5 tips on learning visual design for the disencouraged (for beginner UXers)

You want to get into UX, but you are dreading the visual design part of the process? I get it. I’m in the same situation. Let’s try doing something about it, though.

If you’re like me, a beginner in UX, you may have already stumbled upon the discussion about whether or not you should specialise.

I think that regardless of your choice, you should at least get a grasp of the basic principles of visual design, even if you strongly lean towards becoming a specialist in research.

Photo by Mia Baker on Unsplash

Meet Zoltán.

Zoltán, a young UX designer from Hungary, works at his first UX job at an agency in the centre of Budapest. He studied sociology and has a knack for interviewing people. He’s outgoing, he isn’t afraid to talk to users and he gets the most joy from noticing how people show their real emotions through body language. He loves his job now, but that wasn’t the case when he started a year ago.

When Zoltán got his first UX job at his current agency, they told him he will need to take the role of a generalist. He wasn’t very happy about it, but decided to go with it.

He was mindful of his strengths and his weaknesses. He didn’t ask: “Why are they forcing me to do it?” Instead, he went for a better question: “What can I do to get better at visual design?”

Zoltán strongly believes that everything can be learned if you put enough effort and look for ways to improve.

Tip 1: Ask what instead of why to increase your self-awareness

Recently, I read a great article by Jasmine Friedl on mindfullness and how you can unlock your design skills. Definitely go read it and be sure to watch the TED talk which Jasmine mentioned there, it’s an eye-opener:

Increase your self-awareness with one simple fix | Tasha Eurich | TEDxMileHigh

Using this approach, Zoltán was able to overcome the initial anxiety he felt when he found himself in this new situation.

Tip 2: Start with the basics

Zoltán started his journey into visual design by reading about the basics first.

He decided to look for articles about the principles, because he likes to build his knowledge from the ground up. His favourite article is this list at usability.gov website — he goes back to it regularly.

He also studies the Laws of UX, which he sees as an intersection of usability and visual design science.

He follows people on Medium to read all the stories on the subject. He definitely enjoys reading what people are publishing here.

Photo by UX Store on Unsplash

Tip 3: Build a framework to divide the knowledge into smaller chunks

From there, Zoltán went to devise a framework to split the knowledge he acquires into smaller chunks.

He noticed that he can look at visual design from two different angles:

  • Static: everything that has to deal with how individual components work in relation to eachother — what are the building blocks.
  • Dynamic: everything that includes changes in time — this means animations, transitions and the timing functions used to create them.

This way, he could go even further and learn new ideas part by part. He likes to do this, because he can then clearly see what areas he knows already and which areas to research next and improve.

Zoltán also likes to take notes in bullet points with multiple levels of indentation. He views them as a kind of mind mapping technique. Whenever he learns something new, he adds new notes to the ones he already knows and builds his knowledge. He also asks questions about the things he doesn’t understand yet and makes sure he answers them below.

Tip 4: Practice making simple things and learn incrementally

Zoltán subscribed to the DailyUI project and started receiving emails with tasks to create small pieces of UI every day of the week.

At first, he struggled a lot. His work was of poor quality and nobody noticed it. He did receive some compliments and words of encouragement when he started posting his creations on Twitter, but that wasn’t his goal. He decided to just stick with it and continue completing the UI assignments regardless of everything else.

Soon, Zoltán noticed he’s becoming more and more fluent with Adobe XD, the application of his choice.

He quickly started noticing that the quality of his work is becomming better and better every day. He was quite sure it’s because he is making things and revisiting his notes every time he posts something to get feedback. He got used to critiquing his own work by pointing out small errors he made, as he started to notice areas for improvement in the next assignment. He accepted feedback from others gracefully and used it to his advantage.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Tip 5: Benchmark your work to understand what it means to be consistent

Zoltán also devised a strategy to benchmark his progress by setting up a simple spreadsheet and measuring the time it takes him to complete an assignment and the amount of feedback he receives on his work on Twitter.

He started noticing trends in his workflow and decided to look for ways to be more consistent, work faster and not sacrifice on quality at the same time.

For example, Zoltán noticed how he could save 10 minutes of his time by creating some basic screen templates and be able to start creating quicker.

Zoltán feels confident about his progress because he has data to prove it.

Okay, so here’s Zoltán. He’s a persona. He’s not a real guy (nor is he me). I’m Polish, not Hungarian and my real name is Paweł. But that’s basically what I’m doing right now to learn something I would never consider to be my strength. As with everything, I do believe that learning is possible at any age and that it’s not true that you can’t learn some things.

I also believe it all boils down to asking yourself the most basic questions:

  • What do I know?
  • Where can I learn more about this?
  • How can I improve?
  • How can I measure my progress?

Do ask those questions yourself. Good luck!

If you find those tips useful, that’s great! If you have questions or would like to provide feedback — please feel free to comment below.

If you would like to connect and read more about my journey from web development to UX design— definitely follow me. I’m documenting my progress by posting a new story every day.