Level Up and Become a Better Designer

Eleanor McKenna
May 21, 2018 · 5 min read

This post was originally published on onepixelout.com

A big question I’ve had since I started out in my career is how to become a better designer. Starting out, I went through a lot of portfolio envy — looking at incredible design work and wishing I could do that. Regret and self-doubt followed. Did I do the right degree? Am I in the right field? Did I waste my time learning how to code?

I was desperate to get better.

Since then, I’ve found that being a better designer is not something that some special people are born with, it’s not some kind of special talent. It is the result of practice and knowledge. Being a better designer is something anyone can do once they set their minds to it.

Originally published on OnePixelOut.com

Become a Better Designer

Design is a competitive field, and every year new graduates enter the arena. Typically, experience will add to your skills and abilities — learning day to day as you over come challenges.

Technology is an exciting field to work in, but with all of the changes that regularly happen in our industry, knowledge and skills can quickly go out of date. Speaking as someone who learned Actionscript in her bachelors degree, if you’re not continuously updating your skills you’re going to fall behind.

“If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”

Here are my tips on getting better.


1. Read Design Books

One of the best and cost-effective ways to sharpen your toolset is to read the best selling books in your field. This goes for every job everywhere, but as we are specifically talking about design, I’m going to talk specifically about design books.

One of the downsides to working in design is that quite a lot of the books on sale at the minute will be related to a particular fad. I have books on flash websites in storage somewhere… these books were tied to a particular technology that is now obsolete.

image buy giphy

When you’re looking for books to read on design, my advice to you is to find ones that are about the science of design, or will improve your communication skills. Articulating Design Decisions, Universal Principles of Design, About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design… These kinds of books focus on the technical side of design and communication, while leaving fads and trends out.

There are plenty of blogs that you can use for fads or design trends, but when it comes to design principles and the science of design, that information will never date.

2. Blogs, Videos and Podcasts

So it seems there are millions of design blogs and hundreds of podcasts. My advice to you is to find the ones that resonate with you and sign up for the emails. Start getting inspired.

Conferences very often put up the videos of talks from the past — that’s a great way to get inspired and learn something new from the comfort of your own sofa. If you are looking for one today, I highly recommend this one. These videos are free and readily available — so there is no excuse not to learn.

3. Take Courses

Taking courses is like putting rocket fuel into your career engine. The person who is running the course has (hopefully) taken their years of experience and research, and distilled it down into just a few days. If you’re new to this, there are a few pieces of advice I can offer.

I recommend taking a short course — the ones that only last for a few days. In 3 days, you will learn something that is the result of years or perhaps even decades of experience and research. My MA was part-time over 2 and a half years; material covered was already out of date, and I was complete worn out by the end of it. A short course will cover a specific topic in-depth without assignments or exams, and it’s a much better use of your time.

If you are going to do a course, be sure to do your research. I have experienced courses in the past that were just simply not worth my time. The easiest and best way to make sure a course is credible is to look at the social proof. Check out the people who have taken the course before — can you find them on twitter or linkedin? Ask what they thought of it.

Courses can be expensive. The first course I took was over €900 — which is a lot — but I knew the investment would pay off, and it turned out to be the best money I’ve ever spent.

4. Get Around Better Designers

Perhaps the easiest way to become a better designer is to work in the same teams with other designers who are better than you. Learning by osmosis is extremely powerful. Not only will you get to see the work they produce, but you get better at the parts of the job that are non-visual. You will learn how they communicate and present their designs. They will show you how they critique other people’s work. You will also see how they effectively defend their design work. Work with designers who can teach you things, who have more experience than you.

image from giphy

The problem with this point is that many designers don’t work daily with other better designers. If you don’t have the opportunity to work with other great designers, try going to local design meet-ups and events.

5. Work On Side Projects

Sometimes you might wish that your current role would allow you to use more of the new skills that you have acquired. Perhaps your current position doesn’t have a strong design culture. You might feel the products you work on are not something you are proud of.

Or maybe you want to branch out. Maybe you’re a UX designer in your current job, but would like to expand more of your UI skills. Or maybe you wish you could create more animations.

If this is the case, start some side projects. Buddy up with a developer over the weekends and create something new. In my experience it’s a great way to practice or showcase new skills. At the very least, you’ll have something wonderful you can show off in your portfolio.


So that is my advice on how you can become a better designer. Read books and blogs, take courses and get around better designers. Thanks for reading!

Eleanor McKenna

Written by

Designer, developer, and writer based in Munich. Interaction designer at @Google. Founder of www.onepixelout.com