What Makes a Great Designer?

It’s the beginning of a brand new year. This signifies for many a time to change habits and behaviors and attempt to be a better person. It’s a time where people like to re-evaluate their lifestyles and try to remove the gunk. It’s a time where people become motivated to be better at whatever they do.

As designers, we are no different. Some of us want to start a business or dive deep into the life of full-time freelancing. Some of us want to seek recognition for our work and some of us just want to learn a new skill. Whatever it may be, we are all motivated and trying to figure out ways to go from good to great.

Being a great designer requires some creative thinking. There’s a lot of talented individuals out there, but that’s not the only thing that makes one designer better than the other. Greatness is something that begins with the mind and is cultivated through practice. To get you started on your new you this new year, here are a few steps you should try in order to reach greatness this year.

1. Show up

Just last week I met with my professor for my final meeting. One of our last assignments was to simply write down how many classes we missed or were late for. Fortunately, I made every meeting on time and confidently wrote that down, adding the question of whether or not I get a prize for that.

As he read over my responses, he came to the question, paused then answered, “Yes. That just means you’ll be lower on the pole when it comes time to fire people.” It was funny but it rang true. I’m sure you’ve heard people say that showing up is half the battle. And that’s absolutely correct. Because after you arrive, the next thing is just to do what you’re good at doing, and that shouldn’t really even be a hard task.

As designers, it’s easy to get complacent and lazy. There are times when we will have weeks of little to no work. However, it’s smart to continue to be productive and look for new routes of success. Learn a new skill. Jump ahead on a project. Find a mentor and take them out to coffee. Always keep moving.

Even if there is lots of work to do, you show up by being consistent. It can be your style, your customer service or your quality of work — whatever it is just show up and be great.

2. Learn one new thing a month

About a year ago, life started to get a little mundane for me. As a freelancer who worked from home, that was really easy to do. I decided I wanted to learn some new things about branding, learn how to code and learn how to use a DSLR. I took all these tasks on at once. That was a bad idea.

It was overwhelming because these things take time. Aside from learning, I still had to work for a paycheck via graphic design, writing and other things. I was busy and it showed in the quality of my work. Things stopped going as well and clients started to get cranky. I finally had to give everything else a rest and focus on one thing at a time. Now, that was a much better idea.

It’s obviously easier to focus on one extracurricular thing than 4 of at once. As a “microwave” society, we always want to do things as quickly as possible, however that’s not always the right way. In one month, you can focus on learning how to code and be solid enough on that to use that in practice. Giving other things your time just divides your attention.

And if you’re anything like me, when you learn something new you get absolutely enthralled in it. By learning one thing a month, you’re allowed to dive deep in one thing rather than scratching the surface. Plus, you end up learning 12 new things in a year!

3. Be unique in your execution

Everyone wants to stand out from the crowd (or at least you should want to). We want to be the most creative people we can be. However, it’s really easy to be influenced by things that are seen as the norm. For example, if I ask you what a business site looks like, there’s a chance you’ll show me a 3 column site with a horizontal navigation bar, a large header of some sort and a footer. But why?

Probably because that’s what everyone else is doing. And that’s a fair answer. However, in order to be great, I believe we have to break the rules or break outside of the norm. It’s our execution that allows us to stand out.

Let me clear: be unique in your execution, not your approach. When you try to do the latter, that’s when things become complicated. You never want your message to be complicated. You want to create a business website — that is the task. Don’t approach it by trying to reinvent the wheel because that causes lots of problems (unless you know exactly what you’re doing).

4. Take risks

Taking risks piggy-backs off the idea that you should be unique in your execution. But I’d take that one step further and tell you to take risks in nearly everything you do. I find it’s easier to take risks and be bold and then bring yourself in from there. It’s a bit hard to inch out into boldness because you never really know what’s bold and what isn’t.

For example, I used to be the designer that was really passive with clients. Whatever they wanted, I would do it with no back talk. I thought that was the way to be until I realized I had a low retention rate. I vowed from then on that I wanted to be more honest with them because why not? So I did it. And they loved it. And they stuck around and even referred me to others.

It’s something about being honest and being yourself that’s fulfilling and that other people can respect. Do you like talking to a robot when you need to call customer service? Of course not. No one does. It’s the same kind of concept. Take risks and leave a part of yourself wherever you go.

5. Be inspired by everything

When it’s time to make a booklet, most people will look at other booklets for inspiration. When it’s time to make a website, most will look at other websites. It makes sense, but I believe this is a fatal flaw of designers who are striving to be great. It kind of related back to being influenced in our executions.

It is extremely important to be inspired by everything. Clothing, product designs and even architecture have helped influence some of my favorite designs. It’s much more fun and rewarding to try to take something you can tough and format it to be a website or poster.

Inspiration is not confined to the type of work we do. Inspiration is found everywhere. It’s up to use to turn it into what we want it to be.


While these tips help, there’s no right or wrong path to success and there’s no right or wrong path to greatness, either. Anyone who has made up their mind to be great or successful eventually stumbles there one day. The biggest key to making a change is making up your mind and following through on your promises. Best of luck to a prosperous new year!

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