On Becoming A Better Designer

“I want to be a better designer.”

When I hear someone say that it could mean any number of things. It could mean “I want to make more money,” Or “I want to be able to nail [this certain style],” or even “I want to feel better about what I produce.” Regardless of the motivations behind a desire to improve, and the corresponding determination to get there, it’s vital that we are aiming for the right things.

In the course of running my own little design business, working for a startup, and sub contracting for agencies, I’ve seen designers at all levels having to come to terms with three distinct areas of skill. You may naturally find strengths in one or two areas, but everyone must work to become better. These are three legs on the stool of success that must be in place or you’ll find yourself on the floor with sore buns:

Tools

Software, technical skills, methods, workflow

At the most fundamental level, you’ve got to know how to use your tools. There are TONS of resources online to help you learn the ins and outs of your weapon(s) of choice, so get into it and start sharpening your skills. Learn shortcuts and techniques, but also methods and approaches that give you a system that will work on the daily.

Get your save/export/present workflow down so you save time and reduce mistakes through the many iterations your project will go through. Like a musician, your best work will come when you’re not even thinking about the technique or the instrument, but the music.

Management

Project management, priorities, tasks, deadlines

Designers are not artists. It’s impossible to escape the realities of business as you go about your work. Your growth as a designer will be severely limited if you don’t learn to manage yourself and/or your team. Great designers step away from the work at some appropriate interval to prioritize their tasks, understand dependencies (who is waiting on you?), and figure out how to hit the deadlines they’ve committed to.

Regardless of your context, you will never escape this aspect of your work, so embrace it and turn it in to your ally. Work hard at this and you will separate yourself from immature designers who hide behind “creativity” to avoid being held accountable. Constraint is the mother of creativity.

Thinking

Humanity, problem solving, leading discussions, presenting work

Your greatest value as a design professional should be to find elegant solutions for people. To do this well you have to take time to understand the stakeholders involved in the process as well as those who are going to be using what you design. You must question assumptions and bias (including your own!) and learn to discern which branches of exploration and discussion are promising vs. those that are taking you further from the best solutions.

It takes time and experience to hone this skill, but everyone can grow in their ability to focus on the right things at the right times. As your internal dialogue matures to design thinking, it will also elevate all the external dialogues you have as you present work and collaborate with others.

As Albert Einstein said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”


“I want to be a better designer.”

Okay designer, take a look at yourself. In the design trinity of Tools, Management, and Thinking where do you excel? Where do you fall short? If you’re serious about becoming a better designer, with more influence and more pay and more impact, here’s what you do: Pick one area and for the next three months do something every day to get better at that part of your work. When it’s finished, do it again. :)