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When you’re stuck and not improving as a designer, let’s get back to basics

That’s what my mentor always told me to train my basic every time I practice, Back in my hiphop days.

Basic Bounce in Hiphop Dance

I can’t say that this rule of thumb applies in every field, but I am pretty sure that it applies in design.

When designers feel stuck, one of the most common reason is this: they get exhausted and trapped in the routine. If this is the reason, you can simply take a short holiday and come back to visit your project afterwards.

But what if it’s not?

Maybe you’re not exhausted. You’re not really trapped in the routine. But you ARE stuck. You simply feel you’re not going anywhere with what you’re doing. Your design has always been the same, and you cannot see any significant progress in your project. It’s been that way for quite some time now.

You even begin to wonder: am I really a good designer? What if this is the case?

Photos by Elizabeth Lies

What if I tell you, that you can try to go back to basic?

To revisit the things you learn in school or other courses. A lot of people rarely make the time to go back to basic because they are swamped with works. But I think this is a big mistake. Here’s why.

Honestly, back when I was dancing, I never really liked that advice: ‘back to basic’. It somehow feels paradoxical; as if I’m going back to the starting point and getting further away from my goal.

But now, I begin to understand that going back to basic doesn’t mean you’re going backwards. As an illustration, imagine playing a trampoline instead of stepping down the ladder. When you are in a trampoline, to jump higher, you have to start from a very low point.

found in Giphy

Why back to basic?

When we were in college, we have probably learned basic things, such as: visual hierarchy, typography, color theory. However, first, it’s been ages ago (for me)! We always need to refresh our knowledge.

Second, how many of us can really say for sure that we remember everything we learn in college 100%? Definitely not me. Back in the days, all I could think about was going home as fast as I could to play some games. Unless I make the effort to re-learn those things, most of the things I learn in college will be quickly forgotten.

Third, when we were studying, we didn’t really have the idea of how it will be like in the field. But now, it’s a different thing. We experience the industry first hand. We know what it’s like in this industry. And that provides a different perspective in what we learn.

Zig Ziglar once said,
Repetition is the mother of learning.

— And I completely agree with him. There’s no harm in keep repeating what we have already learned or done. In fact, as we train our basics over and over again, we eventually can come up with new combination and variation in our design.

Photo by Roman Pohorecki

Now, some people would argue that they’re working on a project everyday. They are probably working on the same project for quite some time now.

Isn’t it the same thing?

Doesn’t that count as learning?

With different client and different area in the industry, we would be met with different challenges. That’s one way of learning too, right?

What I would like to emphasize here is that working and learning create a different state of mind. When we are working with a client, our mind is not really in the state of learning new knowledge. We are in the state of creating something to achieve the goal. We are also limited by clients’ expectations, restrictions. But when we redo all the basic things, we are learning something fundamental which can later be applied in any conditions.

This is what I have always been doing. Whenever I feel stuck, I go back to basic.

In result, I gain a better frame of mind as I design. I can also feel how my sense in visual design is sharpened. New ideas, variations can suddenly pop up in my head.

Then how to do it

Here are some practical things that I have done:

  1. First, I create a frame in my mind to focus on the topic that I want to explore. For me, it usually stems from what bothers me the most lately.
  2. You can also try to be specific: typography, how to pair the font in UI design, etc.
  3. Create a time limit (i.e. 1 week)
  4. Collect some resources from Google and Medium.
  5. Find several designs in Dribbble or Behance that support what you’re trying to learn. Explore and analyze those designs. Play with it. Observe, copy, and modify.
  6. End the process by creating something that reflects what you have been learning. Upload them in Dribbble and Behance. Gather some feedback from the community or you may find accountability buddies.