Experience ≠ Greatness

Experienced designers are often asked by newbies 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 one’s skills and aesthetic sensibilities from mediocre to great? Not surprisingly, most designers will tell you this is not the case. The common consensus seems to be that the only way to become great at anything is through painstaking experience. That’s why most senior-level job postings require a minimum amount of experience, after all.

Image of iMac that reads "Do More" on Screen

True experience depends on how hard you work to become better, not how long.

While I don’t entirely disagree that experience matters, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as everyone pretends. What really makes anyone great at their craft is ultimately his or her ambition and their devotion to self-improvement through practice. While it’s true that becoming a flawless design God doesn’t happen overnight, your true experience depends on how hard you work to become better, not how long.

The hours you put in and dedication you’re willing to put forth in the short term can disproportionally lead to faster skillset gains. There are methods for accelerating your growth and talent at a faster rate, to becoming “good” much faster than traditional knowledge dictates. You don’t need “10-15 years experience,” you just need a clear methodology for continually and consistently developing and finessing your skill set. The top 10 secrets to quickly become an amazing designer are:

“To be an expert in a field that changes from one day to the next is akin to placing your hand in a running river; you can trap a small bit of water for the moment, but once you lift your hand again the river rushes on”

– Kelly Ripley Feller, Armchair Marketing

1. Look at Great Design

Graffiti Art of man with his eyes covered by hands

Don’t turn a blind eye to your craft when you’re out and about.

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,  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,  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 design around 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!

(AKA “Get Inspired”)

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. 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 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, or every time you want to tackle a new style or motif, 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? Composition? Visual balance? Photography? Negative Space?

At first, you won’t understand what makes it good, or why you like it. You must work to understand the rationale and methodology 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. Also follow design-related Instagram accounts, Youtube channels, and Subreddits. Social media is undoubtedly the best place to get the hour-by-hour latest happenings in design.

Here’s a great list to start you off. Here’s another.  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 can be equally rewarding.

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. 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. Because the perceived barrier to entry to a design career is low, and because it looks like (and is) fun work, it can also be extremely competitive. 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, video games, or designing. Do they take pride in Woman sketching logo designit? 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 (“talent” is basically a sexy word for applied potential) 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 to get it. They simply wanted it more and were willing to pay the price.

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 well, make an effort to do it equally as good. That means practice and lots of it.

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.

7. Find a “Design Buddy”

Having a “design buddy” or “design mentor” can be a great way to grow and improve as a designer. This could be a coworker, classmate, or partner. 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 you feed off each other’s energy and 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.

Two women hug about design

Friends don’t let friends design poorly

I have a good friend from college who I frequently keep in touch with and who is also a designer, we reach out to each other often for opinions and feedback on our work.

It’s also great to have someone around to hold you and your work accountable. Make sure you and your “design buddy” know each other well enough to provide honest, pointed feedback, without worrying about hurting feelings. Accountability is imperative when improving yourself; it helps to keep your ego in check by keeping an objective eye on your work and ideas.

8. Specialize

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 to 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.

Beyond style, specialties can also extend to mediums or tools. Do you prefer using Sketch for web layout or are you a Photoshop wizard? Maybe you dabble in print design but web design is really your thing? Own it.

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. Remember, your specialties aren’t just your identity; they’re what make you extraordinary.

“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.”

— Chinese proverb

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 aspiring designers should learn all of their skills on tutorials or mock 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 in the moment, and then do it. It’s as simple as that! Google is your friend. Every freakin’ thing you could ever want to know how to do…there’s like 12 YouTube tutorials on it—guaranteed.

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!

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!

10. Always Do Your Absolute Best

(Push Your Limits)
Book on coffee table

As you progress, take a look backwards at your older work. If you’re developing at a steady pace, then you should hate it (or at least recognize the flaws.)

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 you should hate it. Progress should be crystal clear. As an exercise, rip apart your old work where you see flaws and identify what could make it better.

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 acknowledge that doing your absolute best every time, all of the time, may mean working late, taking things home, and generally redoing/reworking on your own time and dime, in order to not compromise deadlines. It sounds suboptimal but if the alternative is turning in subpar work, and it’s a commitment you made to yourself, then the feeling of satisfaction you get at the end will be worth it. So be willing to put in the time and work. Keep things in perspective, but generally speaking, always try to do your absolute best by pushing the limits of your potential.

Bonus: Exploit Your Own Weaknesses

This one sort of contradicts Number 8 in this list. But 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 Illustrator vector drawing trips you up? Or maybe your illustrations are unmatched in their sophistication and beauty, but your typography skills are underdeveloped and leave much to be desired? I myself would love to be a better hand-drawn illustrator.

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.

hand holding photos

Tear down your insecurities about yourself.

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 weighing down your 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.

Everything is hard before it’s easy. 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. Your weakness may never be your specialty, but at the very least you can become adequately proficient. Make the time to pursue your weaknesses and you will see a definite improvement 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 design skills, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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