Stop Designing to
Be a Better Designer

Designers are always looking for ways to gather inspiration and hone their craft, and sometimes, the best way to do so is to stop designing. Here’s why. Design is about people — how they behave, what they want and how you can improve their lives. So step out of your designer shoes for a bit. Here are five easy ways to start.

1. Expand your network.

Whatever does that mean? Great question. Let someone who isn’t a designer completely blow your mind with how they approach problem solving. Network scientist Ron Burt’s research reveals that open, diverse networks are a predictor of success. Likely individuals with vast, differentiated networks have a competitive advantage. Being the fulcrum of many networks is also ideal, since it provides a plethora of inspiration and promotes innovation.

Talk to someone who makes robots for a living, studies cancer or works in a “boring” industry like finance or media. Let them inspire you, and let their insights shift the way you approach design. Connect with people outside of your field and discover how both your skills are symbiotic. Go to hackathons and meetups to keep your work and ideas fresh. Avoid the pitfall we’ve all seen happen in school, where everyone starts adopting a certain style, and soon enough, all the work loses its individuality and looks the same.

2. Read more fiction.

The best designs and content tell a story. What better way to enrich the way you tell stories visually than by reading them? Stories are effective because you’re engaging the audience on multiple cognitive levels including all the senses, emotion, and memory. Stories activate more centers of the brain, therefore making them more memorable. Ultimately, the goal is to hook an audience on multiple cognitive levels, so hit the books. It also doesn’t hurt to improve your command of language: an integral but often overlooked component of design.

Research has shown that reading also increases empathy. And empathy is also essential for designers. You put yourselves in the shoes of clients and target audiences every day to craft meaningful experiences and thoughtful solutions.

3. Chase experiences. ­­

Yes, practice and careful analysis makes perfect. But stepping away from the computer promotes depth. Sketching and making certainly is helpful for skill-building and streamlining process, but at the end of the day it’s your ideas that make projects come to life and earn you the big bucks.

So, step away from the desk. Take a dance class or see a performance instead of reading about dance in the Times. Visit the Met or MoMa or the Dia instead of refreshing Designspiration for the umpteenth time. Moreover, observing how people and objects behave in real life brings an authenticity to your designs. Sometimes infusing either emotion or real movement into your designs makes all the difference. For example, if you’re animating anything, it must obey the laws of physics. It must mimic real life or the viewer is left feeling uneasy. After all, you can’t design in a vacuum.

4. Change it up.

Upend your routine. If you’ve ever dismissed the old saying — the body needs routine, but the mind needs variety, think again. What you want is a very flexible brain, so you can do your best, most innovative work. Novelty has been linked to increased neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can measured by how much information your brain can absorb, retain and for how long. Doing new things primes your brain to learn, makes and strengthens synaptic connections and has a lasting impact on cognition.

All you have to do is try new things to have a more agile brain. So go do some aerial yoga, or see a show you’ve never seen before, or pick up a new skill. You’ll speed up your cognitive processing and set yourself up to work faster and more efficiently. C’mon it’ll be fun. You’ll get a little boost of happiness too because novelty triggers a release of dopamine, the happy neurotransmitter. It’s a win-win.

5. Remember to rest.

Don’t burn the midnight oil. I’m as guilty of staying up til 3 am for a week straight to meet a deadline and make it perfect as anyone else. But the fact is, without adequate sleep we’re prone to burnout and the quality of our work suffers. Reaction time is the first to go when you are sleep deprived, and we fall into microsleeps, or momentary lapses in cognition, when we are sleep deprived. Also, during sleep, consolidation of memory happens. So if you’ve learned a new skill the day before, likely if you’ve had a good night’s sleep you are more likely to incorporate the skill into your practice the next day.

So get your Z’s to work smarter. Likely you’ll also keep wanting to go to work every day. Download f.lux if you’re on your computer late at night. That eerie computer glow is often what keeps night owls up. F.lux adapts your display to the time of day, warming it up at night when you’re ready for bed and mimicking sunlight during daylight hours.

Hopefully these tips and the science that backs them up has been illuminating. If you’re already doing these things, carry on! And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

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Amanda is a Creative Director and Design Strategist. Prior to becoming a designer, Amanda studied neuroscience at Columbia University and conducted Alzheimer’s Disease research at Columbia Medical Center. Her scientific background grounds her design process and work in the fundamentals of human cognition and emotion. She believes in multidisciplinary design, collaboration and asking permission later.

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