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Keeping your design skills up to date is not easy. However, it is crucial if you want to grow as a designer. It is also important for your career or business. This article will give you a handful of tips that will help you improve your design skills, fix any existing blind spots 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 2.
Remake your favorite designs
Through the history, there was always one thing every aspiring artist had to do, and those who want to improve their design skills. It was part of the education of every apprentice to copy the works of established masters. Today, aside to artists’ workshops and design studios, you can also see the same practice on many schools focused on arts and design.
The goal of this practice, whether it is inside a workshop, studio or school, is always the same. The task of the apprentice or student is to choose a famous work of art, or a famous design, and recreate it. It is not the point of this practice to try to improve anything or alter it. There is basically no creativity involved.
The student, or apprentice, is supposed to simply copy what he sees. It is almost like copying a document. Success is achieved when the student can produce 1:1 copy. For many students, this seems to be a waste of time. When so students hear the assignment, they often respond in the same way: “What? You want me to copy this work?!”
Copying as a way to learn
It is true that this practice, or exercise, may seem like a utter waste of time. If you pay for your education also a money. However, this is a false assumption. The opposite is true. This practice is can be extremely helpful. Why? How? There are at least two reasons. First, when you try to recreate some work you will learn a lot about technique.
When you try to create 1:1 copy of something, you usually have to follow the same process. You also have to use the same techniques, or at least very similar. So, when you try to recreate something using a technique or process you’ve never used before, this will help you learn it. With time and multiple attempts maybe even master it.
True, you could simply take a book or watch a tutorial in order to learn that technique or process. The question is, how well this type of learning works? We all know that this learning from “second-hand experience” works bad. Think back to school. How many times did you notice that many things you’ve learned you quickly forgot? Probably often.
Learning from second-hand experience doesn’t work
This is the problem with education provided by the majority of schools. They all encourage you to learn from second-hand experience, i.e. reading, listening or watching. You come to the class to listen to the lecture or read a textbook. Then, when you get back home, like 50% of everything you’ve read about, or listened to, is gone. What’s next?
You pick that, often boring, textbook again and read it. Or, you pick up your notes you made during the lecture and read them. You do this hoping that what you are about to learn, again, will now stick around a little bit longer, at least until the exams. Unfortunately, this often not how it works. You will forget more than half of it again.
When this happens, you may give it another try or you may give up, because it seems like a waste of time. Whatever your choice is, chances are that when the exam finally comes, you will have to spend few days maybe even weeks, in textbooks to memorize all that stuff yet again. This seems quite ineffective, but this is how education often looks like.
The problem here is not the amount of materials you have to read, or knowledge you have to learn. Nor is it how interesting the material is. Or, how much you like, or dislike, your teacher. The problem is the learning method, learning from second-hand experience (reading, watching, listening, etc.). Is there some better alternative?
Always prefer learning from first-hand experience
You already know the answer. In a fact, even the teachers know it, at least many of them. The answer, what works better, is learning from first-hand experience. Learning by doing, learning by practice, learning by getting your hands dirty. This is what works 10x better than reading textbooks, listening lectures or even watching videos.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We’ve evolved to learn this way. We learn this way almost everything when we are born, to walk, communicate, speak, eat, etc. This is probably why children learn so fast. They don’t learn these things by reading books, or listening to lectures. They learn it all by copying, practicing, by doing.
Unfortunately, we usually forget this when we enter the school. Everyone tells us that we have to read books and listen to our teachers in order to learn and we accept it. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with learning from books. It is just not the most effective way to learn. It is not even in the top three.
If you improve your design skills, in the shortest amount of time, prefer learning from first-hand experience. Think about the designers you admire, who inspire you. Then, choose a couple of their works and try to recreate them. Don’t try to improve it or alter it. Just create 1:1 copy of what you see.
Try it and see it for yourself how much can this simple, yet hard, practice help you improve your design skills. One thing. When you start with practice, either keep the results for yourself or share it only with making it clear that it is a copy of something else. Never ever claim any of these copies as your own.
Remember, this is only for your own practice. You are doing this in order to learn some new techniques and to improve your design skills. If you want to gain an appreciation for your work create something on your own, using the techniques you’ve learned.
By the way, this practice of copying is sometimes also called “shadowing”. So, when you hear or read about shadowing, it is about the same thing. Some designers like to use “to shadow” instead of “to copy”. I have to admit that it does sound better.
Copying helps you appreciate the work of other designers
I mentioned that copying, or shadowing, can be extremely helpful for two reasons. So far, we talked about the first one. The second is that you will gain a new appreciation for the work of other designers. When you try to copy someone’s work, you will quickly understand how hard it is to get from nothing to something.
When you copy someone’s work you have the advantage that you know what you are about to design. You also know how it will look like when you are finished. There is no doubt, uncertainty or thinking about the problem and the solution, the design. Nonetheless, it will still help you understand a bit about what it takes to design something.
Even though you will “only” copy the work it will still take a lot of time and effort. You will also see that, although you can see the result, it doesn’t make it easier. It will still be hard to create 1:1 copy, to replicate all techniques, to create the same visual perception.
This is why copying is a very good practice to improve your design skills. You will never create a 1:1 copy until you learn all you have to learn. This also means that replicating one’s work can take a lot of time. Don’t give up. All this effort is worth it. It will help you improve your design skills. Continue until you create 1:1 copy.
Study apps, websites, magazines, etc.
As a designer you have incredible advantage. You can learn from basically everything around you. The same applies when you need some inspiration. Websites, apps, magazines even things around you use every day. All of them are examples of design. All of them can help you learn something and improve your design skills.
See the world as a designer
First, start thinking about all objects around you as a designer. Stop seeing them just as “things” you can use. Instead, see them as ways to help people do something. See them as tools to get done specific jobs. See them as thoughtful, planned, crafted and often prototyped many times, solutions for specific problems.
Learn from things around you
Second, make the effort and learn from all those objects. Understand how they work and also why they work in that specific way. Also, try to understand the problem specific object, or design, was supposed to solve. As we discussed in the first part, 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. For them, design is a tool they used to solve that problem. This applies to everything made by people. The simplest examples are things you use, such as your phone, computer, toothbrush, knife, spoon, ebook reader, car.
There are also more complicated examples, such as apps on your smartphones and websites. These objects serve usually serve two purposes. First, they help the user to do some task, to get some job done. Second, they help their creators or themselves. For example, increase conversions, profitability, position in search, virality, etc.
Learn to appreciate the skillfulness in magazine and book design
Lastly, there are even more complicated examples of design. In this case, you usually don’t even think there was any design thinking behind it. For example, books and magazines. Magazines may not seem to be a material you can use to improve your design skills. Well, unless we are talking about design magazines.
The fact that you would not even think about thoughtful design makes magazines a great material for improving your design skills And also for learning to see the world as a designer. The next time you open some magazine, take it as a design practice. Notice the layout, grid system, typography, hierarchy, color palette.
Notice how every single page is designed in a specific way with a specific goal in mind. Some pages are designed to help you quickly skim the content. Others are designed to immerse you deeply in the topic so you almost forget about everything else. Also, every page can be designed to evoke specific, and different, emotions and moods.
The same applies to books. It might be a paradox, but books are also great material for improving your design skills. There are almost no visual clues, only text, only typography. For a designer, books are environments with huge constraints. Imagine you could design using only typefaces, leading, kerning, etc.
Try to create immersive experience with only so many tools. Try to use text, its visual side, not the meaning, to evoke specific emotions and moods and engage the reader. Try it and you will see web or graphic design in a completely different light. You will no longer complain about constraints or lack of choices.
Instead, you will be glad you work with mediums, where there are so many options you can choose from, and so much freedom. Compare that to magazines, or, God forbid, books. As you now know that is a totally different level. This will probably make you reconsider what you think about magazine and book designers.
Stop just reading stuff, analyze it
You can use all this to your advantage. Magazines and books are great opportunity to improve your design skills. You can use them to learn how to create designs that are, almost, invisible. Designs that are unobtrusive, yet that are still able to create specific user experience, evoke specific emotions, and communicate specific message.
So, again, when you open a magazine or book, don’t just read it. Instead, analyze it. Think about what emotions do you feel, if any. Think about the overall experience. Think about how individual elements on the page work together, even in the scope of the whole magazine or book. See it as a designer, not just reader or consumer. Learn from it, don’t just consume it.
Similar to observing the object around you, observing people is another good way to improve your design skills. Actually, it is a very good way. As a designer, your job is to design things people around the world will use. Therefore, the better you understand people the more successful in designing solutions that really work you can be.
Studying psychology is very useful. It will help you understand how people think, and why they think the way they do. Unfortunately, that’s all. It is like with business. You can read as many business and management books as you want. However, you will never know how to build a business until you actually start one. Psychology works in the same way.
You can read every book on psychology. You can memorize all those fancy terms ever created. However, you can never really understand people until you actually start interacting with real people. Don’t get me wrong. Theory is indispensable. It provides you with solid foundation you can then build your design skills on.
Learn about people in the real world, not from books
There are many designers constantly trying to improve their design skills by focusing only on the theoretical side. These designers may make some progress, especially beginners. However, their progress will soon start to slow down. The problem is not that they are not learning enough. The problem is that theory can never replace real world.
Don’t make this mistake of focusing solely on theory. Don’t think that spending hours immersed in books will help you understand people, and, as a result create better designs. It will not. I know it because I tried and failed, like many other designers. If you really want to learn about people, get out and start observing and interacting with them.
You design for people. You take their problems and design solution for those problems. In order to solve any problem you must understand it. In order to understand the problem you must understand the people who have that problem. And, in order to design solution that works you also must understand people, their psychology, behavior, habits, etc.
Understanding people is crucial for becoming good designer. So, learn the theory you need. Then, get out. Start observing people. Watch what they do. Think about why they do the way they do it. Then, ask them. Be interested in them. Be curious. Use everything you learn “in the field” in your design work. This will help you design better solutions that work.
Use inspiration to spark your creativity
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it seems that you just can’t come up with a good design. Or, with any design. In this case, the problem might not be lack of knowledge, or the level of your design skills. The problem might be somewhere else.
You can’t get your creative juices flowing because you don’t have any inspiration. Sounds trivial, but it is true. Inspiration is often the biggest obstacle standing between you and creating a great design. One reason some designers are so prolific is that they have almost constant supply of inspiration.
This supply of inspiration serves as a fuel for their creativity. It helps them keep their creative juices flowing. It helps them constantly come up with new ideas. It is like when chef wants to prepare a dish. Take away all ingredients and no matter how good she is, or how hard she tries she will not be able to cook anything.
On the other hand, give her all the ingredients she wants and the possibilities are endless. Creativity is the chef. Ingredients are the “building blocks” the chef needs to do her work. These ingredients are bits and pieces of inspiration you can find literally everywhere. This is how creativity works, less or more.
One way to become a great designer is by designing, a lot. Being prolific helps you improve your design skills faster. In order to become prolific you need to become creative. If you want to become creative you have to fuel your creativity with inspiration. The more inspiration you have the more creative you can become.
So, start to look for inspiration everywhere, literally. It doesn’t matter if you are reading a magazine, book, article. Or, if you are watching a movie or TV Show. Or, you might listening to music or just daydreaming. Whatever it is, there is always some inspiration to be found. Find it and save it.
Build your personal “library”, or “board”, of inspiration and fill it with stuff that inspires you. Then, when you will feel like your creativity is not working, open that library and let it spark your creativity. Remember, sometimes, the problem is not the lack knowledge or design skills, but lack of inspiration.
Become a perfectionist
Nowadays, perfectionism is almost a dirty word. Say you are a perfectionist and almost everyone will immediately think you have a problem. All these people who think perfectionism is a problem are wrong. Perfectionism is not a problem. In a fact, perfectionism is what separates the good from great, no matter the discipline.
Think about some masterpieces. They can be a design, statue, painting, invention, mathematical equation, song, music, dish, book, technology. Whatever you want. What have all these masterpieces in common? They are all polished to the smallest detail, and no detail is too small. Put simply, every one of these works aims for perfection.
This is why only few people reach this level of mastery in their fields. Not everyone is willing to spend countless hours making sure that even the smallest detail is perfect. Not everyone is willing to endure that discomfort of realizing how much there is to learn. This is what perfection is about.
Being a perfectionist means that you want to truly master your craft. It means that you want to find any weak spot in your skill, or knowledge, and fix it. It means that you want to constantly improve yourself. Otherwise, you could just settle with “good enough”, but that would also mean you might never make any significant progress.
So, don’t think about perfectionism as something bad. Instead, see it as something that helps you move forward. See it as something that helps you uncover even the smallest gaps in your skills and knowledge. Don’t be afraid of perfection. See it as your ally. As a designer, see perfection as a way to improve your design skills.
Never let anyone convince you that perfection is bad. It is not. Remember, perfection is what separates the good from great. So, stop tolerating “good enough”. Instead, start chasing perfection. You will soon see you are getting better and design skills are improving. Just keep going, aim for perfection, learn, and ignore the naysayers.
Epilogue: Tips to Improve Your Design Skills
Keeping your design skills up to date is hard. It is even harder to constantly push yourself to the limits so you can grow and progress as a designer. Unfortunately, it is also unavoidable. I hope that the tips we talked about will make it easier and more enjoyable for you to improve your design skills. Remember, every master was once a beginner.
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