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17 Tips to Improve Your Design Skills and Become a Better Designer Pt.1

17 Tips to Improve Your Design Skills and Become a Better Designer Pt.1

It doesn’t matter how good you are. Fields like design are always changing, shifting and growing. The only way to stay on the edge is to constantly learn and improve your design skills. These tips will help you make progress and improve your design skills no matter the level you are at.

17 Tips to Improve Your Design Skills and Become a Better Designer Part 2.

17 Tips to Improve Your Design Skills and Become a Better Designer Part 3.

Study design theory

No one ever become master at something without learning, and then mastering, the basics. There are many places where you can take shortcuts or skip classes. Unfortunately, fundamentals are not among these topics. Not only that. Trying to skip learning and mastering basics is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.

These basics are what makes the foundation of your design skills. Any weak point in this foundation is enough to take whole structure down. Think about it as building a house. Is it any useful to buy new roof or reconstruct the kitchen if you know the foundation of the house is not stable, i.e. there are weak points in it? No, it is not.

The same applies to your design skills. There is no point trying to improve your skills trying any of the following tips if your knowledge of the basics is flawed. So, first, review your knowledge of the basics of design theory. Do you really understand topics such as colors, grids, typography, composition, layout, research, etc.?

If you find you are unsure about any of these topics, this is where you have to start. Your goal is to master all components of design theory so you not only know something about them, but you can also explain them, use them and also break them. Remember, don’t try to improve your design skills without doing this review, and working on any weak points.

Basics, trends and impatience

Today, everything moves very fast. This can make it difficult for designers to stay relevant in the game. It can be tempting to skip a bit here or there or take few shortcuts. Again, don’t do that. Trends come and go. New year will bring new trends. However, basics and design theory are here to stay.

It will be much better for you to spend some of your time thoroughly learning the basics, instead of chasing the trends. When you master the basics, you can learn, apply and work with any trend that may come. It is like with programming. Truly master the language, aka theory, and you can pick any new framework, aka trend, very quickly.

Skip mastering the language, aka theory, and master the framework, aka trend, instead, and you are asking for troubles. Mastering the language, aka theory, gives you general skills you can then apply on multitude of options. Mastering the framework, aka trend, gives you specialty you can then apply only to that one area.

So, don’t be impatient. Ignore the trends and hype. Build solid and stable foundation of design knowledge. This will give you an advantage over other designers. When new interesting trend comes, you will be able to adopt it much faster thanks to your knowledge of design. So, remember, basics first. Anything else is secondary.

Learn to think like a great designer

One common mistake designers make when they want to improve their design skills is trying to create trendy visually appealing designs. Who never watched at least one of those “step-by-step” Photoshop or Sketch tutorials, right? Well, the bad news is that this will not help you make your design skills any better.

You might get better in Photoshop or Sketch, but that’s about it. The reason this doesn’t work is because a good design is not about trendy and eye-catching visuals. Nor does a good design start in Photoshop or sketch. Good design always starts in your head. And, it is always created as a solution for some problem.

Good and the great

This is also what distinguishes good designers from great, from those legends designers talk about. Great designers don’t design things for the sake of it. Their goal is not simply to make something look pretty. Their goal is to solve existing problem. Design, in this case, is the tool they chose to use.

This is why great designers can talk hours and hours about their design process, how they created this or that design. When you ask average designer about her process, or what lead her to designing it that way? She has either nothing to say or only very little. The problem is that she just wanted to make a pretty design.

There was only little thinking about the problem, if any. Well, assuming she was actually solving some problem. Chances are, she was just working that will look good on her Dribbble profile. Don’t make the same mistake. Don’t try to improve your design skills by spending hours in Photoshop or Sketch trying to create eye-catching designs.

Learning from the greats

What you should do instead is learning from those masters. Choose designers you admire. Some designers you can start with are Saul Bass, James Dyson, Marcel Breuer, Stefan Sagmeister, Massimo Vignelli, Kenichiro Ashida, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Rand, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Dieter Rams, Jonathan Ive, Eric Spiekermann, Paula Scher and Bjarke Ingels.

Take a look at these, and other, great designers. Take a look at their work. Find articles and videos that describe the way they work. Listen to how they describe their deign process as well as their their thought process. Understand what problem were they trying to solve. Understand the reason they designed that thing in that specific way.

From good designer to great designer

This may all sound like a big waste of time, and bandwidth. It is not. As I mentioned, the main difference between good and great designer is that great designers focus on the problem and use design as a tool to solve it. Good designers focus on the design and want to make it look nice. Just take a look at Dribbble.

If you want to significantly improve your design skills, this is the step you have to make. Forget focusing on the design and creating eye-catching and trendy designs. Instead, focus on solving problems, using design as your tool of choice. Remember that great design is not about the form. Nor is it about the function.

Great design is about both. Great design unifies the form and the function. It starts with a problem and creates solution that is user-friendly and looks good. This is also why some products are so successful. They combine functionality and appealing design (form).

Learn about design principles

You don’t need any design education and you can still see that some designs work better than others and some designs don’t work at all. Your goal as a designer is to understand why and how these designs work or don’t work. Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch. There are already some principles that help create designs that work.

Some principles you can start with are gestalt principles. Then, you can also learn about Good design principles by Dieter Rams. Another set of principles worth learning about are First Principles of Interaction Design by Bruce Tognazzini, Principles of User Interface Design by Joshua Porter.

These sets of design principles will give you a good start. However, these are not the only principles you can learn about to improve your design skills. There are many more. Just remember that learning about these principles alone will not make you a better designer. It is not the end. You have to apply what you’ve learned. So, learn and apply.

Train your eye and learn to identify good design

Let’s assume you know the design theory, the design principles and you look beyond the form. Next step to improve your design skills is to train yourself, your eyes to be more specific, to identify good design. This is about a four-step process. First, you have to dedicate some amount of time every day to browse design projects.

So, choose some websites with design inspiration make it your daily practice going through the most recent design showcases on websites such as designspiration, csswinner, cssdsgn, cssdesignawards, bestwebgallery, Behance, dribbble, uimovement. The second step is about choosing the best works you find and examining them.

Your goal is to find the best work of other talented and experienced designers, dissect these pieces and try to understand what makes them good. Take one design after another and try to answer these questions: “What makes it good?”, “What made you choose this specific piece?”, “Why does it stand out?”

When you are going through this process, always go deep. Don’t take the design as one big piece. Instead, as I mentioned, dissect it and focus on specific design elements. For example, elements such as navigation bars, search fields, buttons, shopping carts, grids etc. Then, take it further and compare them with other examples you chose.

The third step is about trying to guess why the designer made decisions that lead to creation of that design. You don’t want to understand why it works but also the thinking process behind it. Remember that the best designers don’t design mindlessly. They always think about their work. They always think about every tiny detail.

The best designers also think about consequence of their choices. What if I choose this layout instead of that one. Z-pattern instead of f-pattern? What if I place the navigation in the center, instead of on the left, or right? What if I choose this typeface? What effect will it have on user experience, friendliness, usability, readability, legibility?

This is again about looking beyond the design, or the form. Remember that the best designers are not chasing pixels in Photoshop or Sketch. They are trying to solve problems with the use of design. Learn from them. Learn to think about design in this wider view where even the smallest choice can have significant impact.

These three steps are already enough to take your design skill to professional level. You will no longer just push pixels and chase trends. You will start to see design in a new light. You will see it as a tool to solve problems. You will start to see it as something that can have impact on people and their lives.

That being said, you can take it further. This is where the fourth and final step comes. Find weak spots in those works you chose to study and come up with your own ideas to fix those weak spots. Come up with ideas to improve those designs. One thing is to identify good designs. Improve it is another level. Go for that level.

Get mentor

It is hard to improve your design skills if you don’t know what should you to focus on. One way to solve this problem is finding a mentor. Finding a mentor is always one way that can help you improve your design skills the fastest. When you share your work with your mentor, who is master in design, she can find weak spots you don’t know about.

What’s more, mentor can also help you fix those weak spots. Not only that. If she knows you well, and your skills, she can help you fix any gaps in your skills faster. You don’t have to guess or learn everything from scratch. Instead, she can help you find only what matters the most and help you learn that. This can save you a lot of time.

The same applies to plateaus. Sometimes, it may seem like there is no way you can improve your design skills. Your mentor can help you find places where you can improve and break through these plateaus. Lastly, mentor can also provide you with support. It can be the person you can always come to when you need to talk, about just anything.

Finding mentor can be difficult, even in the age of internet. However, it is definitely worth the time and effort. Mentor can help you improve your design skills and make significant faster than anything else. Think about it. Anyone who achieved the something in any discipline usually had at least one mentor. Maybe it is time to find yours.

Ask for feedback on your work

What if you can’t, or don’t want to, find a mentor? Another tested way to improve your design skills is asking for feedback on your work. This is also one of the most humbling, and sometimes difficult, ways to improve your design skills. However, it is also one of those ways that are the most effective.

We all have weak spots in our work. We all know our work is not perfect. That doesn’t matter. Nobody likes to be vulnerable. Because design is so personal, exposing our work also means exposing ourselves. This fact that design is so personal, also makes it easy to overlook, or directly ignore, areas where we could improve.

This is why it is so important to ask for feedback, either from our mentor or other experienced designers, or both. Otherwise, if you never ask for feedback, you may never find your weak spots. You may never find out where you can get better. Asking for feedback is uncomfortable and critique can be painful.

It can be one of the most emotionally draining things you can do, to face open criticism of your work. Nonetheless, it is necessary if you want to improve your design skills.

Focus on negative feedback

Before you start asking for feedback there is one thing you need to know. Avoid positive feedback and seek negative. I know. Asking for feedback is uncomfortable by default. To make it even more uncomfortable you should focus on negative feedback? The problem with positive feedback is that it doesn’t work.

Nobody will argue that positive feedback is great when it is deserved. You feel good about yourself and your skills. It uplifts your ego. However, that is all. You are not really learning anything from it. And, if it is undeserved? It can be counterproductive. It can convince you that you don’t have, or need, to improve anything.

So, first, be willing to expose your work. Start asking for feedback. Second, focus on negative feedback. Whether it is through posting your designs on Dribbble, Behance or social media, or just sharing them with your friends or colleagues, tell them that you need to hear about the bad things, things you can do better.

Tell them that you need to hear their constructive criticism because you want to improve your design skills. You want to become a better designer. Ensure them that you will not take anything personally. Whatever, they say, there will not hurt your feelings. Also, use right words and ask specific questions.

Don’t ask question like “What do you think?”. This leads to simple answers such as “It’s great.” or “I like it.” This type of feedback will not help you. Also, avoid “Yes/No” questions. Instead, try questions like “Which part of the design did your eye focus on first?” or “Which parts do you think can be better?” or “Where do you see some weak spots?”

Treat your ability to design like a muscle

Mastering the basics, learning about dozens of design principles, daily practice of training yourself to identify good designs. All we discussed so far can be overwhelming. One can start thinking about giving up, either staying at his current level or even quitting and leaving the area of design.

Don’t do that. Don’t let the seemingly overwhelming amount of knowledge discourage you. Instead, treat your ability design like a muscle. Like every muscle, you need to train it to make it stronger, bigger and better. Remember that no one was born as a great designer, not even the greatest designers of all time. Everyone has to learn it.

It is true that some people managed this learning process faster and easier than others. However, even these people still had to learn it. And, if they could learn it, and achieve that level of expertise, you can too. So, don’t give up. Build your design skills slowly day after day, one rep at the time.

Dedicate at least some small amount of time every day to learning about design, and also to practice, diligently. Learn something new and design something every day. Do this long enough and before you realize it, your design skills will improve. In the end, even learning to walk or swim took some time. So, practice and be patient.

Epilogue: How to improve your design skills

That’s it for this fist part. Now, it is up to you to take the tips you’ve learned today and apply it. I suggest you apply the tips in the order we discussed them. Start with review of your knowledge of design theory. Find for any weak points and gaps. Fix these before you try any other tip to improve design skills. Build strong foundation first.

Next, study great designers and their design process. Learn to think like them. Remember that great designers use design to solve problems. They don’t just chase pixels. After that, spend some (a lot of) time learning about design principles. Remember, design is both, art and science. Learning design principles will help you with the scientific part.

When you are done with principles, start learning to identify good design. Train your eyes and taste. Use what you know about design theory, design process and design principles and look for these patterns in works of other designers. This may require a lot of practice. So, be patient. In the end, even learning to walk took some time.

Try to find a mentor. This might feel uncomfortable, or like a waste of time. It is not. Mentor can help you improve your design skills more than any other tip, trick or practice. So, give it a try. Reach out to designers you admire and ask them for advice. Remember, mentorship is big commitment. So, ask for advice instead and start building relationships.

Whether you find a mentor or not, take courage and start asking for feedback on your work. This is a must. You can’t improve your design skills if you try to protect your work and yourself from any criticism. Remember that criticism is crucial for finding your weak spots, places where you can improve. So, start asking.

Finally, treat your ability to design like a muscle. Remember that none of those legendary designers was born with his or her design skills. They all had to learn them and then master them. If they could, you can too. So, don’t give up. Have patience, train daily and you will soon start to see result.

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