Table of Contents
- Learn about something different
- Work on side projects
- Master your tools
- Practice daily
- Epilogue: How to improve your design skills
As a designer you have to constantly work on your design skills. This is the only way to stay relevant. Improving your design skills will also help you attract new clients, or employers, and create new work opportunities. These 5 tips will help you with it. Learn them, use them, improve your design skills and become a better designer.
17 Tips to Improve Your Design Skills and Become a Better Designer Part 1.
17 Tips to Improve Your Design Skills and Become a Better Designer Part 3.
Learn about something different
There are two general ways to improve your design skills. One is by getting better at what you already know. You are already quite good in design. Now, getting better doesn’t require that much effort and time as you had to put in in the beginning. Thanks to this, this way is the easier, safer and more comfortable option to improve your design skills.
Unfortunately, there is always some ceiling, or limit, to how much you can get. Sooner or later, you will hit this ceiling. When this happens, any progress you can make by improving what you know will be very small. At worst, paradoxically, you will not make any progress at all. Your design skills will be so polished addition training will have no effect.
Cross the borders of your expertise
Fortunately, there is a way to overcome this plateau. The solution is by trying something different. You have to start experimenting with areas where you are not that good, or where you have no experience at all. Whatever your area of expertise is, take that risk and try something where you are a beginner.
For example, if you are very good at web design, start learning about print design. Or, take a look at user experience design. Another, more distant, option can be game design. These experiments may seem like a waste of your time. Yet, in the majority of cases, they really work.
When you step into different, less or more distant, area not only will you learn new knowledge. You will also be able to look at what you know from different perspective, from different angle. Thanks to this, you will be able to come up with more, and more innovative, ideas.
Another reason this works is that, at least in design, there are universal principles you can apply across different fields. This is why experimenting in related areas of your expertise is not a waste of time. Principles you learn in one area you can transfer into another.
What’s optional here is necessary there
For example, let’s say you give it a shot and start learning about print design, aside to web design being your main trade. Print design has a lot in common with web design. You have to learn about, and understand, the theory of grid, layouts, composition, colors, typography, etc.
The thing is that there are some nuances you will learn in print design and not in web design, or you will not focus on them as much as you would otherwise. There are many web designers who know only a little about typography. Leading, kerning, x-height, cap and similar terms say nothing to them. In web deign, this is not a big problem.
In print, understanding all these terms is not optional. It is a necessity. If you don’t know these terms, you are screwed. The same applies to graphic design. Anyone can call himself, and work as, web designer just because he knows how to create decent layout with Bootstrap.
In graphic design, you need to really understand the theory of grid, layout and composition. What may be optional in web design is often necessary in graphic design, or print. Now you know why many web designers have a hard time getting started in other design disciplines. They skipped the, back then, optional stuff.
Crossing the borders of your expertise is not a waste of time. Nor is it detrimental to your design skills, rather the opposite. These experiments are just another way to gain new knowledge you can apply in the area of your expertise later. It doesn’t matter if it is graphic, print, web or game design.
All these, and other areas, are still parts of the same discipline, design. This means that what you learn in one of these areas you can often apply in other areas as well. What’s more, these learning experiments can actually help you become a better designer. They will help you see things from different perspectives and angles.
You will be able to consider elements others would not even think about. You will also be able to step in others’ shoes more easily. This is also why it is beneficial for designers to take at least few lessons in programming, and the other way around. It helps to see the same thing from different angles, as a designer and as a programmer.
So, don’t restrict yourself only to your main area of expertise. Experiment, learn about other areas and let it shape the way you think and design. The best places to start with are already mentioned print, graphic, user experience, game and web design. Another great sources of knowledge are psychology and sociology.
After that? If you nailed all these areas? Whatever you want. Be it cooking, music composition, history, economy, mathematics, biology, programming. There is something useful you can learn in every area. Forget any prejudices, keep your mind open and be like a sponge.
Stepping outside the area of your expertise may still seem to be too risky. What if you want to improve your design skills, but you want to play it safe and stick to what you know? Or, at least minimize the risk? Well, there are two important things you have to understand. First, design is about taking risks.
Design is about creating ideas and shaping things in your own way. Design is about solving problems in a way that is specific to you. If you don’t like this idea, get used to it. The sooner the better. The second thing is that you can develop you own style only through, often relentless, experimentation and willingness to be different.
Think about all great designers, artists, etc. you know, or find some “top X” list. All these people developed their own style. This is why, when you see one of their works, you can recognize the author. The only way to achieve this is through experimentation. You have to be willing to play with different ideas to see what you like and what you don’t like.
So, open Sketch, Photoshop, Illustrator, VS Code, Sublime Text or grab a pen and paper. Use whatever tool you like to use to design. Next, experiment. Go crazy. Shadows, flat design, brutalism … Take different concepts and mix them. Or, take one concept and subtract something, or add something new. Forget any restrictions and boundaries.
Forget perfection, for now
When you experiment, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Don’t try to make everything look and feel perfect. Remember that everything you create is only for you. No one else has to see any of it, unless you want it. This is a safe space. A place where you can unleash your creativity and playfulness.
Also, don’t feel bad or unproductive. Remember that all these experiments have a clear goal. You are not doing it just to “kill time”. You do this to improve your design skills. Remember that trying new things and relying on your knowledge of design allows you to develop with your own unique style.
This, in turn, will help you set yourself apart. Also, it will help you discover novel and innovative solutions to known problems. You can use these solutions in your work. This will help you deliver more value to your clients, employer and teammates. This can help you establish yourself as the “go-to” person for innovative designs.
Fail fast, fail often
There’s a saying, in the world of web startups: “Fail fast, fail often”. In other words, it is only by trying out a lot of experiments you can find out works best. The same applies to design. You have to constantly try new and different ideas and test in practice in order to find those that work and those that don’t.
Unfortunately, this approach is not as widespread among designers as it is on the startup scene. When something becomes trend, 99% of designers immediately start filling their portfolios with designs built on that trend. Only few will look beyond the trend, mix it, skew it, or change it in some way. The majority plays it safe.
What you should do instead, not only to improve your design skills, but also to improve your visibility and uniqueness, is going the other direction. When new trend enters the scene, don’t just follow. Instead, experiment with it. Add, subtract, reduce, skew, mix, transform, mock. Take that trend, unleash your creativity, and take it further.
Try different media, techniques and styles
Aside to experimenting with trends, there is another great, and relatively safe, way to improve your design skills. Experiment with different media, techniques and styles. If you always use the same typefaces try different. The same applies to colors, styles and layouts. Stop doing it the old. Mix things up and try something new.
Since this is your personal laboratory, don’t be afraid to break some conventions, or all of them. Remember, this is about experimenting, it is about trying and seeing what works. So, feel free to break rules and see what happens. Try a crazy new typeface. Play with 3D. Use illustration instead photography. Use twice as much of whitespace.
Throw all conventions, guidelines and rules out the window
Take all conventions, guidelines and rules and throw them out the window and see what happens. Most of the time, your experiment will probably fail. That is okay. There is no such a thing as a complete failure. Everything is learning opportunity. When experiment fails, you know what doesn’t work. Otherwise, you know what works. In both cases, you gain.
When you think about it, you can’t really loose. If experiment fails, you learn. If experiment succeeds, you learn. You are always winner. What’s more, the very process of experimenting will help you free up your mind. It will make it easier for you to see which parts of your design skills need improving, and why.
Lastly, experimenting is good not just for improving your design skills. It can also help you become more independent. It will help you learn how to take risk, take initiative and act on your own. You will no longer be afraid of taking on challenging project. You will know that you can handle them. You will know that can find a solution through trial and error.
If you are looking for some way to boost your confidence, this might be it. The best part? It is not the “fake it til you make it” type of confidence. This is based on your previous, rock-solid, experience. So, give it a try. And, remember, there is no such a thing as complete failure. Whether experiment fails or succeeds, you learn, you win.
Work on side projects
Whether you work for someone, as a freelancer or you have design agency you are probably doing the same thing over and over again. This is also why your design skills will soon stop improving. By now, you know the value of learning something new and experimenting. The question is, how can you make this easier?
The answer is simple. Set aside some time and start working on side projects. You can just decide to experiment and tinker or try to learn something else. Another, easier, way to approach this is by setting a specific goal for yourself. Or, create a specific project for yourself that will serve as a sandbox for your experiments.
You want to experiment with typefaces or grid layouts? Great. Create some web design side projects. Or, you can build some app or design a magazine cover. Whatever it is, the important thing is that it will help you explore the areas you want to experiment with. The best is if it is something personal to you, a passion project.
Why is this approach better? When you experiment with, or learn about, a single idea it can seem boring and repetitive. Think about the majority of things you have to learn about as school. Did you really enjoy any of them? Probably not. Don’t make the same mistake your teachers did. Don’t turn the work you love into a thing you hate.
Instead, use side project to make it a game. Gamify your learning process, literally. Decide what you want to learn, practice or experiment with. For example, learning about user experience design. Then, set a clear goal for yourself. For example, design an app that will feel intuitive, user-friendly and simply lovable.
However, don’t think about it is a fun. Instead, think about it as a real project for a real client. You can even create a brief to make it more realistic. Who knows, you may one day actually get a chance to work on such a project. Then, you will think back to that side project you once did for yourself and you will thank yourself for it.
One more thing, give yourself a deadline. It is easy to start something and work on it forever. Don’t follow this path. Instead, give yourself a serious deadline. In the end, every real project has a deadline. So, apply the same logic to your side projects. Every you start must have a clear deadline. Otherwise, don’t start it.
This will not only help you improve your design skills, by learning new things. It will also help you learn the other side of your design job, being punctual. By the way, did you know that Unsplash and Slack started as side projects? Who knows, maybe one of your side projects will also get traction and become something bigger. So, give it a try.
Master your tools
Tools of the trade are one of the last things you should focus on when you want to improve your design skills. Why? Tools themselves will never make you a better designer. You will not take your design skills to the next level just because you start using Photoshop, Sketch, Figma, etc. Although, something like this would be really good.
There are two main things that determine the quality of your work. The first one is your design skills. The second is how well you know the tool you work with. This is why premature focus on tools is a waste of time. If your design skills are not honed enough, no tool will help you create great designs.
That being said, design skills are useless if you need half an hour just to setup your editor. This is also why many designers can make any progress. They are constantly chasing that new shiny tool, instead of sticking to one and mastering it. There is nothing wrong with trying different tools to find the one you will like working with.
However, that doesn’t mean you change you tools as often as you change your socks, or even more often. Doing so may help you with FOMO, but that’s about all it will do for you. So, stop chasing every shiny tool that comes around. Instead, find one (or two) that fits your needs and stick to it. Then, take the time and master it.
Learn all its shortcuts and how to use it effectively. The time you spent on learning is time you save during the work. Remember, the quality of your work is primarily determined by the level of your design skills. However, the level at how well you know your tools determines how fast can you work.
You can be the best designer in the World, but if you work with tool you don’t know it will limit you. It will probably not make your designs worse. However, it will slow you down, significantly. This might be just as bad as producing bad work. Don’t allow this. Find the tool that suits your needs, stick to it and master it.
You can get better only in things you do often, preferably every day. So, if you really want to improve your design skills, you should work on them every day. This may seem like a big investment in terms of both, time and effort. However, the dividends you will get in the future are definitely worth it.
What’s more, the more of your time and effort you invest the higher the dividends will be. So, set aside at least a little bit of time every day to work on your design skills. Before you do that, two things. First, work only on things you don’t know well or at all. Don’t waste your time on things you’ve already mastered.
Second, make it a deliberate practice. Don’t multitask. Don’t half-ass your practice. Turn off all notifications, close and remove everything you don’t need for your practice session. Focus solely on the task at hand and ignore everything else. Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
Use Pomodoro technique
One easy way to start with this is by using Pomodoro technique. First, choose a subject you want to improve or learn. Second, get a timer and set it to 25 minutes. Third, start. Work on that subject, and your design skills, until the timer rings. No distractions or multitasking. Focus solely on your practice.
When the timer rings, stop your work and take a break, usually about five minutes long. During this break don’t immediately jump on social media or immerse yourself in an ocean of distractions, or other things. Just give your brain a moment to rest and replenish energy. When the break is over, you can either get back to practice or do something else.
If you decide to get back to practice, follow the same steps, i.e. 25 minutes of work followed by five minutes of rest. When you repeat these steps four times, or do four pomodoros, take a longer break before you start another, fifth, session. This break is usually around 15-30 minutes.
You can repeat this process as long as you want or as long as you can fully focus on your practice. Remember, it is only deliberate perfect practice what counts. If you can no longer fully focus, stop. Don’t waste your time and don’t burn yourself out. Call it a day and try it again tomorrow.
Epilogue: How to improve your design skills
This is it for today. Now it is time for you turn. Take what you’ve learned today and apply it. That is the only way you can start improving your design skills. Reading about, and learning, tips is the beginning. You also have to take the next step and apply what you’ve learned so far. Otherwise, you will never make any progress.
The question is, what will you start with? Will you cross the borders of your expertise and learn about something, more or less, different? Maye you want to take a little bit safer road and start experimenting with ideas, techniques and styles. Or, you can gamify it and start working on some side project.
Maybe your design skills are quite good and you need to learn more about the tool(s) you are using at work. Whatever it is, promise to yourself that you will dedicate at least a few minutes every day to focused and deliberate practice. In the end, you get better only at what you do often.
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