posted by Matt Ward on Dec 2, 2009.
Want to become a better designer? In this post, I am going to outline what I think is the one way to get there, and suggest a number of exercises that you can do to help you along the way!
There’s an absolute ton of material out there on the internet, and in the so-called Blogsphere, specifically geared towards helping designers hone their craft. There are tricks and tips, tutorials and lists. There are in depth articles, an ark load of inspiration (an ark, of course, being a very large boat) and innumerable freebie resources for you to use.
It’s like a veritable designer’s Utopia, a wide open land echoing with the promise of growing knowledge and better design.
It sounds wonderful. It is wonderful. I love being a part of the design community, and am incredibly grateful for all the wonderful things I’ve learned. But, the cold, hard and entirely unavoidable truth is that, if you want to become a better designer, there is only one way that you are really going to get there, and it can all be summed up in one simple word:
That’s it folks. You can read all the books, magazines and blogs you want. You can spend hours being inspired by some of the world’s most beautiful designs. You can download and archive every awesome freebie out there. In the end though, if you don’t roll up your shirt sleeves and get your hands dirty by actually designing something, then it’s really all for naught.
Just look at a hockey player. If watching hockey games, reading hockey blogs and buying hockey gear would make you and expert hockey player, then half of Canada would be getting ready to be drafted into the NHL. But it doesn’t work that way. If you want to be a hockey player, then you have to lace up your skates, tape up your stick and get out there on the ice. You have to take the bumps and bruises, probably loose a tooth or two, and actively work at getting better every single day.
Why would design be any different?
If you want to become a better designer, then you have to work at it, just like everyone else. When was the last time you read a tutorial and then actually went out and tried it? I can be guilty of this one myself. I will often read through a tutorial – sometimes just skim through it – and try to store any useful information away in the old grey matter, hoping to be able to retrieve it later. The fact of the matter is, though, that doing this is not nearly as effective as sitting down and actually working through the tutorial.
Seriously. If I take the time to work through the steps, I absorb the techniques better, and I actually remember them and use them in my own work later on. I practice, and I become a better designer because of it.
With that in mind, here are some things that you can do to help yourself practice.
Start a Tutorial File
Found an awesome tutorial on the TUTS+ network or over at Tutorial9? Bookmark it. And I don’t mean social bookmarking. Put it in a place where you can easily find it. Do this with any tutorial that you think can really help you out.
Now, set aside some time and go back to that tutorial. Work through it. Practice the techniques for yourself. If source files are provided, you can download them to use. Even better though, is finding your own images and using the techniques of the tutorial to create an entirely different design. Remember, we’re not trying to learn how to be copycats here, we’re trying to become better designers. This means adding to or expanding our skill sets for use in our own, unique works!
Want a bigger challenge? Try picking three or four different tutorials from your bookmark folder and combining the techniques to create a really awesome design. This makes great practice, and hopefully you’ll end up with a really awesome portfolio piece.
Study an Effective Layout
Pick a design that you find particularly effective and take the time to study it. Yes, you can look at the effects that were used (if there are any), but more importantly, study the way the design is laid out. How is it aligned? Does it make use of a grid? How does it treat white space?
Also, be aware of the use of typography. What kind of typefaces are used? How do they interact with, reflect or otherwise inform the rest of the design? Is it a serif font, sans-serif, cursive or decorative?
Make notes about the design. Look for things that you think work particularly well, but also things that may not be quite as effective. Look for things that could have been done differently or perhaps better. Conversely, think about how the things that you are noticing and commenting on could help actually improve some of your own work.
Again, the point is not to study a design so you can learn to copy it, but to learn how other people have achieved effective designs.
Want a bigger challenge? In addition to studying what a designer has done in a particular piece, ask yourself why they did it. Design is as much about form or function as it is about aesthetics, and in the best designs everything has purpose. Trying to determine these purposes is a great way to sharpen your design mind!
Puzzle it Out Yourself
Go dig through your collection of CDs, DVDs, video games, books, magazines or posters and try to find a design with an effect you really like. Study it for a while. Maybe make some notes. Basically, try to puzzle out how the design and/or effect was created.
Now, sit down at your computer and try to replicate it. Again, we’re talking about the technique here, not the actual piece itself. Work through various options and combinations and see how close you can get to the desired effect. And try not to worry about being perfect. The important thing here is to push yourself, to think critically and to become just that much better of a designer because of it.
Want a bigger challenge? Try writing your own tutorial. As you puzzle through the various techniques, make notes on what works and what doesn’t. Then, when you’re finished, try writing a step by step explanation of how you achieved the effect. This will help cement it in your mind, give you a handy guide for future reference, and maybe even something to submit to one of your favorite tutorial sites or blogs!
Redesign a Famous Logo
If you work (or want to work) in identity and branding, try taking a famous logo and redesigning it. Study the current logo to determine what values it communicates, what target market it is aimed at and so forth.
Now, just for kicks, pretend that they want to shift their identity. Maybe Nike wants to start appealing to more senior citizens. Maybe Axe wants to clean up its image and target a more mature audience. It’s just a project, so have fun with it. Once you have your new direction, consider this your “brief”. Write it all down and stick to it. In other words, don’t change directions just because you have a cool idea. Your clients certainly won’t.
With your brief in hand, set about redesigning the logo to meet the new vision. It can be a realignment of the current logo or a complete redesign. It’s up to you. Just make sure that whatever you choose to do lines up with the brief you wrote for yourself! This is a great way to practice designing within a specific set of guidelines.
Want a bigger challenge? Go beyond just the logo and try working on a complete identity. Consider things like business cards and other stationary, signage, uniforms, advertisements, a website and/or anything else that might be appropriate for the company you chose. This is a great way to get you thinking about the bigger picture, and designing a corporate identity that works well through multiple media!
Never be Satisfied
This isn’t really a practice technique, but I think it’s probably the natural state of mind of most designers – never be completely satisfied with your work. Certainly, you should take pride in what you design and you should never undervalue yourself, but at the same time, there is always room for improvement. Strive to grow and improve with every single project!
I also need to say that I am preaching to myself as much as anyone else here – maybe even more so. I really do need to make more time to practice my craft and improve my own skills. So, I am determined that, in the New Year, I am going to make more time for some of the exercises listed above. I know it will be good for me in the long run. Hopefully it will be good for you too!
Well folks, it’s time for you to have your say! What are your thoughts on this? Am I totally off base or right on in your view? Are there any other exercises that you use to practice and improve your design skills? I recognize that this is a somewhat subjective article, and that there could be some interesting counter arguments, so bring on the discussion! I’m eager to hear your thoughts and comments!Post A Comment
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