How to become a (better) designer
Recently, I have been asked by a couple of people through different means - how to become a designer and make it your day job? For those who don’t know, I was a full-time developer with a passion for good design and drawing a couple of years back and one day I have decided to go back to the roots and start doing design for living. Here are a couple of steps that I did to make the transition.
Step 1: Start doing it
You will never become anything if you don’t start. For me, it was starting a side project, designing my blog, redesigning my blog, redesigning my blog once again, designing my logo, redesigning my logo… you get the drift. I spent most afternoons drawing, reading, improving, iterating and getting feedback from more senior designers. Fortunately, thanks to Twitter, Dribbble et al, it got stupidly easy to network with other designers and networking means feedback, feedback means improving and you’re becoming a better designer one step at a time.
Step 2: Don’t start with Photoshop
You’ve decided to become a designer, so you fire up Photoshop/Sketch/Fireworks/GIMP? Wrong. Start with the basics. Learn to see. Learn the principles. Learn what a grid is and how can it help you. Learn how to gather feedback and iterate on it. Learn how the typeface pairing works. Learn to draw. Whatever you choose, your “design” application of choice is probably the worst option. As a designer, you need to remember that it’s only a tool that you use to do your job and tools change – principles don’t. Ninety percent of good design is not about the pixels. At the end of this post I’ll link to a couple of good books to get you started on the basics.
Step 3: Inspire yourself and ask questions
A lot of good design ideas are stolen. Well, not exactly stolen, but a lot of good ideas come from watching others and how they do their craft. Every time you see something that’s well designed, dive into how it works, how did they do it and how can you do something similar. If you chose to become a web designer, don’t be afraid to look at other fields of design and development - I got a great idea for a poster from colors that I saw on a vintage typewriter. I habitually look for color scheme inspiration for my next design in nature photography, interior design and industrial design. I study how websites are built and I try to learn how to build things that I liked.
Step 4: Work hard
Let’s be honest, most of the things you will make now will be crap and you’ll laugh at it in a year, but being a good designer is a lot like being a good woodworker - on top of all the theoretical knowledge, you need to go through a lot of designs to get better. Every time you make something, put it out there - whether you use Dribbble or show it to your friends, gather feedback. Remember that design is working for your potential user, not yourself. Learn to see, learn to gather and act upon feedback, learn to improve. Build and destroy, remove things until there’s nothing left to remove, iterate. Sleep on it and try again tomorrow. Show it to friends, show it to your mom and show it to that nice guy with laptop next to you in a cafe. Try and fail.
Step 5: Get interested in related sciences
This one helped me a lot. After meeting a bunch of really cool people at one of the coolest Berlin startups, I got really interested in cognitive science and behavioral economics, so I started reading up on those. I learned a lot about how human brain works and this knowledge has impacted how I design, even though I’m mostly doing it subconsciously (as in: not looking through a psychology book before I start).
That’s it. Hopefully this will help you become a better designer. Or a better developer. Or a better gardener. However this helps, I’ll be glad to hear it helped, so you can ping me on Twitter
List of books that can help you get started:
Graphic design theory
- Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field
- Design Elements: Graphic Style Manual
- Universal Principles of Design
- Elements of Typographic Style
- Thinking with Type
- New Typography - Warning: make sure you keep the historic context in mind while reading this one.
- The Design of Everyday Things
- Seductive Interaction Design
- 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People
- Designing for Emotion
Psychology & Cognitive Science