There’s a lot that goes into becoming a truly great designer. It can’t be done by simply reading a book or watching a YouTube video. As with anything worthwhile in life, it takes practice, time, and discipline to develop your craft. This article, which was originally written in 2014 in collaboration with JJ Lee, is a practical guide to becoming a better designer.
1. Study great design.
In order to cultivate a discerning eye for design, you need to constantly expose yourself to good examples of it. Visit design showcase websites like awwwards.com and thefwa.com on a daily basis. As you look at each piece of work, challenge yourself to think critically about the typography, the layout, the images, iconography, copy, etc. Remember, someone made a choice about every single detail you see. Study each element and ask yourself why the designer made the choices they did.
Here’s a more exhaustive list of inspiration websites you can visit:
- TheFWA: Great examples of cutting-edge website design
- Awwwards: web design showcase
- dribbble: A designer community site where you can be inspired by other designers and their creations. This site is typically good for consuming bite-sized designs
- Lovely UI: Mobile UI showcase
- Inspired UI: Mobile Apps Design Patterns
- UI Parade: UI components showcase
- CoDrops: A great website for finding novel interface and interaction proof of concepts.
- Media Queries: Responsive design showcase
- Fonts In Use: An archive of collected typography in use.
- Pinterest: A great place to found all kinds of inspiration from art to web design.
As an exercise, collect examples of design you find inspiring on Pinterest. In the comments of each pin, write down what you think makes the design so effective. Go into as much detail as you can. Drill into the typography, the hierarchy, the colors, the image choices, etc. By externalizing your analysis, you will begin to internalize the principles for good design.
2. Recreate and mimic examples of good design.
Picasso once said “good artists borrow, great artists steal”. Steal good design. We each learned how to be good designers by studying design that we admired. In the beginning, this will mean a lot of mimicry. You need to learn how to walk before you can run. Borrow styles: use the same font choices, similar color palette, and similar photography. Rather than jumping out and trying to make an entirely original piece of design, it may help to figure out how to make something look as good as someone else’s work first.
Take a design like a website or a poster, and start by trying to recreate it. Then once that’s done, try redesigning it, element by element. Start by changing the font and typography, then try changing the color palette. Next, change the layout, then the images. As you do this, you should start to see the impact your changes have on the overall aesthetic. This will help you to understand the relationship between your design choices and hopefully better inform your own design work.
3. Don’t break the rules until you know them.
It’s very tempting as a young designer to want to come up with something completely original with every project. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel at every turn. As a young designer, that’s risky. Start with what you know is good and work your way from there. Look to existing design patterns. There’s no reason to invent a whole new form of interaction when something more tried and true can be easily leveraged. Learn the principles of visual design first. Then you can begin to break the rules as you grasp the fundamentals.
4. K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple stupid)
Good design is clean and minimalist. Cut out the crap and always reduce and refine. Taking away is harder than adding elements. It’s more valuable to learn how to design something simple well than to design something complicated poorly. Start with the basics and build your way up. Always take a step back and ask “do I really need this?” Anything that doesn’t serve a purpose is superfluous. Edit it out. Think critically about your own design choices. You should always be able to justify them.
5. Learn to obsess about the details.
To be a great visual designer, you need to be obsessed with getting the details right. No pixel can ever be out of place; everything should line up against a grid. Every font size should follow a consistent visual hierarchy. Every type should be properly set. Good designers tend to be a bit OCD (obsessive compulsive). Aspire to be equally anal retentive. (No snickering)
6. Stalk designers you like.
Find out what cereal your favorite designers eat for breakfast. What beer they drink every Saturday night…everything. Okay may be not that creepy. JJ used Starbucks, Coca Cola and Apple as brands that he looked up to and set his standards to their level. He literally went to the grocery store every 2–3 weeks just to look at their packaging on the shelves and see what those brands were doing. He picked up their ads and documented every move they made.
Having designers, studios, or companies that you admire and aspire to is important to stay inspired. They will help to set the bar for the quality of work that you can strive towards. Get on dribbble and Behance and start stalking!!! If you’re new to design and don’t know who to follow, I highly recommend checking out this article by Tradecraft, entitled 64 People You Should Know in Design.
7. Practice, practice, practice
Practice every minute you have a chance. In order to get good, there’s simply no replacement for actually doing the work. There’s a study that’s mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers that suggests that it takes a person about 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. That means you have many years and hours of practice before you can become really good. When I look back at my early design work now, it’s embarrassing, but that’s a good thing. It shows how far I’ve come.
Give yourself small design challenges on a daily basis, and try to design something new, no matter how insignificant. You can design a graphic for a tweet. You can upload a new image to your Instagram feed. You can create an animation for a microinteraction concept. Doing these small exercises will help you take tiny steps towards hitting that 10,000 hour mark. I guarantee you that you will become more proficient quicker if you just keep doing design.
Keep designing, keep creating, and never stop learning.
Won J. You is the chief product officer and curriculum director at Designation, a UX/UI bootcamp based in Chicago.