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The One Thing You Need to Do to Become a Better Designer

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.

The One Thing You Need to Do to Become a Better Designer

The One Thing You Need to Do to Become a Better Designer

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:

Practice.

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.

Start a Tutorial File

Start a Tutorial File

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?

Study an Effective Layout

Study an Effective Layout

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.

Puzzle it Out Yourself

Puzzle it Out Yourself

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.

Redesign a Famous Logo

Redesign a Famous Logo

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!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Dec 3, 2009

Matthew Simmons says:

I agree 100%!

This is a great article. It seems that I have a tendency to just read and pretend that I will acquire the skills to design great things by osmosis. But at the end of the day I know it will not. I make an effort to do at least two tutorials a week.

Studying layouts is also an awesome tip. Often times I feel like I have nowhere to go with the layout I’m working on, so I have to look at an already established layout to help brainstorm.

Dec 3, 2009

printedproof says:

Great write up Matt. I think this is one quality I agree with and dont hear that often. I have to say from experience that the only way to truly learn is to “do” and by this you mean practice.

Dec 3, 2009

designfollow says:

very useful, thank you.

Dec 3, 2009

cmckelvey says:

Couldn’t agree more! Great article!

Dec 3, 2009

LukeSF says:

absolutely agree… recollected some early moments of mine… when had a bunch of freebies and pdfs saved to my hard drive and thinking ” Wow! i’m gonna be a designer soon” :)

Dec 3, 2009

Camille says:

Thank you for this great article! Not only do you mention the basics – practice practice practice! – but you offer tangible means of making it happen. I’ll definitely pass this one along and re-read a couple of times.

Well done!

Dec 3, 2009

Tarlan says:

Great article. Lots of useful and intuitive tips :-)

Dec 3, 2009

Jon Phillips says:

That is such a great post! I can totally related to it. I mean, there’s no way I would be where I am now if I just bookmarked tutorials and never practiced.

It’s like playing an instrument – it’s not cause you have a $4k guitar that you’re going to be good (or maybe you will, but not necessarily make a living with it), it takes years and years of practice and experimentation! :)

Dec 3, 2009

Kevin Zurawel says:

It’s entirely true. The number one trick to being more efficient is to actually do the work and stop looking for ways to be more efficient. It works the same in design as anywhere else. 10,000 hours of practice is the only guaranteed way to make yourself a master of anything.

Dec 3, 2009

David says:

Nice article. For me I’m never satisfied with a design that I’ve done but perhaps that may be from the perfectionist in me.

Dec 3, 2009

Sue says:

So true!

As a pre-New-Year’s resolution, I’m going to do one of each of your tips so I can *really* get the new website online in 2010!

I’ve got the tutorials saved, I’ve even done a few! I’ve also saved the sites that I *like*. Now it’s time to learn why I like them and how I can use the techniques to build our new identity.

Great article. Thanks

Dec 4, 2009

PoundBangWhack.com says:

Execellent article. I’ve been taking your advice to heart as of lately. I myself am much more of a developer than i am a designer. I’ve been trying to hone my photoshop skills and have been trying to find some tutorials that I can use and learn from and have started working through. Excellent bit of advice. Great post.

Dec 4, 2009

Alex Blundell says:

Brilliant artice, I totally agree that practice is the key, everything else helps but alone really wont suffice.

Each time I sketch/design something or try out a new technique I can see my skillset growing and my designs becoming better.

It takes time and unlike other proffessions that thrive on knowledge alone, as designers its about how well we actually use our skills to produce creative and effective design.

Dec 4, 2009

Mississauga web design says:

I’ve been following your blog, the last time I read was “why you shouldn’t design your own blog”…it was really a nice article…and you are very consistent with the quality of content you have…

PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE…if you want to excel in anything we have to keep practicing..regardless of your degree or school you came from, who your mentors are…as long as you don’t practice, you will never be better than the other who keeps practicing to hone their skills… you will only be good at what you do but you will never surpass the skills of those who devote their time improving their skills.

Dec 4, 2009

Ted Goas says:

I’m sure this is a great article (I scanned it) but I was expecting something much shorter and to-the-point based on it’s title.

Dec 4, 2009

Matt Ward says:

Sorry if you found the title misleading. The intention was to be provocative and intriguing though.

If you want, you can stop reading right after the word “practice”. That pretty much sums up the rest of the article, which is really just about suggesting different ways to help you practice!

Thanks for the comment though!

Dec 4, 2009

Brian Jones says:

Great Post and thank you for the article. As a novice designer, I agree each of the above needs to be accomplished to gain the necessary skills and knowledge in order to succeed

Dec 4, 2009

Jeff Chapman says:

Excellent, practical advice – well spoken. I enjoyed your article and am impressed with the design of your site. Will keep you bookmarked and read often.

Dec 4, 2009

IVAN says:

oh! .. very right, .. very useful !

Dec 4, 2009

BebopDesigner says:

Brilliant post… really enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

Dec 4, 2009

Rahul - Web Guru says:

Nice one. Thanks for the share.

Dec 4, 2009

Shawn says:

As a guy who is going back to school to get a Web Design degree, I am really glad you wrote this. Practice (a.k.a. experience) is a must. You offered some great advice that I plan on following and taking action on. TYVM!!!!

Dec 4, 2009

Chris Thurman says:

Kevin mentioned this but in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell he talks about how 10,000 hours is the key to becoming an expert at whatever it is you do. A very interesting book if you get the chance to read it. Great article! Now I’m off to get closer to that 10,000 mark.

Dec 4, 2009

Mike says:

Awesome, a simply awesome article. This has totally re-energized me now and I’m ready to hit the drawing board again. Lately I’ve been busy with reading up on so many things that I have forgotten the key element in being a designer which is practicing like you said.

Thanks so much for the encouraging kick in the right direction!

Dec 5, 2009

Matt Ward says:

Thanks for the comments everyone! It’s been awesome to see such a positive response to this post!

In many ways, it seems like such an obvious idea – but sometimes the obvious things are the ones that we need to be reminded of! So glad that everyone is responsive really well.

I’m definitely going to be doing some more of these kind of editorial/thoughtful articles, since you all seem to really like them!

Dec 5, 2009

Darpan Jain says:

Indeed a great post.. It is really true that until you do, try out or pratice, you cant understand the specifications and complications involved, which ultimately adds to the learning and makes one a better designer… The article was really helpful users like me who have just entered the field of graphic designing… i just would like to addone more point, that once you are pretty comfortable wid designing (using the software), the next thing is ideation.. how creative you can get with the concept at hand… so whenever you design, dont limit your imagination, beleive me you can develop great work..

Thanks Matt, awesome post, Awaiting for your next blog post..

Dec 5, 2009

Nix says:

I agree. You speak the truth. There are no shortcuts to becoming a better designer.

Thank you for this well-written blog post!

Dec 5, 2009

Vladimir Remenar says:

Bookmarked for easy and fast access :)

Dec 5, 2009

Jasmin Halkic says:

Awesome article. Very nice.

Dec 5, 2009

Alfons says:

Nice read! Things like these really helped me when i started as a designer and it is still usefull to keep practicing! Thanks for sharing this!

Dec 5, 2009

Cheryl says:

This is truly the single best article I’ve read … all year, at least. Thank you for stating the common-sensical, clear and unvarnished truth at the core of the matter. Wonderful!

Dec 5, 2009

CyberFox says:

Wow!!
What a great article! You really can write! Man!
Thanks.

Dec 5, 2009

Hazem says:

Great article and a lot of useful step to enhance one’s design skills. I think what you wrote is enough for one to get busy doing but I want to ask you to add the concept of colors. What can make a designer better in choosing colors, is it a gene thing or is it practice? How can one make themeselves better at spotting what works and what doesn’t.
Also, I would like to ask, is content architecture a skill designers need to be better at? I have lots of questions and suggestions but I am not sure if I should spill them out because not many people might think they are important or useful!

Thanks Matt : )

Dec 5, 2009

Julius H. S. says:

great advice – not only for adults but even for me as a 16 year old!
very well written and a guide for lots of other (bad) articles…

Dec 5, 2009

xRommelx says:

reallly amazing post, thank you

Dec 5, 2009

Birgit says:

Yeah, that’s it, really :)
But to sum it up even more, I think what you need is a good balance of input (= inspiration, reading, learning and so on) and practice.

Dec 5, 2009

Jeremiah Tolbert says:

This is a wonderful post. I’ve been doing just this since the tuts network sites came online. I must bookmark a dozen tutorials a day, and there’s no way I can do all of them, but whenever I find myself with some downtime I need to fill, and I don’t have business administrivia to take care of, I open up my tutorial bookmarks, find one that looks like it will teach me a lot, and get to work.

The best way to get better at absolutely anything is practice. I try to tell people that when they ask me how to be a better photographer, but there seems to be this feeling that there must be a short cut around the time commitment. They say, “oh, well, it’s your camera, I don’t have a DSLR.”

So, again, great post. Thanks.

Dec 5, 2009

arnold says:

thanks for the tips!. Combining what you learn from different tutorials is awesome. I will take note of that! im still in the learning process , Your article is sweet ! , it made my day

Dec 5, 2009

Stephanie Bertha says:

Pfttt! Why didn’t I think of this before?

“Try picking three or four different tutorials from your bookmark folder and combining the techniques to create a really awesome design.”

Thanks for that tip — super smart!

Dec 5, 2009

Cameron Dean says:

Like an earlier commenter, this is the single best article I have read, as well, this year… you saved the best till last. ;-)

I agree with everything you wrote. Simple, but brillant, by the way.

Just wanted to share a resource (book) that goes right along with this article that others might find interesting… I have way too many books on graphic design, but this is the one I keep drifting back to over and over again to work on my process: Hot-Wiring Your Creativity… truly a sleeper (not well known for some unbelievable reason)… I have actually purchased this book in both paper (originally), and then digital (recently) formats, since I always have my computer near me. ;-)

One final thought… I am interested in setting up (maybe on Ning or using Google Wave) an area where people–like those who commented here–could share tutorials, work on them together, critique each other, learn from each other, etc. Maybe such a space already exists out there, but if it does, I am not aware of it. I would really like this for the KICK IN THE ARSE factor… sometimes good to have some ask, when are you going to post your design, since the three of us have done that? ;-)

Anyway, if anyone is interested in investigating this further, I can be reached at cameron.dean@yahoo.com.

I will check back here for additional comments.

Take care.

Cameron

Dec 5, 2009

Cameron Dean says:

Opps… slight mistep with the title of the book. My bad… just how I refer to it… ha ha ha. Here is the actual full, correct title: Hot-Wiring Your Creative Process: Strategies for print and new media designers

Dec 5, 2009

Sawant Shah says:

Excellent writeup Matt. Couldn’t agree more with you! I have to confess that I myself am inflicted with such a habit, where I just read, read … and read some more.

I feel like printing this page and pasting it somewhere where I am reminded of this everyday, every moment!

I’m gonna go and follow your excellent advice … and start pushing myself!

Thanks Matt, and keep writing!

Dec 5, 2009

Rosalind Wills says:

Excellent post…I’m one of those people you mention who tend to just read through tutorials on the assumption that the ideas will stick with me for later, but I’m going to try your idea of trying to combine tutorials and actually work through them to make a design. Sounds like a good idea and more effective than the way I’m approaching it.

Thanks for writing, Matt!

Dec 5, 2009

Jason Aiken says:

Absolutely!

Couldn’t agree more.

Reading and informing yourself is obviously important but sooner or later you must move from theory into practice – from seeing to doing.

Cheers,
Jason
99designs.com

Dec 5, 2009

Andy says:

100% Love this thank you I will make it my homepage to remind me to always practice when im getting lazy. Thank you so much ;)

Dec 6, 2009

dc says:

bravo. i’ve often discussed this with students and professors and long ago came to the conclusion that you cannot effectively “teach” real-world scenarios. many design schools tout this ability but your “number 1 thing” is the only practical answer.

Dec 8, 2009

Ints says:

Great article, thanks!

Dec 17, 2009

Victor Velazquez says:

You pretty much hit on the basics. Just looking at amazing designs doesn’t mean your going to absorb the talent of the artist. Nice post!

Feb 4, 2010

sbuster says:

Exelente!!!

Feb 19, 2010

Was33m says:

Absolutely right, very fine article for a beginner. and advance designers as well. Excellent work

Jun 10, 2010

Blazelz says:

I totally agree with what is said here although I have a question…. How does the writer or anyone commenting feel about using icons/graphic freebies for freelance jobs?

Jul 16, 2010

dorisd says:

Great article. Lots of useful and intuitive tips

Jul 22, 2010

Janice says:

Great article. Very useful information for new designers.

Aug 4, 2010

Jan Cantor says:

This is very helpful, indeed. I’m an upcoming designer myself and to become a better designer, I have to push harder. That means, practice!

Thanks for the great article and insights.

RT-ing

Aug 17, 2010

Getty Images Representative Philippines says:

This is very sound advice; there is no magic formula to designing the world’s best website. You really have to be willing to put a lot of time and effort into your craft to succeed.

Sep 26, 2010

Gert van Duinen says:

Ah, now I understand why there’s such a ridiculous amount of tutorials on the net. At first I thought that there must be an ark-load of awesome designers out there. How naive can one possibly be!

Mar 29, 2011

Offshore Lead Generation says:

I love your ideas here and you discussed well. Practice is still the best way to learn things the right way because one might have all the tutorials and other guides but if you don’t use it then it is still useless…

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