10 Things You Can Do Today to Become a Better Designer

One of the challenges of being a web designer is the need for continual improvement. While you will certainly gain experience and improve skills through client projects, it’s also necessary to dedicate some time outside of client work to focus on new skills and staying up-to-date with an industry that changes at a rapid pace.

Since we all have busy schedules to start with, getting a real impact with the time you set aside for learning is essential. In this article we’ll take a look at some things that you can do today to improve your abilities in some way. Even with just a small amount of time available, there are things that you can do with a focus on continual growth and improvement.

1. Take a Critical Look at Your Recent Work

One quick way to identify some areas for potential improvement is to go back and look at some of the projects that you have completed in the past few months. Obviously, taking a critical look at your work throughout the design process is important to any project, but sometimes having some time away from the project will allow you to come back and view it with a different perspective. So if you’ve had a few months away from a project you may be able to see things more objectively than you could while you were working on the project.

Maybe you’ll see some things that could have been done differently or better. These types of lessons can be useful on other projects going forward, making your past experience even more of a learning experiment.

2. Seek Feedback and Constructive Criticism

While looking critically at you own work is important, you’ll also gain a lot from getting feedback from others. This includes feedback from clients, users, and other designers. Taking feedback and constructive criticism isn’t always fun, but if you look at it as a way to improve your skills and make yourself a better designer, it’s really a good thing.

Resources like Concept Feedback exist specifically to help designers get feedback on their work (also see our post 19 Resources for Getting Design Feedback). Community sites like Dribbble, Forrst, and UCreative are also great resources for getting feedback on your work.

3. Examine the Work of a Talented Designer

One way to learn is to study the work of talented and experienced designers. Observe their work and the design decisions that they have made on their projects. For example, if studying web design projects you can look at things like layouts, calls to action, white space, color schemes, typography, and even fine pixel-precise details of the design. The things you pick up could serve as inspiration for your own work.

Chances are you probably already have a few specific designers that you admire, but if not, community sites like Dribbble and Forrst are also ideal for identifying talented designers to follow.

4. Get Back to the Basics

In an industry that changes so quickly it’s easy to get caught up in trends and the newest tools and resources to use in your work. Sometimes it helps to make a deliberate effort to get back to the basics and brush up on fundamentals like design theory and color theory. A great place to start is this post compiled by Psdtuts+, 50 Totally Free Lessons in Graphic Design Theory.

If you already have a solid knowledge and understanding of design theory it’s not a bad idea to brush up on these topics occasionally. And if you have never devoted much time or effort to the basics, today is a great time to start.

5. Follow a Tutorial to Learn Something New

There are thousands of helpful tutorials available online, not to mention those that are offered in magazines and books. If you have a few hours to spare, why not find a tutorial that will help you to learn something new, or to expand on the skills that you already have? Most likely there is something that you have been wanting to learn more about, and there is probably already a good tutorial written that covers exactly what you want to learn.

Sites like Psdtuts+, Nettuts+, Webdesigntuts+, Tutorial9, and Design Instruct are excellent places to find tutorials to follow. Of course, there are countless other sites and blogs that publish design and development tutorials, so find some that you like and subscribe to their RSS feeds.

6. Start a Personal Project

A personal project can be anything that you do on your own, rather than for a client. It could be starting a blog, building an e-commerce site, developing a new community site, and really the possibilities are endless. Personal projects are great because they provide you with an opportunity to experiment in whatever way you want in a real world situation. You are the one making the decisions, so you can take it in any direction that you want, allowing you to gain valuable experience. Just about anything you could want to learn can be done through a personal project if you are able to put in the time.

Personal projects can be done at a lot of different levels. If you have only a small amount of time available there are opportunities, and if you are looking to create something major that will require a lot of time going forward, you can do that too. Another benefit of personal projects is that you also have the potential to make money to supplement your client work. Whether it is through selling products, selling ad space, affiliate promotions, or some other type of income, personal projects have turned into significant sources of income for many designers.

7. Re-Design for the Fun of It

One fun type of challenge is to re-design a popular website for the fun (and learning) of it. While your design isn’t going to be used by the company it can still help you to solve problems and make design decisions just like you would if you were actually designing the site in the real world. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a popular website. Just choose a site that you think you could improve and that you could learn from the experience.

If you want to see examples of such designs, see 18 Cool Concept Designs of Notable Websites at Hongkiat. As you can see, designing in this way can even bring you some exposure in addition to providing a valuable learning experience.

8. Sign Up for a Class

There are plenty of online courses, as well as those at local universities or community colleges that could help you to learn new skills and to build on the ones that you already have. Not everyone has the time available to take a class, but if you do, it may be something worth exploring. Even if you are not interested in working towards a degree there may be a particular course that could help you to learn something that would be valuable to your work.

9. Take Photos

Photography is a favorite hobby of many designers, and the two fields have a lot in common. Not only is photography a fun activity, but it can also be a learning experience for designers. Things like composition and colors are critical to good photography, and the lessons can also be applied to graphic design. For more on the subject, see Why Designers Should Take Up Photography at Design Instruct.

Taking up photography as a hobby is ideal because it is possible regardless of how much, or how little, time you have available. Subjects for photography are all around us. You don’t have to leave your town, or even your house, to start experimenting with photography. And you also don’t need an expensive camera, simple point and shoot cameras will do for these purposes. If you enjoy it and you want to take it further a more expensive camera can wind up being a good investment.

10. Visit an Art Museum

Most cities have an art museum of some kind. Why not take part of a day to go visit the art museum nearest to you? You can view the work of highly-talented artists and pick up some inspiration that can be put to work in your own design. Many designers rely only on online sources for design inspiration, but getting out and being inspired by other types of art can help to open up more creativity in your work.

What’s Your Experience?

When you want to learn something new or improve your skills, what are your preferences?

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16 Responses

Comments are now closed on this post.

  • Mohsin Nazir, March 19, 2012

    will try all this

  • Brad, March 16, 2012

    I think you apply most of these points to most professionals., especially sign up for a class.

  • Courtney, March 1, 2012

    Great list.. You can also find businesses in your area or region that don’t have a website and build them a website similar to one they may need to use and gather your best sales pitch and see if they will purchase the site from you. Great way to work on design, sales, and promotion.

  • Morgan & Me Creative, February 29, 2012

    The first 2 points are most crucial in developing as a designer. If you, the designer, deep inside, can feel a nudging feeling that, maybe, just maybe, the work isn’t great, then it probably isn’t.

    Be your best and worst critic, examine what improvements can be done and how to achieve them. Aim for a higher bar each time.

    Then every once in a while, come back to reality and re-visit everything again, all the basics, all the techniques that first got you started (Point 4).

    2 principals, never settle for less and never forget who you are.

  • Maneet Puri, February 27, 2012

    Designers always need to have vivid inspiration and doing that is a real challenge. Inspiration can be found in many places, you only need to be open to that. And, the best place to find the rich textures, vibrant colors and inspiration is the natural world.

  • Cody, February 24, 2012

    Number one is something I like to do and call “fresh eyes”. Helps a ton. Great list, thanks!

  • aledesign.it, February 24, 2012

    Excellent points..last but not to least…important is the Fortune in some
    cases… be in the just place in the just moment! Important visit library, museum…and if you are a “simple” designer visit all the place have more suggestions for yourself.

  • rod rodriguez, February 24, 2012

    I agree with Stev that studying other designers for inspiration works well. I just want to add that, shutting down your computer and going for a walk can bring out some inspiration and design ideas from your surroundings.

  • Jesse, February 23, 2012

    I think 1 and 2 are VERY important, and I have a few designer friends I share and collaborate with. I’ve been trying to get an invite to Dribbble to expand that pool for a LONG time now, with no avail – I’d love to get more involved in a community like that – just seems so hard and time consuming to get through the doors.

    Great article all together – you forgot to mention “Follow great design blogs” as well :)

  • Psdbucket, February 23, 2012

    I like your article! Most of these tips really can change significantly the quality of work. Critical look at your recent work I think is the most common mistake for any beginner. In my opinion this article can be a guide for anyone who want to become a designer.

  • Navigator Multimedia, February 23, 2012

    I really like the idea of personal projects, but some designers and content writers need the pressure of deadlines to see an idea through to final product. Perhaps offering your services to a non-profit, pro-bono, would be a way to stretch your creative legs, but still be accountable for something that has to get done. Too many personal projects get shuffled aside because the lack of deadline puts it in a low-priority zone.

    Thanks for the article!
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  • fjpoblam, February 23, 2012

    Redesign *especially* when it includes doing a little graphics work, like, say, some intense pixel art in GIMP. Time-consuming, but good focus mechanism for choosing compatible colors, gradients, SVG and CSS3 alternatives, etc.

  • Darryl, February 23, 2012

    One of my favorite inspirational quotes seems relevant here:

    Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

    –Jim Jarmusch

  • Stev Newbury, February 23, 2012

    Alongside personal projects (I have 2 at the moment that I’m working on) studying other designers work is my best place for inspiration. There are some hugely talented people on the web, many I have bookmarked, others I go searching for!

    Following (and writing!) tutorials on a regular basis is a great idea; I find it really helps keep my mind fresh and I love learning so it works perfectly!

  • Yoon Mi, February 23, 2012

    Great tips, thanks! – Find it interesting that your links don’t open up in a new window, especially since they are smack dab in the middle of the article; when I’m reading a full article I don’t want to leave the article I’m reading for an outside link. I’d rather it open in a new tab/window…

    • Vandelay Website Design, February 24, 2012

      Yoon Mi,
      You can open any link in a new window. In most browsers just right click and choose “open link in new tab.” Setting links to open in a new window should only be done in certain situations (in my opinion) because it takes the choice away from the visitor and forces a new window to open. Smashing Magazine published a detailed article about this subject a few years ago, Should Links Open in a New Window?