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Five Ways to Become a Better Designer (That Aren't Design)

Published: February 4, 2017
Updated: May 18, 2020

Though this post is geared toward traditional graphic designers, when I say “designer,” I really mean virtually any kind of creative—particularly those who do commercial design of some kind. Whether you’re a web designer, UI/UX designer, interior designer, copy writer, or any other kind of creative-for-hire: this is my list of recommendations for you.

(These, and of course, to wear sunscreen, because the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.)

1. Embrace Public Speaking

If you’re doing any kind of creative work for hire, it’s not going to be too long before you need to do a presentation of some kind. And in many cases,the import ance of effectively selling your work rivals the import ance of the work itself.

If you’re an introvert and this sounds like your nightmare, don’t panic. This doesn’t need to be a TED talk. I’m not talking about a stage or a room full of people. You might not even need a screen or slides or a microphone.

I’m only talking about maybe 3–12 people at a time, because you should absolutely get comfortable speaking and presenting in front the kind of groups you’ll be talking to professionally as your clients.

(You know what’s really good for developing that skill? See #4.)

Knowing how to present your work is an art in and of itself, and there are entire posts devoted to the specifics. I won’t go into that here, but if you could use a brush-up, I highly recommend this article. (I reread it before every presentation.) But no matter what, I encourage you to practice showing people things you created and talking about them.

In particular, talk about the why of your work: what decisions were made and for what purpose? What had to be left out or sacrificed? And how do all of these decisions reinforce the project goal—i.e., the reason you’re doing the work in the first place?

If this is a big hurdle for you, again: don’t panic. Start small. Talk to a couple of friends at first and build from there. You don’t need to be a motivational speaker, and you don’t ever need to get on a stage. It may not ever be completely comfortable for you, and that’s ok. But you do need to be able to address people at least somewhat fearlessly in order to do your work justice (and to defend it from overzealous clients with uninformed opinions).

Now you might say, “I hate speaking in front of people; I don’t want a job where I have to do that.” And that’s possible. As a creative, you may get a job where you’re relegated to a team of silent, unseen project laborers sending your work on up the pipeline of some agency to be presented by somebody above you. But there are three reasons you should still embrace public speaking, even in this case:

  1. Because one of the most important skills you can have to get noticed and promoted is the ability to address people (and you will likely want to advance at some point);
  2. Because if you ever decide you don’t like the job you have (and you likely will in this scenario), you’re going to have to interview, and that almost certainly involves presentations and speaking of some kind;
  3. A dislike of something is not a valid reason to forego a vital skill any more than a dislike of vegetables is a valid reason to eat a hamburger for every meal.

2. Put Down Your Phone and Notice the Ordinary

I’m as guilty as most anybody of pulling my phone out of my pocket any time I have more than about 5–10 seconds available for free thought (sometimes less). This behavior is often encouraged in creatives; we desperately need to be constantly seeking out inspiration online, it seems. We can’t possibly consider ourselves modern, tasteful designers if we’ve missed out on the latest thing, can we?

But there’s vast world of design learning and opportunity right in front of us constantly. All we need to do is take the time to notice it and learn from it.

When you’re waiting for your order in a restaurant, for example, rather than seek out distraction, look around you. Read the menu. How is it designed? Does it communicate clearly, or do you find that you have questions after reading it? Is there adequate spacing? Is it readable? How are the items categorized? How are things grouped and indicated?

Is the menu laminated? In a menu holder? Is it made to last or does it seem like it will be soon discarded?

And most importantly: after all of the above questions, follow up with, why? Who do you think made these decisions, and what were their reasons for doing so?

If at all possible, ask these questions and have the ensuing conversation with somebody else. Their perspective may be different than yours, and that will be invaluable.

Speaking of people: take the time to notice those around you. How are they reacting to the space, the menu, the lighting, and the environment in general? Are things going smoothly, or are some folks having difficulties? Why?

Deconstructing design—trying to understand the decisions somebody else made and why—is some of the best practice you can get in becoming a better designer yourself. This is especially true where a little empathy can be mixed in, and empathy comes from understanding.

A design that you think is ugly may actually be highly functional, perfect for its target audience, or the best possible result of working within the provided constraints. (This is why I hate projects to redesign somebody else’s logo). It’s all too easy to forget that everybody is working within their own set of specific limitations—budgets, timelines, tools, client feedback, etc.—and just because the end result of their struggle won’t win any design awards doesn’t mean they didn’t come up with an excellent solution to the original problem.

Another example a colleague of mine pointed out to me is cars, and particularly, tail lights. It’s easy to pull out your smartphone in the car (as long as you’re not driving, hopefully) and seek out immediate distraction. But look around you. Observe the design of the vehicles. Ask: why are the tail lights where they are? Why is the vehicle shaped that way?How many bulbs are in the lights on the car, and why? Are the lights small or large? Why?

And while you’re at it: why do certain intersections have stop lights while others that would seem to benefit from their presence don’t? Why are certain stop lights different than others? Where are the street signs posted? Are they obvious? Readable? Why do they look different from place to place? Why do certain lanes end where they do? Why is there a roundabout in this place and an intersection at another?

Look at the signage on buildings. Look at billboards. Look at shop window signage. Try to see through the design to the reasons behind it.

Asking these questions is important. Look up. There’s a gold mine of design knowledge hidden in the everyday aspects of the real world.

3. Immerse Yourself in the Lives of People Who Aren’t Like You

We, as designers, tend to think everybody likes—and is therefore persuaded, delighted and enriched by—beautiful graphics of the most modern and whimsical variety.

Separate yourself from this misconception as early as possible.

Sure, nobody likes ugliness, and it’s generally apparent when design is out-of-date or cumbersome. That much is inarguable. But there’s often a wide gap between what the designer thinks their target audience is like, and what that audience is actually like as humans.

Much has already been written on how designers tend to design for other designers. The approval of our clients and happiness of our users tends to mean less to us than the admiration of other professionals. Dribbble and the homogeny it creates is often brought up in this discussion.

I’ll leave that to other posts and just say this: the heart of design is empathy. Whatever kind of design work you’re doing, at its core, you’re trying to solve a problem for somebody. Their problem is now your problem. So understanding that person, on a deep and personal level, is parallel to understanding the problem itself.

In other words: to design is to understand. So get out of your bubble.

Make it a habit of reading books (or at the very least, Medium posts) by people who aren’t like you; whose experience in life has been substantially different than yours. (Gender, color and socio-economic background are great places to start.)

Listen to NPR on your commute. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in my car long after arriving at my destination to finish a story on The Moth Radio Hour or an interview on Fresh Air, and come away from that experience with a fresh perspective on life that I never would have considered before.

Get some legitimate news in your life (the key word here being “legitimate;” real news, not partisan or sensationalized). Watch documentaries, or at the very least, movies and TV shows where the characters don’t look like you or live a life similar to yours (or the one you want). It’s better than nothing.

Chat up strangers, even, if you’re so daring. Talk to your barista or your server or postal worker about their day, their general life. Follow people different than you on Twitter.

The wider your horizon, the more effectively you can solve problems for real people in the real world.

4. Work in the Service Industry

I worked as a server and bartender most of my life prior to becoming a full-time designer. And as it turns out, this was excellent practice; I was routinely speaking to groups of people gathered around a table, just like when giving a design presentation. I had to speak, and I had to listen. I had to be persuasive, steer the conversation, keep people’s attention, and occasionally, to relay news that the recipient wasn’t keen to hear.

Just out of school, when I was working for my first full-time design job for a small branding agency, the time came for me to give my first presentation. Afterward, the creative director complimented my presentational skills, saying “I’ve never seen somebody just out of school present as well as you do.”

Well, I thought, I’ve been presenting things to tables of people since I was 16.

This is also a great way to expand your perspective, by the way. If you’ve never worked in customer service, trust me; your imagination of it is nothing like the reality. (Oh, hey! That sounds like point #3. How convenient!)

Commercial design isn’t exactly customer service, but it isn’t too far removed. You’ll still have people shopping for your goods, and you’ll still need to communicate clearly with them and make sure they’re happy at the end of the transaction. If the real thing isn’t an option yet, there’s no better place to practice your soft skills than in service.

5. Socialize

This might sounds like #3, but for this one, I’m opening it up to everyone.

Even people who have lots in common with you can open your mind to new ways of thinking and show you things you didn’t know before. Your colleagues can introduce you to new tools, skills, shortcuts and other important things you may not have known about.

Soft skills are often underrated in design, and that’s why I’m throwing this seemingly redundant item in at the end of the list.

To be frank: your portfolio itself, no matter how good it is, can only get you so far. Sooner or later, it’s not about the book anymore; it’s about the person doing the actual work (you), and how it is to have that person in the room every single day, coming to standups, reporting on progress, dealing with deadlines, attending and possibly even running client meetings.

School may not do a lot to prepare you for that, so putting yourself in social situations can be a great way to boost your soft skills. In your career, you’ll always be meeting new clients, interviewing with new people, and communicating. Take the opportunity to hone those skills regularly and it will pay off in the long run. I promise.