Become a better designer

Tips on how to improve your designs fast

How do I become a better designer? And fast!!! This question has been typed into my google search box many many times over the past 15 years. Even though I have been in this industry for a long time now and have been practicing for a decade and a half, I still find myself asking this question. I’m pretty sure every designer on the planet (even the masters) ask themselves this from time to time.

We as designers, we love beauty, we enjoy elegance, find perfection in small details and get satisfaction from type scales and the golden ratio.

Being surrounded by amazing apps and beautiful sites 24/7 gives us endless opportunities to compare our work with other designers’ projects and lets that niggling little voice in your head keep whispering in your ear ‘you’ll never be that good!’

Why bother to become better at design?

We became designers because we felt inspired by the amazing designs we saw, used, and loved. We felt the need to create our own. How many times have you looked on a website, opened an app, or seen a layout and felt the desire to turn on the laptop, break out the Wacom and start mocking up something awesome? It happens to me on a daily basis!

But how often have you looked at your finished masterpiece and felt unhappy with the result? How many clients or art directors have asked for big changes or not been happy when you handed over that design you have lovingly slaved over all day? You go away to make your changes, or close your Sketch file and put it in the ‘I’ll come back to it another day folder’ and leave it to die with all the other designs you didn’t feel were working and ask yourself that same question: “How do I become a better designer?”

The perks of being good at your job

By being better at design we will feel a greater sense of achievement when showing our work and handing it off to a happy client or stakeholder. Being a better designer will help your users understand what this design does and what they are supposed to do with it. You will be able to create much better user experiences! You will also become an asset to your company rather than an expense. Rather than being someone who costs the company money, you will become an asset, someone who creates value.

All of the above will make you able to command a higher daily/hourly rate or a better yearly wage if you’re in a company.

Become a better desiner

Photo by Halacious

“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. ”

Paul Rand

The perks of being good at your job

By being better at design we will feel a greater sense of achievement when showing our work and handing it off to a happy client or stakeholder. Being a better designer will help your users understand what this design does and what they are supposed to do with it. You will be able to create much better user experiences! You will also become an asset to your company rather than an expense. Rather than being someone who costs the company money, you will become an asset, someone who creates value.

All of the above will make you able to command a higher daily/hourly rate or a better yearly wage if you’re in a company.

How being a better designer will help

Well, hopefully this article will address that question and help put you on the road to being a better designer and show you a few simple tricks to up your design game and put you on the path of being better, if not much better, at design very quickly.

Master studies

One of the best ways of learning is to look at the designs of the masters. Designers whose work grabs you. Leaders whose work inspires you and makes you want to be a better designer! It doesn’t have to be the classic famous designers we are told to read up on at University like Massimo Vignelli, Paul Rand or John Meada (but they are a good place to start). It should be any designer that really catches your attention. With a bit of googling and searching sites like Behance, Dribble and Muzli you will find plenty of amazing work to draw inspiration from. I suggest you compile a library of your favourite designs and then start your master studies from there.

Study the fundamentals and principles

If you want to be better as a designer you must learn the fundamentals and principles of design.

You would be surprised by the amount of designers out there that don’t actually know them. Knowing Photoshop or how to use Sketch won’t make you a designer. Also just placing elements on a page and arranging them till you find a layout that looks ok won’t make you a designer.

Learning these fundamentals and principles of design will give you a tried and tested set of rules to use when designing.

By using these you won’t be creating happy accidents, you’ll have a way of creating repeatable and good results. By knowing the rules you will also know when and how to break them, you will know that you can create hierarchy by using size and colour, but maybe you can break the grid with an element to give it a higher importance too! You will only know that because you know the rules.

Know your craft inside out. When you are good at what you do you can be proud of your work and as an added bonus you can command a higher wage!

Practice what you learn, don’t just read or listen

Practice, practice, practice! If you want to become a better designer you need to take this one tip above all the others.

There is no secret sauce or silver bullet. You won’t become amazing overnight. To become really good at design you have to start off with the mindset of “quantity over quality”.

It’s all about mileage at the beginning. This is probably one of the hardest things to do for someone who wants to learn design. You decided to learn design because you want to create beautiful work and I’m telling you to focus on quantity.

Learn all the elements and practice them, create layouts, work on wireframes and UX, try to experiment with typefaces and grids. Use different tools and techniques and see what the results look like.

By doing this you will ingrain what you have learnt. You will also see what works and what doesn’t work. You’ll be speeding up workflows, creating your own process, and also developing your own style.

You have to practice lots and not be afraid or disheartened when your design doesn’t turn out perfect, learn from it. Dissect it like a master study and see why it’s not working. You only fail if you give up.

Practice-to be godd-at-design-to-improve

Read a lot

Time Ferris famously once said if you read 3 books on a topic from different authors, you’ll become more knowledgeable about it than 99% of people you know. So that in itself is a pretty easy task. Find 3–5 good books on design, read them and you’re done!

Well, not quite.

Reading regularly you will expand your knowledge of the subject, you will learn important information and interesting options of other designers.

Becoming the best designer you can be is the goal and if you can find short cuts and tips by standing on the shoulders of giants, then that is what you need to do.

Try to read long-form content as much as possible because with the internet and social media our attention spans have been reduced to almost goldfish level. So reading will also help to increase our concentration.

Books, longer articles, and magazines/bookazines are all great. Read up on design history, classic designers, famous modern designers, tutorials, and opinions. All this will add to your knowledge and increase your love of all things design.

And hey, if you only manage 3–5 books you’ll still know more than 99% of the people you know and ‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’!

Find mentors and peers

One massive tip on your journey to becoming a better designer is to find peers and mentors! Doing online or in-person courses are a great way to go! (Quick plug: check out my online bootcamp to get a jump on the competition.)

Finding someone to go through your work and point out mistakes or make suggestions on improvements is going to be a massive help. By learning from people/designers who have been in the industry and have a wealth of experience you will improve that much faster. Of course, it’s not always easy to find a mentor, people are busy, courses can be expensive and location can all be problems.

If this is the case you can always join design forums, Facebook groups, and Slack communities to get that much-needed feedback.

If you’re really brave, reach out and try to make contact with your favourite designers. People are more accessible than you think and you never know, things could explode from just that! Give it a try.

Create or find a process

This is another great tip, either find a process online that you feel resonates with you or create your own.

Becoming a better designer isn’t just about knowing loads or making awesome, functional designs. It’s also about having professional and speedy workflows, properly layered, tidy files and orderly folder structures.

Be a master of your craft. Take pride in your files as much as you take pride in the actual design.

Some designers might think this is rubbish, The amount of (so-called) designers I see on Dribble or Instagram posting memes or joking about ‘ my design (nice looking pic) ‘my files (plate of spaghetti or jumbled mess)’ is crazy. This is not something to be proud of.

Trust me, your fellow co-workers and devs who will use your files will thank you for it.

This is another trait of a professional.

Learn UI and UX

You know all the fundamentals and principles, you can create an awesome layout and web/mobile page. Your colour palettes make angels cry.

Now you want to get in-depth on UX and UI. The design may look lovely but if it’s hard to navigate or confusing for the user it is useless. Learn UX principles and Gestalt techniques to make your users feel thrilled to use your products.

Learn about the common UI patterns, page stacks and button states.

Go mad looking at Apple HIG and Material Design docs. (Shoulders of giants again). Learning these will help you to pick up best practices and learn how the big boys play.

By now you’re on your way to being an awesome designer with more knowledge than most.

Who to measure your self against

As a designer, it’s hard not to compare your work with other designers’ work out there. This is one of the biggest causes of frustration you will encounter on your journey to become a better designer.

The problem with the internet is that no one puts out the designs they aren’t proud of. It’s only the best bits and you end up comparing your work to these. There will always be someone better. You don’t know how long that designer has been producing and where they are from (design-wise). So whatever you do, don’t compare yourself to others.

The only person to compare yourself to (and this should go for all other areas of life) is you! Compare your latest design with your designs from a month ago, 6 months ago and a year ago. This is where you will see your progress. This is where you can compare fairly and see how well you are doing. The same as if you are trying to lose weight or put on muscle, you wouldn’t compare your photo to someone on the internet: that won’t show you if you have lost fat or gained muscle. You would compare to older pics of yourself to see how well you are progressing.

(Side note) Try to stay active and exercise as much as possible too. Sitting hunched on a computer all day is pretty bad for your health and  your posture. If you’re concentrating on a stiff neck or back pain you won’t be focusing fully on the task at hand.

To recap on becoming a better designer

Master studies

Dissect and study from the designs you love.

Study the fundamentals and principles

Learn the basics first. These are important and will set you apart from others.

Practice what you learn, don’t just read or listen

Implement and experiment with what you learn right away. Don’t just absorb knowledge without trying the techniques yourself.

Read a lot

Read lots, helps to broaden your mind, stops your brain rotting and increases your attention span.

Find mentors and peers

Stand on the shoulders of giants. These people can halve your learning curve and make great friends along the way.

Create or find a process

Having a tried and tested road map will help you to create repeatable results and make you more professional. Don’t be a maverick.

Learn UI and UX

Stay up to date with the biggest players, learn best practices from the leaders, make your users love you. Master your craft.

Who to measure your self against

You are only as good as your last project. Don’t waste time getting disheartened by comparing your designs with other people’s work. Put your head down, stick to the plan. Learn to love the journey and only ever compare yourself to yourself.

Now you know how to become a better designer

I hope you have found this article useful. Becoming a better designer won’t happen overnight. But stick with it and it will happen. Love your job, master every area of it and never stop learning!


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