There was a time, not so long ago, when business was good for designers. Jobs were plentiful, and being a “good” designer was good enough. Then the economy tanked, and the world was thrown into a nasty recession. Many businesses stopped hiring, many designers were laid-off, and competition for all jobs became fierce. In short, being a “good” designer was no longer good enough.
If you want to compete in today’s recession-crippled job market, you can’t just be good… you have to be great. Otherwise move over, because a great designer will always be there to snag your dream job.
Experience ? Greatness
Experienced designers are often asked by aspiring designers for tips to rapidly improve their design skills. Surely there’s got to be some secret technique or trick of the trade, which can accelerate your designs from good to great. Not surprisingly, most designers will tell you this is not the case. By and large people seem to agree that the only way to become great at anything is through gaining experience over time. That’s why most job postings require a minimum amount of experience to qualify.
I disagree with this notion; I believe what really makes you great is your ambition and devotion to self-betterment, not your experience. If experience were all that mattered, then older designers would always be better than their younger counterparts, and this is far from the case.
Your time in the game doesn’t matter half as much as how hard you work. While it’s true that becoming a flawless design god doesn’t happen overnight, the amount of experience required depends on how hard you work to become better. There are methods for accelerating your growth and talent at a faster rate, to becoming great much faster than traditional knowledge dictates. You don’t need “five to ten years experience” to become the best. You just need a clear methodology for consistently developing and finessing your skill set. The top 10 secrets to quickly become an amazing designer are:
1. Look at Great Design – Constantly.
If you want to be a great designer, then you should always be on the lookout for great design. Start a comprehensive design collection for inspiring and educating yourself. Browse through the design books and magazines at your local bookstore, buy or subscribe to the ones you love, and start your own design literature collection. There’s nothing quite like the experience of paging through a kick ass design book for the first time. It is a wonderful and tactile experience and it’s sure to put you in the mood to create something great.
Of course the internet is a cheaper and more direct resource to look at great design. Follow design blogs, such as: Smashing Magazine, Web Design Ledger, DesignM.ag, The Design Cubicle, Spyrestudios, where design inspiration galleries are consistently posted. Browse the online portfolios of artists/studios that you admire. Join and peruse the popular online communities like Behance, Coroflot, and Deviantart, where you can view the work of fellow artists.
Also, when you’re out and about in the real world, don’t forget to take notice of all of the great designs surrounding you. It could be the environmental design of your local movie theater, the amazing wall signage at the Gap, or a really cool birthday card you just received. There’s wonderful design everywhere you go, design that’s invisible to most on a conscious level. As a designer however, you should take notice of it, analyze it, and scrutinize it whenever you can.
Now that you’re consistently looking at great design, the next step is start collecting it. The books take care of themselves, but for everything else, start a design scrapbook. Cut out and keep all of the great designs that you find in magazines, brochures and other printed pieces. For anything you find online, start a digital scrapbook, saving screenshots of all work that you love. Evernote is a great tool for this. It allows you to pull text and images from anywhere online and store them in an online notebook for later reference. And when you’re out on the town, don’t hesitate to whip out the cell phone, and take a snap shot of any design that strikes your fancy.
Observing and collecting the great design that’s all around you will help your work stay relevant while inspiring you to get better.
2. Copy! Copy! Copy!
Now that you have a collection of great design, the next step is to COPY YOUR HEART OUT! This is one many will likely disagree with. Many people suggest not to directly copy work, but instead to be inspired by it, to create something original. After all, copying is dishonest. And besides, you won’t learn anything. Right? Wrong! Ironically enough, when it comes to design and other creative pursuits, copying is an integral part of the learning process. I’m not suggesting that you copy all of your work out of a book. That’s absurd. Use copying, only as a learning exercise for acquiring new skills.
First, choose a design that you absolutely love, and challenge yourself to replicate it identically from scratch. The purpose of this exercise is to expose you to new techniques and possibilities that may not have been on your radar before. At the very least, you’ll learn some new Photoshop tricks, become acquainted with a new design trend, or stumble upon a new keyboard shortcut, as you attempt to reproduce someone else’s work. Do this multiple times, and you’ll find that you gain some new technical skills each and every time. After you’ve successfully reproduced a few designs, begin to loosely copy them instead, while bringing in some of your own technique. This will help you understand how to implement these new skills into your own workflow.
Another great practice is examining how other designers build things. Open up their Photoshop, InDesign, or Illustrator files, or read through their code. Another option is to flat-out ask them how they did it.
You will undoubtedly gain priceless knowledge from replicating other peoples’ great design, staying current by familiarizing yourself with the latest trends while adding an ensemble of great techniques to your own design arsenal.
3. Dissect Great Designs
So you’ve collected great designs, and you’ve copied them to a “T”. The next step to becoming great is dissecting those designs. While copying teaches you technique, dissecting builds your understanding of design theory.
For starters, choose a piece of work that you really like. Ask yourself, why is this good? What draws me to it? What aesthetic principles are employed successfully? What design rules are enforced, what design rules have been broken? What effect do the colors have on the design? What artistic style or cultural indicators are used? How about the typography? Photography? Negative Space?
At first, you won’t understand what makes it good, or why you like it. You must work to understand the aesthetic rationale behind the great designs you love. What components are working together to make this design great? If you figure this out for each and every great design you see, you’ll have a solid foundation of priceless knowledge on what works and why. You’ll have gained a true understanding of sophisticated design theory, from which to base future decisions on. You’re one step closer to being great.
4. Use original materials whenever possible
Have you ever looked at a brochure or browsed through a website and noticed generic, contrived, and lame stock photography? How did that make you feel about the design? The major drawback of stock is that (unless carefully chosen) it can have a cheapening effect on your work.
There’s no doubt that stock photos and stock art have their place and are often necessary depending on budget and time constraints. But whenever possible, you should use originally created materials when designing. There’s nothing quite like custom illustrations, hand-rendered type, or original photography. It generates prestige and authenticity in your designs. Anything custom-created will always fit like a glove. It will be exactly what you intended each and every time. The alternative is trying to retrofit your concepts onto previously produced materials. Keep your designs warm and authentic whenever possible by using original materials.
5. Network Online—Follow the Design Communities
Gone are the days when niche information was hard to come by. Nowadays, no matter what your industry is, there’s probably at least a blog or two out there covering it. In the case of design, there are literally hundreds! The benefits of following these blogs are endless. News, editorials, inspirational galleries, resources, tutorials, interviews, are all at your disposal and available for free! I can’t think of a sweeter deal than that. So follow the design community online, and start tapping into this limitless resource to improve as a designer.
To get your feet wet, get yourself an RSS feed reader. I recommend Google Reader, but there are many to choose from. Now simply begin subscribing to design blogs you’d like to follow. Here’s a great list to start you off. Explore these amazing resources and learn everything you can. All of this great content is only half of the overall value, however. Contributing to the community is equally rewarding. Leave comments on blog posts where you have valuable input, or begin writing your own guest posts on your favorite blogs. You might even consider starting your own blog to get your voice out there.
After joining and contributing to the online design community, you’ll begin making friends and connections that will benefit you both professionally and personally. You’ll meet other great designers who have a lot to teach you, and you’ll have a lot to teach them. You might be able to collaborate with others on designs and projects, give or receive references, or provide services to each other. The possibilities are endless.
Through following and contributing to the online design community you’ll tap into a priceless collection information and forge friendships and networking opportunities that will surely help you on your path to become a great designer.
6. Be Competitive – Out Think and Out Work Your Competition
Although it is important to embrace the design community and contribute graciously, don’t forget that you’re also competing with other designers to pay the bills. There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition. Competition forces you to become better and to push your boundaries.
Think of someone you know who’s really good at something. It could be anything: poker, sales, sports, or designing. Do they take pride in it? If you think for one minute that they didn’t make a conscious effort to become really good at it, you’re wrong. The truth is that people don’t just happen to become experts, and it’s not just natural talent that gets them there either. They got there, because they wanted to be better than the rest. They made up their mind and were willing to work harder than others. They simply wanted it more.
There’s a method for becoming competitively good. First, become determined to be better than someone else. This could be your classmates, colleagues, or actual competitors. Make notes of their strengths and weaknesses. Then learn from them. Once you’ve pinpointed what they do good, make an effort to do it equally as good. Make sure to keep this goal in perspective though. Be mindful of competitors, but don’t obsess over them. If you’re consistently focused on improving, you shouldn’t have to.
Don’t be afraid of the competition; as they say, “competition drives innovation.”
7. Find a “Design Buddy”
Having a “design buddy” or “design mentor” can be a great way to grow and improve as a designer. Having discussions/critiques with another designer, collaborating with them on projects, or simply bouncing ideas and concepts off of each other are mutually beneficial exercises. This collaboration will help expose you to different ways of thinking. This person will have their own set of opinions, tastes, and biases, and will keep your perspective fresh.
It’s also great to have someone around to hold you and your work accountable. Accountability is imperative when improving yourself; it helps to keep your ego in check by keeping an objective eye on your work and ideas.
Many designers claim that in order to stay competitive, it’s important to provide the large selection of services typically offered within the industry. To do this, having a broad range of diverse skills is necessary. This is certainly true to some degree.
I believe, however, that it’s equally important to have a core competency. After all, why is anyone ever going to choose you if nothing that you do is unique? Specializing in one area or another helps you shine. Play off of your natural talents and inclinations, and develop your specialty.
For example, some designers are great at creating playful vector characters with tons of personality; others are amazing photo-manipulators who create incredible conceptual imagery. Some designers love playful hand-drawn type treatments and fluffy ornaments; others prefer a crisp clean minimalist style. Own your style. Don’t shy away from it, embrace it and show it off to the world. Practice and improve on your specialty constantly. No matter how good you are at something, you could always be better.
Diversification is important, but why spend most of your time on something, if you only have the potential to become mediocre at best? Instead, focus that energy on getting even better at what you do well. Your specialties are your identity; they’re what make you extraordinary.
9. Do real work
There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that goes “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” This is so true. No amount of research or online tutorials is going to make you a great designer. Knowledge alone is useless, because until you’ve actually applied it, it’s simply an abstract idea in your head. It’s only after you’ve applied it that you truly understand it. So then, if you really want to become a great designer, you have to design a lot!
There’s no reason why designers should learn all of their skills on tutorials or class projects. Get out there, and get your hands dirty. Take on real-life jobs, and do them to the best of your ability. If during a job, you need to know how to do something new, then simply research it and then do it. It’s as simple as that! Google is your friend, and there’s not too much information that’s more than a “Google” away.
The best part of this “learn as you do” strategy? You walk away from all of your projects, a better designer than when you began. Now here’s the clincher… do it again, and again, and again! You’re learning while you make money! That’s a pretty good feeling.
If you can’t find paying work, do pro bono stuff to learn. Your cousin’s wedding invitation, a local band’s album artwork, or a website for a local non-profit, are all great examples. Craigslist is a great place to start when searching for low pay or charity work for experience. You’re getting your name out there and building a reputation for yourself, but the most important thing is that you’re actually learning and improving! The more you do, the faster you’ll get better!
10. Always Do Your Absolute Best—Push Your Limits
It’s easy to half-ass something to just get it done, especially if you’re under a pressing deadline or on the verge of an “all-nighter”. But for the great designers out there, the opposite is actually true. When you take unwavering pride in your work, it’s hard to deliver something in haste that doesn’t reflect your true potential. It’s difficult to put your name on something that could have been much better with a little more effort.
If you want to be a great designer, you have to develop a sense of pride in everything you do. Realize that your reputation and career are at stake, and hold yourself to the high standard of always doing your best while pushing the limits of your own potential. Be your own harshest critic. Make all of your work as good as you humanly can, and then force yourself to do even better. Accept nothing less.
As you progress, take a look backwards at your older work. If you’re developing at a steady pace, then progress should be crystal clear. As an exercise, rip apart your old designs where you see flaws and make them better. Seeing flaws in your old designs is a great sign, because it means that you’re learning and improving.
Reference high-end design work from notable studios or designers whom you admire. Strive to become as good as these top players. Always put forth your best work and maintain high standards; it’s essential to self improvement and to becoming a great designer.
Some people may not agree with this last point because they see perfectionism as a hindrance. After all, perfectionism can lead to missing deadlines and scope creep on projects. This much is true. So in fairness, always do your absolute best within reason. Take into account any constraints such as deadlines, budgets, and overall importance of projects. Keep things in perspective, but generally speaking, always try to do your absolute best by pushing the limits of your potential.
BONUS: Secret 11. Exploit Your Own Weaknesses
Every designer has things that they excel at, and other things that they don’t. For instance, maybe you’re an incredible layout designer in Photoshop, but frontend coding just isn’t your thing. Or maybe your illustrations are unmatched in their sophistication and beauty, but your typography skills are underdeveloped and leave much to be desired.
This is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, everyone has strengths and weaknesses; it’s not a bad thing it’s just a fact of life. What is bad however, is not acknowledging these weaknesses by either ignoring them, or worse yet denying their existence altogether. Some people deny their weaknesses because they feel like they lack the potential for improvement. Or perhaps they’re just being lazy and don’t want to invest the time and energy necessary for improvement.
Whatever the case may be, these are ultimately just excuses that get in the way of what needs to be done. Weaknesses should not be ignored, because other people do notice and will exploit your weaknesses when competing against you. Because of this, weaknesses can take a very real toll on your work and career. They might be pulling-down your self-confidence, stopping you from winning jobs, or holding you back from getting that promotion you desire.
Here’s the good news: you DO have the potential to improve on your weaknesses. You are constantly growing as a designer and a person and as a result, your self-standards are constantly being raised. The fact that you’re aware of this means that you’ve got what it takes to improve. The trick is to focus your energy where you know you need it most. Take the time to focus on that gaping hole in your skillset, instead of gracefully dancing around it. Force yourself to attempt the skill in question, instead of finding creative methods to avoid it. The result might not be ideal, but every time you do it you will improve. By preemptively exploiting your own weaknesses, you can focus your efforts on strengthening them. You can turn them into one of your strengths, or at the very least become adequately proficient at them.
Instead of running away from your weaknesses, embrace them. Sure at first it will be tough. But if you think back far enough, I’m sure you can remember a time when what you do best was tough. Everything is hard before it’s easy. Make the time to pursue your weaknesses and you will see a definite improvement as a designer.
These are some tips on how you can accelerate your growth and quickly become an amazing designer. I realize that self-improvement in any area takes time and devotion, but implement the tips above, and I promise you’ll see drastic improvements in your own development as a designer.
What do you think? Do you have anything to add to my suggestions? Is there anything you disagree with? If you have any additional tips or suggestions for improving your design skills, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Victor Beazzo is cofounder and Creative Director at a Solid Design Group LLC, a Lehigh Valley PA website design studio that provides affordable high-end branding and web solutions to grow small businesses. He is passionate about design and loves teaching what he learns to others. You can visit his website here or follow him on twitter @soliddesigngrp