was the real problem?

Every master was once copyist

Thorough the history, it seems that masters were all following the same path. When you read about the greatest artists, you will always find some mention about apprenticeship. Yes, even giants such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Paul Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, Massimo Vignelli or Frank Gehry were once apprentices. Do you know what these masters did when they were apprentices? They were copying established artists. This is not a joke. Take a look at biography of famous artists and it will be written in the chapters right on the beginning.

Every design school uses the same approach, at least majority of them. Right after you master the basics, you will spend significant amount of time studying the work of established and well-known designers. Sure, you may not copy their work step by step just like painter would. You will still devote a lot of time to studying work of others before you start creating your own. When you think about it, this method to learning shouldn’t surprise you. From our early childhood, we learn by imitation. You see something, you copy it. The same in design. Remember, every master did it too.

Beware of what you shadow, copy and imitate

Okay, let’s say you will give it a try. I have to warn you that shadowing, copying or imitating can be dangerous. What do I mean? It will be hard for you to learn about great design if you devote your library of material is full of crappy examples. Have you ever heard that someone became great by learning from the worst? Probably not. Therefore, you have to choose only the best material for your practice. You have to focus on examples of design that literally leave you breathless.

Defining shadowing, copying and imitating

I just realized that we talked a lot about shadowing, copying and imitating and I didn’t even explain what these terms mean. Well, I guess that the majority of you knows what the terms copying and imitating mean. In general sense, copying and imitating is very similar. It is often used interchangeably. Even the definition of “copying” – an imitation or reproduction of an original – contains the word “imitation”. The same is true for the definition of “imitating”. However, shadowing can be a bit tricky, especially for people who are not native English speakers.

For this reason, I think this term should be clearly defined, at least in the scope of this article. When I talk about shadowing, it has the same meaning like the other two terms, copying and imitating. It means that you are deliberately following someone else’s steps to reproduce his results. I also have to make it clear that I use the term “copy”, it doesn’t mean to steal someone’s work and publish it as yours. For the purpose of this article, when we talk about copying something, it is with the intention of learning from it and improving your design skills. It’s just practical part of your personal design school curriculum.

The problem with shadowing, copying and imitating

Shadowing the works of master is a great way to work on your design skills. It is also a great way to build your mental library of design patterns, principles and best practices. However, this approach is not bulletproof. Maybe this is also why many people prefer design school. When you imitate work of other designer is that you don’t know why the designer decided to design it in this specific way. With design process, designer has to make a huge amount of decision.

She has to decide what design style to follow, how to establish the most appropriate color and typography palette, how much whitespace to use and much more. She has to use something in the expense of something else. The question is why? You will probably not be able to answer this question just by shadowing the results, or not on one hundred percent. Another reason reason why design school is preferred choice over being self- taught. Your mentors will always tell you what was the reason to make this or that decision. Without this, your education is not complete.

Beyond mere shadowing, copying and imitating

Fortunately, you can bypass this downside. What you have to do is contact the designer and ask her directly. Then, you can wait and hope that she will reply to you. If not, ask other professional designer and maybe she can help you find the most probably reasons that led to the final design. This is also why I recommend that every aspiring designer has at least one mentor. Mentor can help you understand the principles behind the design. This is where shadowing is not enough.

When I started learning about design, this was one of the mistakes I did. I didn’t look for connections between design and function. All I was doing was just shadowing the design. It was not a surprise that this approach didn’t move me closer to my goal of becoming great designer. All my design lacked something. The problem was that I couldn’t find out what was that one thing. In a short, I either neglected or ignored the function. I was not thinking about what was the goal of the design. What would the user wanted to get done? I was focusing solely on making it pretty.

I have nothing against beautiful design. I think that great design is both, beautiful and also functional. This is when we can get closer to perfection. Think about Eames Lounge Chair and Nest thermostat. The problem is when we focus solely on beautiful design and ignore the function. What’s the point of creating something that’s beautifully designed if it doesn’t work?

Learn to practice in the right way

The last thing we should also discuss is what is the best way you can practice. I already mentioned that regular practice has to be part of your personal design school curriculum. I would even say that regular practice is more important than acquiring new knowledge. Any amount of knowledge will be useless without putting it into practice. However, not every type of practice will yield the same results. Some types of practice will bring better results than others. In other words, you can spend whole day practicing your design skills without seeing any significant improvements.

What type of practice will help you improve the most? Have you ever heard about deliberate practice? In short, we can define deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged with the specific goal of improving performance in a certain area. One of the key components of deliberate practice is that it requires sustained effort and focus. You are not just mindlessly going through the motion. Another components of deliberate practice are starting with a clear goal, splitting this goal into smaller sub-tasks, monitoring your progress and having an immediate feedback.

Aside from these main components, deliberate practice should also follow these three rules. First, get rid of all distractions during your practice. Deliberate practice is tedious and can be mentally demanding. Second, take care about yourself. Meaning, give yourself a break to recover both, physically and mentally, after practice. Third, hold yourself accountable. You have to practice on a regular basis. Remember that if you don’t use your skills, you will slowly lose them.

No.5: Become really good at copywriting

At least one part of your personal design school curriculum should be focused on getting good at copywriting. What has copywriting to do with design? Well, little bit of everything. You probably heard about interface design. The majority of interfaces contains some text. Therefore, copywriting is part of interface design. We like to think and talk about how design uses visual elements to communicate with users. Yet, we ignore that text literally speak to users as well. Another reason for improving your copywriting skills is that copy complements visual elements of your design.

We use design to connect different elements together to create order and harmony out of chaos. Our goal is creating something that is so intuitive it almost feels invisible. This is also why some of the best interfaces are those you don’t even know they are here. Intuitive interface should never distract users for performing the task user wants to do. The majority of interfaces contain at least some minimum amount of text. What’s more, text is often the only way to help users understand how the design works and how to use it. Therefore, every designer should be able to work with it.

Learn to use the right language

One of the potential things that can cause problems is using wrong language. Whatever want to design, you always need to speak the same language as your audience. We can quickly forget who will use or deign in the future and end up with copy full of with technical jargon or slang only small group of users will understand. The only way to avoid this is to think about your users and customers. You have to constantly think about the words in you used in the copy and across the design mean to them. Avoid use acronyms or words that most people don’t understand.

Next, avoid designing for edges in the beginning. What do I mean? There are always at least two groups of users. First group is composed of regular people. On the other hand, the second group is composed of enthusiasts. You may know these people as geeks. These people often have their own language. The problem is that we often focus only on these most passionate users and ignore the rest. Then, for the average user is our design almost unusable. We sometimes try to “solve” his by creating FAQ, wiki or some kind of dictionary. This is not a solution. It is treating the symptoms.

Learn to be brief and don’t invent new terminology

Another symptom of bad copy is adding excessive description or even dictionary to explain the user what are you talking about. This is not necessary. You should never demand users to learn new terms in order to use your design. You also shouldn’t force users to read manual. I would even say that when you need to explain something, your design is broken. And, even if you do have to include some more information, keep it short and sweet. Say what you need to and no more.

Learn to balance good copy with visual design

Another thing you have to keep in mind is that interface’s copy shouldn’t compete with the visual elements. If you want to create the best experience, these two has to work in tandem. What does this mean? First, you should always match the tone of copy with the tone of design. For example, if you work on web design for radio, you can use teenager slang and emoticons. However, the same approach will not work in case of more conservative design for a bank. Therefore, always learn about your target audience. Don’t rely on data provided by your client, do your own research.

Second, pay attention to how many elements and content do you use in the layout. When you use too much of any of them, it will create chaos and harm users’ experience. On the other hand, when you use too little, users may not be able to understand how to use it. Therefore, you have to find the right balance. Third, make sure the copy is both, readable and legible. You have to keep the contrast high, use capital letters only in special cases and choose the right font size.

You will have to learn a lot of design rules in order to find the right balance between copy and visuals. Still, you don’t have to attend design school to achieve this goal. You can start with reading this article on 20 design rules you should never break on Canva. Then, I would suggest that you read Graphic Design: The New Basics by Ellen Lupton and Design Elements by Timothy Samara. This will provide you with solid foundation that will give you solid momentum.

Learn to work with real content instead of lorem ipsum

Let me tell you another reason why copywriting should be part of your personal design school curriculum. The block of text should visually fit inside the design. It is not an option to design with lorem ipsum and naively think that it will work. Chances are that when you finally add the real content your design will break. Unfortunately, at this moment, it is often too late to fix this. Therefore, the best is to always work on visual design and copy at the same time. It doesn’t matter how tempting it is to use lorem ipsum. Use mainly real content. Anything else can be misleading.

Do you really have to be good at copywriting?

Couple people asked me if copywriting is necessary skill for design. Honestly, I don’t have an answer for this question. I also don’t know if copywriting is part of curriculum taught on design school. This makes this question even harder to answer properly. Let me put it this way. I don’t think that copywriting is one of those crucial skills you need in order to survive. However, I would recommend every designer to learn it because it will improve your work.

As we previously discussed, copy and content is part of the layout and UI. You will come into contact with copywriting quite often, especially if you want to be web designer. The majority of your future web design project will include at least some minimum work with copy and content. There is another reason for learning copywriting. As we discussed, you should mainly use real content in your designs. Unfortunately, chances are that you will work on projects where client will not have any content at all. If lorem ipsum is not an option, you have to write the copy by yourself.

Well, not necessarily. You can try to convince your client to hire professional copywriter. You can also borrow content for website of your client’s competition. However, the first option will probably never happen and the second one will not work infinitely. It will be only a temporary fix. Sooner or later, you will still have to get the content somewhere. For his reason, I think that copywriting should be part of your personal design school curriculum and soon your skill set.

No.6: Find your favorite tools

Should you use Photoshop or Sketch? This is probably one of the most common questions on the design scene. We will soon add Affinity Designer as another option since there is finally beta for Windows. Tools of your trade are another important part of your personal design school curriculum. However, I will not give you any specific tip or advice in this article. The truth is that everyone has different preferences and needs. Therefore, it would be a waste of time trying to find one-size-fits-all type of tool. Instead, I will do something different.

Try everything available

What I’m going to do is encourage you to try out as many tools as you want. Seriously. Whatever tool will look interesting for you, download it and give it a try. Here is one tip for choosing your next best digital friend. When you try any tool, focus primarily on its usability. It is great to have tool that looks great, but it’s not the most important. You will work with the tool of your choice on a daily basis. Therefore, choose tool that’s comfortable for you to use and helps you work faster.

For example, I love to use Sublime Text 3 for coding because of its minimalist UI, speed and flexibility. I’ve tried many different editors, but ST3 is the best suit for me, at least right now. In case of graphic, my current tool of trade is Photoshop and Illustrator. Before that, I experimented with InkScape and Gimp. I’m working on Windows, so Sketch is not an option. However, maybe I will decide to switch to Affinity Designer. Who knows? Anyway, just make sure to reserve some time in your personal design school curriculum for testing various tools.

Go beyond digital world

Aside from digital tools, I think that is it a very good idea for every designer to master analog tools as well. By analog tools I mean good old pen or pencil and paper. Sure, you can build successful design career just with digital tools such as computer, tablet or iPad. However, I do think that there is a lot of value you can get from using analog tools. Based on my personal experience, sketching ideas and concepts on paper before moving to Photoshop or code is incredibly helpful.

In the third phase of design process, your head is often overflowing with dozens of ideas and concepts. This is one extreme. Another one is when you have absolutely no idea about where to start. This happened to me in my last client project. One thing that helped me breakthrough this lack of ideas was simple brainstorming with pen and paper. In short, I just draw whatever came to mind. Soon, ideas for client project started to emerge.

I’m certain that you can get the same results with digital tools as well. There is just some beauty in the experience of using real pen paper. What’s more, pen and paper don’t need any energy to work. You don’t have to worry about carrying batteries with you or hoping for being close to electrical outlet. Pen and paper don’t need to be recharged. The only problem may be that you will run out of paper or ink. Did you know that even students in design school are still using pens, pencils and paper, despite the rise of digital tools? Think about it.

No.7: Develop your style

The last part of your personal design school curriculum should be focused on developing your own style. It is one thing to get really good at design, but until you develop your own style you are still one drop in the ocean of designers. Before we dive deeper, we have to clarify one thing. We are sometimes too shallow in our attempts to define our design style. I think that style shouldn’t be defined as having one favorite color palette or one specific feel or design styles such as flat. Instead, our personal style should be determined by the principles we want to embody.

Some of you may not see this as an important part of personal design school curriculum. However, please stick with me because having personal style is important if you want to distinguish yourself. What’s more, developing personal style is also a great opportunity to let your personality radiate through your work. Your style should include both, the brighter and also the darker side of your personality. And, don’t forget to include set of design principles you follow in your work.

Focus on craftsmanship

One of the best ways to develop your own style is through the execution of your work. If you start to call yourself great designer or expert, your work has to be on the same level. As designers, we all aim to master aesthetic. This is probably one of the main reasons why we are often willing to pay significant amount of money for design school of various courses. If our work is poorly executed, it is less appealing to potential clients or employers. The fact is that you will never get many clients or job offers if your design portfolio is not amazing.

Aside from your portfolio and those things that are more visible, you should show your craftsmanship also in organization of your project files. You may not think that this topic is related to personal style, but it is. What’s more, it is crucial if you want to be seen as professional designer. Every file you deliver to your client must be clean, organized and just perfect. Anyone who will look at the files must immediately see the hard work you put into it. It is a waste of time developing personal style and neglecting this, less visible, side of your craft.

Let your style grow and evolve and don’t copy it

The last thing about personal style we should discuss is that it should be a reflection of your beliefs, values and philosophy. Don’t be afraid to keep your personal style flexible. As you grow, your portfolio will naturally transform. This is something completely normal, don’t suppress it. Over the time, you may find out that your style changed significantly. Again, don’t fight this change if it feels right. As long as your style represents what you believe there is nothing wrong with it.

This is the most important thing about developing personal style. It has to be congruent with your beliefs and priorities. If you simply copy it, you’re just playing dress up. Such a style will never be able to radiate authenticity and credibility. When you try to imitate someone else, it is like wearing some kind of costume every day. Soon, people will see through it and realize that you are faking it. What’s worse, when you imitate someone, it is very likely that you not be able to find satisfaction in your work. Satisfaction comes only when your work mirrors your values and philosophy.

No.8: Never stop learning

Well, this is not exactly part of design school curriculum. It is rather final tip or advice you should remember. Your design education should NOT end when you believe you know enough. The truth is that there will always be something to learn. You will never learn everything. Therefore, you should keep your personal design school curriculum with an open end. So, instead of resting on laurels keep exploring new areas and experimenting with new concepts.

Also, keep practicing everything you’ve learned. Remember that what you don’t use will start to fade away. Challenge yourself on a daily basis. Give yourself hard exercises that will stretch your skills and push you beyond your comfort zone. When you do that, don’t settle with the first solution. Push yourself even more to come up with more unique solution. If you don’t leave your comfort zone you will never be able to improve your skills. So, never stop learning and practicing.

Closing thoughts on becoming great designer without going to design school

Congratulations! You’ve just finished this series that will help you become great designer without going to design school. I hope you found the steps we discussed useful. Let’s quickly recap the steps we explored today. The first tip was to learn by shadowing, copying and imitating great designers. It is important to train and sharpen your design skill before you try to create something on your own. In the end, this is how every master started. However, beware of what you shadow. You will learn principles of great design only by shadowing the best examples, not the worst.

The second step was to become good at copywriting. Being good at copywriting requires using the right language, being brief, avoiding use of terminology, balancing copy with visual design and working mainly with real content. The third step was to find your favorite tools by trying everything that’s available. You should give yourself the freedom to experiment and find the tool that will suit you best. The fourth step was to develop your style own style by focusing on your core values, believes, philosophy and focus on your craftsmanship.

The last step was to commit to continuous learning and practice. If you want to build stable design career, your learning process should never stop. When you stop learning, your skills and knowledge will slowly start to fade away. If you want to stay on the edge, deliberate practice and continuous learning are necessary. Let me end this article and series by asking you one question. Will it choose design school or school of life?

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By Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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