10 Keys to Growth as a Designer

by Steven Snell

on December 30, 2009

in Business/Freelance

One of the most significant challenges that designers face is the need for continual improvement and development. The industry and technology can change very quickly and staying on top of things and working to improve your skills is necessary in order to have a successful career in web design. Fortunately, learning and improving will naturally occur to some degree as you continue to work on different projects and in different scenarios, but there will be times when you will have to make an effort to work on your own development.

In this post we’ll look at 10 keys to growth as a designer. This list and discussion should serve as a reference or guide for any designer that wants to improve. Focus on these areas and you will become a better designer. Please share your own thoughts and experiences in the comments.

1. Solid Foundation of Knowledge

There are plenty of different things for aspiring and improving designers to learn, and more than enough resources and tutorials to make it happen. One of the temptations is to jump ahead and try to learn too many specifics before having a firm grasp on the essential fundamentals of web design. Some tools, such as Adobe Dreamweaver, can lead designers to think that they don’t need to be proficient in HTML and CSS. However, having a solid knowledge of HTML and CSS, plus basic design principles, is necessary and trying to learn too many other things at once can lead to confusion. If you have not already reached this point, make it a priority to attain the foundational knowledge first before you try to build on it.

2. Tools for Learning

Many designers are completely self taught, and even those that have a formal education in design will have the need to continue to learn on their own. Fortunately, there are plenty of great resources and tools for learning. This includes countless books that can be purchased or borrowed from a library, and of course the huge number of tutorials that are posted on websites and blogs that cover all aspects of design and development.

The tools for learning are readily available, it is just up to the designer who wants to learn to choose an area for improvement and to find the appropriate resources and tools to accommodate this.

3. Priority on Learning and Development

Most designers are extremely busy with client projects, finding new business, networking, and managing their business. Unfortunately, scheduling time for learning new things usually gets sacrificed. Designers who want to continue to improve their skills and stay on top of the industry will need to prioritize their own development, even if it means giving up some time that could be used for other purposes.

Fortunately, there are a number of different ways that you can learn and work to improve your skills. It may involve simply setting aside some time to read books occasionally or to work through online tutorials. Also, taking projects that will stretch your abilities and give you the opportunity to learn new things is another option. If taking paid client work isn’t an option for you, there are always opportunities to do volunteer (or discounted) work for non-profits that will give you the opportunity to work on something specific. Another option, and one that I like to use, is working on projects of your own. We’ll discuss this topic more in just a moment.

4. Feedback from Clients

One of the best ways to learn about the work that you are doing is to listen to feedback from your clients and see how they feel about your work. Ultimately, the client’s opinion is what matters the most, so make sure that you take the time to get feedback from them about your work, the process of completing the site, and the service that they received from you. Feedback from clients can help you to identify your strengths as well as areas that you could possibly improve upon.

5. Constructive Criticism

Taking criticism isn’t always easy, but it can be key to improvement and growth as a designer. Constructive criticism will not simply say that a piece needs work or isn’t very good, but it will point out specific areas that could be improved, which helps you to see what you’ll need to do in order to be more effective. Constructive criticism can come from clients, from visitors, or from other designers. Andrew Follett wrote a post a few weeks ago for DesignM.ag, 10 Rules and Resources for Better Design Feedback. That post includes several excellent resources, including Concept Feedback, that will be of great help to you if you are looking to get some constructive criticism.

6. Effective Sources of Inspiration

Designers rely on inspiration for helping to improve their creativity and spark their ideas. There are tons of resources available for online design inspiration, such as CSS galleries and design blogs. Additionally, designers should have some variety in their sources of inspiration. Rather than relying strictly on getting inspired by other websites that you find at design galleries, take the time to look for inspiration in other sources like magazines and other printed works, photographs, nature, and anything else that is around you. I wrote a post a few months ago at Vandelay Design that covered the topic of maintaining an inspiration notebook that you can turn to in times when you are looking for some creativity.

7. Experimentation on Your Own

Earlier we looked at the need to prioritize learning and development. One of my favorite ways to work on learning something new is to set aside time for personal projects. If you want to learn something specific but you don’t have any clients who are looking for this type of work, why not just do it on your own?

This could apply to just about anything. If you want to learn how to work with Drupal you could start a blog or website powered by Drupal. If you want to learn more about a specific shopping cart or e-commerce CMS, you could take time to work on designing and developing a theme to use for yourself or to give away. With personal projects you can pick and choose what you want to learn. The things you learn will be applicable to real-world situations, and you’ll probably have fun doing it.

One of the biggest challenges is just finding the time to do this type of experimentation. For me it helps to build this in to my schedule rather than seeing it as something that I will do in my “free time,” because if that is the case it probably will never happen.

8. Mentors to Follow

I believe that having mentors or designers that you look up to can also be a help to your own development. In some cases your mentor may be someone that you know personally or that you even work with, but in other cases it could simply be a designer that you like to follow. You can find a designer whose work you appreciate and respect, and make an effort to follow them closely.

One example of how you can follow someone is graphic designer and blogger David Airey. I’ve followed David’s blog for a long time and one of the great things about it is that he covers his design process for client projects in detail. He’ll post his sketches of logo designs and explain the thought process behind the decisions and gives a general overview of how the project progressed (for one example, see Vissumo brand identity design). This is very valuable insight into the logic of a talented designer, and it can be helpful for your own work. I believe that having some successful designers to follow can be a resource and an encouragement for aiding in your own growth as a designer.

9. Taking Risks

Particularly when you are experimenting or working on personal projects, I think it’s good to try new things and take some risks with your design. What I mean by this is that you step outside of the box of what you are comfortable with. Many designers have a particular style that usually turn to with their projects, but making an effort to break from the norm and try something completely different can be a great exercise for learning new things. Practice is great, but if all of your working is taking the same path and leading to similar results, mix it up and try something new. You may come up with some things that really don’t work very well, but you’re also likely to surprise yourself at times with results that you didn’t know you were capable of.

10. Focus on Improvement Rather Than Perfection

All designers, even those who have years of experience, have new things to learn and room for improvement in their work. Rather than expecting perfection in your work, focus on continually improving your skills and becoming a better designer over a period of time. As long as you are improving, you are moving in the right direction. Expecting too much at once can lead to discouragement and a lack of confidence in your abilities.

What’s Your Experience?

How do you meet the challenge of continual development?

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About Steven Snell

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design. Connect with Stephen on google+