10 Keys to Growth as a Designer

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 WordPress you could create a blog or website powered by WordPress. 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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Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.

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  1. December 30, 2009

    Some great tips there. I find the most inspiring thing to do is to try something new. Often just taking a screen grab of a site’s design that I like and effectivly mimicing it… attempting it’s design. Good stuff.

  2. December 30, 2009

    Hi Evan,
    Thanks for the feedback. Yeah, I think trying to mimic or replicate designs can be a good learning experience. It’s hard to find time for learning sometimes, but I think it needs to be a priority.

  3. December 30, 2009

    I push myself to do things outside of my skill set. My expertise lies in web design but I’ll take on any other challenging project like logo or print design just to learn new medium and find out if I’m not missing my true passion/talent.

  4. December 31, 2009

    I agree that with priority on learning and development, everything comes more with practice and experience. Practice produces/makes perfect… Nice post! Bookmarked and linked to from my blog!

  5. Brian Jones
    December 31, 2009

    Great post as always – thank you! As a novice still in self taught studies, I am trying to improve daily. I need to take #10 more seriously though..

  6. December 31, 2009

    Finding time is a big issue for sure, a tough one to get around, but nevertheless it is crucial. I never cease to learn something new, even as I work on client projects – there is always a challenge or a particular obstacle to overcome and often no other way but to learn about it ‘on the job’.

    I think your point “make it a priority to attain the foundational knowledge first before you try to build on it” is extremely important as well. For example: A great way to test one’s own skills is to take a PSD site mockup and slice and code it into HTML without the benefit of using Dreamweaver or any other WYSIWYG editor, use a text editor and FTP and don’t cheat. This will quickly highlight to you areas that you need to improve your coding skills.

  7. December 31, 2009

    Steven, great article!

    I think the main thing for everyone to really understand is that if you’re doing work consistently (which is totally awesome), you can’t just plan on growth to come naturally. Some will, but you really need to SCHEDULE time to get away from the computer, or the drawing board, and read, create, and get inspired. I love it.



  8. December 31, 2009

    I think challenging yourself is essential for growth. Glad to hear that it works for you.

    Yes, I think for me learning on the job is probably the best way to make sure that I remember something or that I’m learning things that are practical. The hard part for me is that the projects I’m working on don’t always allow me to learn the things I want or need, so I have to give myself the opportunity to learn on my own time.

    Thanks everyone for your comments, I really appreciate the participation.

  9. December 31, 2009

    Happy New Year 🙂

  10. December 31, 2009

    A great list of ideas. Something mentioned in a recent Smashing Magazine post was to “Design Something Every Day”. While you may not want to do this forever, it’s a great way to kick start personal and professional growth. I’ve found its also a great way to pull yourself out of a creative slump!

  11. December 31, 2009

    Nice list. I try as much as i can to ‘upgrade’ myself everyday i sit on my computer, my daily self-improvement has helped me alot in my work.

  12. December 31, 2009

    Thanks.. Nice post

  13. January 1, 2010

    Important tips indeed


  14. Ketan Darji
    January 1, 2010

    Really i like this article..Good

  15. January 1, 2010

    thank you 😉

  16. January 1, 2010

    great article and much helful, thanks for adding this…

  17. January 1, 2010

    I think you make several great points Steven.

    Learning is a continual and independent activity, although an individual’s unique experience with knowledge can be bottlenecked by poor communication skills, a lack of confidence is the most devastating.

    The role of a designer is to actualize unprecedented projects, if enough “proof of concepts” exist to marginalize the qualities of your plan, do you have enough charisma to convince a team to take a chance (with real time, money, careers, reputations)?

    Everyday is a chance to improve, not a promise. It is your responsibility to create your own discipline and routine that satisfies the esoteric hip ambitions of a person that lives in a creative mind. To be mature enough to realize that youth is about using talent and endurance to discover what is worth living in a cubicle to achieve.

    Pace yourself, there are no awards for burning out.

    Ryan Gensel


  18. January 1, 2010

    I always strive to keep up-to-date on all aspects of design and development even though my role is fast becoming more sales orientated. I find the continual process of evolution rewarding and couldn’t work without knowing I’m abreast of the latest trends.

    A very good overview of the generics involved and a good point of reference for reminding yourself what is important to being a designer/developer/small business.

    Continual evolution = fresh ideas = happy clients + increased business

    Good work. Thanks.

  19. January 1, 2010

    Nice article Steven ,
    if we can get out internet explorer , our works will be awesome 🙂

  20. Thiago A. Villa Menezes
    January 1, 2010

    The ‘n’ in ‘right direction’ on topic 10 didn’t get the bold! =D

    Nice article! For me, the best part was “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.”

    …because I’m always affraid of driving away from a specific style I think is ‘best’, but truth is there is no best, there’s actually a message that’s got conveyed by your design or not.

  21. Prabhu
    January 2, 2010

    i think its very great tips for designers like me. i am very new to design world. This type of tips really help to shape my design world. once again thanks and give such type of tips regularly.

  22. Webjohn01
    January 2, 2010

    Hello Steven!

    What an awesome tips and advices for us aspiring designers out there. you know every time I visit your blog I find very useful tips to aid my learning curve.

    Keep up the good work.

    More thanks!

  23. January 2, 2010

    Thanks, I fixed the bold text.

  24. January 3, 2010

    Excellent article Steven. As designers, we ought to always strive to improve and get better daily. These 10 keys of growth that you mention will definitely get a designer on the right path to success.

    As the new year has already started, it would be good for designers to implement these principles into their daily routines. I really found your advice useful. Well-written article that shows you put a lot of thought into it. Thanks!

  25. January 3, 2010

    Some great tips there. I find the most inspiring thing to do is to try something new. Often just taking a screen grab of a site’s design that I like and effectivly get ideas from it… attempting it’s design.

  26. January 3, 2010

    Really great keys, and I agree with you that David Airey’s blog is worth to follow.

  27. January 3, 2010

    excellent article and thanks for sharing this! re taking risks, i’d also like to add that one ought to learn to recognize opportunities as well as learning when to decline them. personal and professional boundaries have been key to my growth and survival.

  28. Rnadolph Romero
    January 3, 2010

    lolz i hate no.8 i don;t have mentors

  29. January 4, 2010

    Great Stuff! I think staying up to date with the trends in design and software is just strait key. Also, always study and critique all forms of art especially in the marketing sense, whether it’s a billboard or tv ad.

  30. January 4, 2010

    One more thing -> Kill your ego

  31. January 4, 2010

    Great article to thin about it !

  32. January 4, 2010

    That’s so true !
    Learning and Development are keys for success and durability !
    Thanks for this post.

  33. January 4, 2010

    Hi Steven

    your article not only for designers every one
    for designers very useful thank you

  34. Jane
    January 5, 2010

    Great Stuff!! Very helpful.
    Agreed with Creative Ideas. Sometimes we just need to kill our ego. And patience is needed to be a better designer.I still work on that though 🙂

  35. January 10, 2010

    I’m still learning a lot by reading great articles like this on, connecting with fellow designers and reading books. I’m currently trying to build my online presence and on a day by day basis i’m learning more about all the different aspects a designer goes through.

    There are lots of points i find myself in in previous comments too. Like patience, strive to improve to get even better and just try new things.

    Finally I want to thank you for sharing these great tips and keep on going with the great work u’re doing here on your blog. 🙂

  36. March 2, 2010

    I agree. Very nice post. Each and every designers should agree this.. Very nice article for new designers who want to became a designer He/She wants to just take a look at this post…

  37. August 8, 2010

    Nice list. I try as much as i can to ‘upgrade’ myself everyday i sit on my computer, my daily self-improvement has helped me alot in my work.

  38. October 3, 2010

    Each and every designers should agree this.. Very nice article for new designers who want to became a designer He/She wants to just take a look at this post…!!!!

  39. December 19, 2010

    You also need the desire and eagerness to learn; that’s crucial.

  40. January 1, 2011

    Great Post. Self improvement is a big thing for me, when you think about it, how we view ourselves has a direct link to what our future will be. Meaning if we don’t correct the things that are holding us back now then the brightness of our future will become more and more dull the longer we wait. I found this site to have some good information.

  41. March 8, 2011

    Just came to this blog through google… Awesome info… Please keep up the good work.

  42. April 20, 2011

    Thanks for the advice, I have been doing web design for years now but more as a hobby. I am now moving into taking this to a full time business and articles like these are a great help, thanks again I will be checking back for more of your articles from now on.

    Trevor Seabrook
    Sault Web Design

  43. May 1, 2011

    We have gotten a lot of helpful and inspirational information on your freelancer series.

    Please keep them coming.


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