Why and How You should Improve Your Design Skills

Your design skills are the most precious assets you have. They earn you money and help you get new clients. Your design skills are what your job is built on. Just for these reasons you should do your best to keep them fresh and up-to-date. The question is “how?” In this article, I will give you a handful of suggestion how you can level up your skills. All of them were thoroughly tested by myself and other designers I have the chance to talk with. Now, I’m happy to hand over these tips to you and help you reach your potential. So, without further ado, let’s dive right into it …

Why Improving Your Design skills is Important

One of the best way to increase your chance to sustain any learning habit, or any habit at all, is to first understand your motivation. You have to know what makes you tick. As Simon Sinek say: “Start with why.” In this part I’m going to give you couple of rational reasons why keeping your design skills up to date is wise decision. However, feel free to skip this sub-section if you already know what your motivation is. Remember, time is precious.

Your Job Depends on It

Simply said, sticking to the past can put in danger your work as an employee. It doesn’t matter how much your employer likes you. If you are not willing to actively work on your skills, you will soon become a weight for the company. When this happens, you will probably have two options. First, change your attitude and do something with your design skills. Second, throw in the towel and leave your job. It may be harsh, but this is how it usually works. And, to make things even worse, your relationship with your employer will be damaged as well. Why? From now on, you will be seen as someone who must be forced in order to make some progress.

As a result, your employer will lose trust in you. He will no longer see you as an independent individual who is able to see and analyse his weaknesses and subsequently work hard to turn them into strengths. Remember, once you lose someone’s trust, it is very hard to get it back. Listen to me please, I am talking from my own experience. Through last four years I was on both sides of this equation. Meaning, I acted like a jerk and didn’t value trust other put in me. Then, I had to work like hell to get their trust back. I had to go through this couple times before I finally got smarter, at least I hope I did.

On the other hand, I also know what it is to lose trust in someone. Maybe this is also why I value trust and integrity so much now. Anyway, the key takeaway from this is that you should never wait until someone will suggest or urge your to expand your horizons. Always do your best and be faster in spotting new opportunities on the form of new knowledge and technologies to be learned and mastered. Doing so will increase your value as an employee and decrease the possibility of being fired or replaced in the future. Remember, never take your current job as granted.

Sustain Competitive Advantage

Another reason for actively pushing the edge and levelling up your design skills is simply sustaining your competitive advantage. Maybe I should rather say staying interesting hire for potential clients. When you stop working on your design skills, you will quickly become obsolete. In that case, the amount of projects offered to you will gradually decrease as well. Think about it … Would you rather want to hire someone well-equipped with latest knowledge or someone whose knowledge could be as well displayed in the museum? I think we both can agree on the answer.

Just for this sole reason you should do your best and use every chance you will have to learn new tips, tricks and technologies. This is the only way how you will stay “marketable”. If you want to argue that this doesn’t apply to your situation because you are employee, you had better think again. Here is something that you’ve forgot to consider … Your employer might not be interested in pay you if your skills will not be able to keep up. Remember, the main point of interest of your employer is his business. His goal is to make his customers happy.

If you take a look at the pace technology and customer’s needs are evolving, you will quickly understand that your employer has to push the envelope as well. If he wants to stay in business, he has to provide top-notch services to his customers. Otherwise, these customers will stop buying from him and go somewhere else. In conclusion, your employer has to find and employee only people who are able to keep up with the speed of technology. He can’t afford to keep someone who is not willing to move beyond his current expertise.

I hope that, by now, you understand that it doesn’t matter if you are working for yourself as a freelancer or employee working for a company. In both cases it is in your own interest to keep improving your design skill (and other skills as well) and stay up-to-date.

Keep Your Business Afloat

Let’s quickly discuss a scenario where you are an owner of some kind digital agency. In this case … Well, there is actually not so much to talk about. It, again, is your customer and market who is dictating you the technologies that will be used on projects. Sure, you can influence it, but the final decision will still be left to your client. From this point of view, it is clear that keeping your design skill fresh is in your own interest. Otherwise, you are exposing yourself and your agency to the risk of going out of the business. Once Again, never take the clients you currently have as granted.

How to Improve Your Design Skills

After we went through a handful of sound reason why improving your design skill is in your own interest, it’s time to explore some ways to do it. Some of them will be easier and others will be harder. Some will be more comfortable and some less. In either way, don’t get discouraged. Do your best and try all of them to increase your chance to make a progress.

Thou Shall Read and Study

Let’s start with the basics. Improving anything requires you to invest some time in reading and studying material related to the topic of your choice. Your Design skills are not an exception to this rule. The best place for you to start at are books and articles covering topics of design discipline. Before going any farther, it is important to mention one thing … There is a big difference between learning something new and rehearsal of already known information. Why am I talking about this?

The reason is that I know very well from my own experience how easy it is to stick to what you already know. It is much more comfortable to go over material with content that is already familiar to you. Why should you take the risk and try to sail unknown and dangerous waters? Calm harbour is much safer place to stay. I have to agree indeed. Unfortunately, staying in the safety zone of a harbour prevents you from gathering new knowledge. Without this knowledge, your design skills will soon be outdated and deteriorate.

As a result, your chances to work on new and more interesting projects will decrease as well. Then, this little by little decreasing amount of projects will soon start to significantly affect your income. If you will not be willing to recognize it, it may start to put you in danger of not being able to ensure livelihood for yourself. This will be mostly true if you are working “for yourself” as a freelancer or you have your own agency, as we discussed earlier.

Regardless of your feelings and emotions, always push yourself on the edge. Have courage to read and study new and unfamiliar topics instead of being afraid of it. Make it part of your daily routine to read tutorials and news on sites such as tutsplus, treehouse, hackdesign, designsponge, ilovetypography, justcreative or blog like this one. In case you approach any material you will not be familiar with (that should be in every situation), look at it as an intellectual challenge and opportunity to grow. Push yourself if you have to, but don’t give up.

Takeaway: Make reading and studying unfamiliar material and topics part of your daily routine. Always strike the more difficult, harder path and perceive it as an intellectual challenge and a chance to grow.

Thou Shall Practice

The next step right after you put down the book or finish that interesting article is to put your knowledge into practice. Seriously. The longer you will wait the more information will you forget and the more often will you have to return to that book or article for clues. The best way to avoid need to regress is reducing or completely removing any time gap between the learning and practising parts. Also, pay close attention to what are you going to practice. Just with reading, rehearsing old knowledge will never help you make any significant progress.

Another tip I will give you to deepen your practice is to never follow tutorials on one hundred percent. Let me explain what I mean. Every time you will want to train your design skills (or just any skill) on some tutorial, make it your own. Read it, gain understanding and then modify it. Let’s switch to web development and take the Mastering card design with Bootstrap 4 tutorial as an example to illustrate this approach. First, read the theory, process and explanation of the code. Second, understand why it is done in this or that way. Third, write your own code.

The last step is the most important. If you only try to copy the code in tutorial, your progress will not reach it’s peak potential. It will also not show you how well you understand the material, or if you understand it at all. I’m speaking again from my own experience, now from high school. Back then, I often studied in a way to get only shallow understanding of the material. Meaning, I would plus or minus know the how and why. However, I would never be able to fully reproduce any example from my memory or come up with my own.

I guess that many of you, reading this post, would agree that I actually didn’t fully understand the material. And, you would be right. There are two methods you can use to test how much do you understand the material. First, try to reproduce the examples used in material without looking at it. If you want to take it one level higher create your examples. Second, try to explain that material to someone not familiar with it. Only when you will pass both of these tests you can righteously claim you understand the topic. By the way, the best way to learn something is to teach it.

Takeaway: Everything that you read or study should be followed by putting it into practice. When learning from tutorials, make them your own — read them, understand the how and why and then modify the examples in tutorial or, even better, create your own examples to demonstrate the principles you’ve learned.

Thou Shall Shadow

Third way to progress your design skills is by shadowing the work of others. In other words, pick the best examples of design and then copy them. Don’t get me wrong here. It doesn’t mean copy and paste. That would not help you improve your skills at all. Do you remember the time back in elementary school when you were given a task to draw something according to the draft? Well, shadowing is the same thing. You choose one example of design you like and then do your best to reproduce it in the most accurate way possible.

For example, you can go on sites such as Behance, Dribbble or Pinterest, pick a mockup or snapshot and create a copy of it in Photoshop, Illustrator, code or whatever tool do you like to work with. Remember that the more precise your copy will be, the better. If you feel somewhat bad about this kind of practice, you don’t have to. In a fact, if you take a look at the greatest artist in the history, all of them went through this part of the process before they went their own paths.

If shadowing the work of others worked for titans such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Vincent Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso why wouldn’t it work for you? And what about creativity? Forget being creative for a moment and focus on learning rules and principles. You will have plenty of opportunities to unleash your creative beast later. If you have some kind of creative block, check out the Creativity — 10 tips to become an idea machine article to break it.

Takeaway: Improve your design skills by shadowing the work of other already skilled and known designers. Try to reproduce their work as accurately as you can. Sweat every detail, no matter how big or small. Your goal is to basically create mirror copy of the original.

Thou Shall Explore

This may sound contradictory, but I suggest you move beyond your current area of expertise and experience. Dare to surpass the edges of your industry to learn about other disciplines. How should this help you improve your design skills? Exploring unknown places will inject fresh inspiration into your veins. It will give you more material you can draw from. Here is the thing … The more knowledge will you have and more extensive your set of skill will be, the more creative and innovative you will become.

But what about the specialist versus generalist thing? Isn’t it truth that by going too wide will be harmful? That’s a myth you shouldn’t believe. If you want to hear some solid arguments, check out the Specialization Is Wrong, This is What You Should Do Instead article. There, I will discuss this topic in-depth and also give you a better mindset you should aim for — expert generalist. So, take your time and read it. Otherwise, you might be depriving yourself of many opportunities.

Now, back to our topic … What I suggest you is to break free from that “you have to specialize” and “find your niche” dogma. If you don’t want to listen to them, then fuck them. It doesn’t matter if you are designer. If you like music composition or crocheting, go ahead and learn more about it. Remember two things. First, you live only once. Second, every topic you will explore can help you do better job as a designer and give more value to your clients. So, learn about whatever you want to.

Takeaway: Rule number one for keeping your skills fresh and also for being and staying creative is to explore new topics. Dare to expand your knowledge. Go beyond the edges of your current expertise. If you like something, go ahead and learn more about it because you never know what can help you improve your skills and work.

Thou Shall Experiment and Rebel

The last tip to improve your design skills I will give you today is to always be willing to experiment and rebel. When you find yourself in situation where your skills are not progressing enough, dare to shake things up. Meaning, sometime, the best thing to do is to take all the rules and principles and throw them out the window. Let me mention Pablo Picasso again. Many people consider Picasso the greatest painter in history. Whether you agree with it or not (do you?), he was surely the most prolific painter in history.

What I want to address is Picasso’s approach to work. One thing Picasso was master at was experimentation. He was always willing to leave his current style and try something new. Take a look at his works and you will see how his style evolved through the time and how many iterations he went through. My recommendation to you is to do the same thing. Don’t limit yourself to only one design direction or trend. By the way, I wrote an article on trends called 5 Best Reasons to Listen to Your Client Not Trends that can change your current perception of trends.

Anyway, if you are serious about improving your design skills, dare to experiment with different styles and approaches. Question your current style and taste. It is only by experimenting with different styles and approaches that you as a designer and your skills can grow and evolve. You should adopt the same mindset as Picasso did — you have to be willing to leave what works today and find out what can work tomorrow. See your work, style, yourself and also your life as a never-ending experiment.

Takeaway: Sometime, throwing away all the rules and principles is the best thing you can do. Sometimes, you have to question your taste and style. That’s the only way you can keep your design skills growing and evolving.

Closing Thoughts on Improving Your Design Skills

I hope this article will help you improve your design skills, no matter what level you are currently at. Also, I wish you that this article will help you do a better work for your clients and get more and more interesting projects. All that being said, now it’s time for you to put all the information you’ve learned in this article into practice. So, read, study, practice, shadow, explore and experiment. And, most importantly, have a lot of fun!

Originally published on Alex Devero blog