This “Mini Course” covers all of the subjects that I feel were the most imperative upon first learning design. My hope is that I’ll be able to prime your design knowledge, skills, and awareness of the current state of the design industry so you know what to expect and what to put your time and energy into! As a quick disclaimer—this isn’t going to magically transform you into a great designer. That requires motivation, discipline, and a lot of hard work. Thankfully you’ve already got a head-start since you’re here. Now let’s start priming!
DEVELOP A DESIGN EYE
Let’s kick this off with one of the most critical skills you’ll require—a design eye! It’s very important designers know how to differentiate good from bad design. Once you can pick apart a design and understand its strengths and/or weaknesses, you’ll set the standards higher for your own work. Begin developing your design eye by taking in everything around you. Try to be more open to all of the design around you (keep in mind that design is everywhere) and notice things you hadn’t before. Understand and dissect what makes a design good or bad. Critique billboard designs and logos on semi trucks while you’re driving, package design and window ads while you’re shopping, and interfaces when you’re browsing the web. As you become a more knowledgeable designer, it will be easier to scrutinize and defend your own designs.
LEARN TO ACCEPT CRITICISM
While it’s very important to be able to criticize other designs, it’s also crucial that you learn to take criticism. There will be times when your teacher, client, or boss doesn’t approve of your design—it’s just part of the craft. For this reason, you need to develop a thick skin and never become too attached to your design, especially in its earlier stages. Being able to keep a cool head and defend your work, then explain your design decisions is one of the most important skills you’ll need to develop. Your designs are subjective. Everybody will have an opinion and people won’t always see eye to eye with you. It’s the designer’s job to educate and help non-designers understand good design. Be open-minded when receiving feedback from more experienced designers—this will help you become a better designer.
REPLICATE GREAT DESIGN
In order to become a better designer, you need to dissect great design. Recreating an established design will help you understand why the designer created it that way. Adopting these skills from the pros will help you make more informed design decisions. Find a logo, illustration, landing page, mobile app, advertisement, or any other type of design that you think is effective. Work from the ground up and try your hardest to replicate it yourself. This is also a great way to learn some new software techniques. While you’re replicating designs, if you come across something you think would make it even better, turn it into a “redesign” and include it in your portfolio—employers/clients love to see redesigns and they’re easy to talk about!
FIND A DESIGN MENTOR
Veteran designers possess the ability to uncover flaws in your design you might normally overlook. Many veteran designers are very willing to help out rookie designers. Find a designer who’s work you admire, then try to reach out and tell them what you like about their work. If they respond and seem like someone you’d love to learn from, ask them if they have a second to look over a design or two of your own and provide professional feedback. This is a great way to develop long-term relationships with other designers as well!
DO YOUR RESEARCH
You should never design arbitrarily. Learn about your target audience and don’t jump into a design project without first doing the proper research. Proper design should typically be about 70% research and 30% actually making things. It’s all about solving problems—and you can’t effectively solve problems without putting in the time and effort to understand how you can provide the most effective solution. Figure out your target audience, then get inside their minds and understand what they need. You’re not designing for yourself, so try and kick that habit early on!
LISTEN TO PODCASTS
You’re probably eager to learn as much as you can about design since you’re reading this. That desire to constantly be learning more and more about the craft is what led me to start listening to podcasts. It’s a great way to learn while engaging in tasks that aren’t so mentally demanding, like driving, exercising, or even designing things. There aren’t many podcasts out there geared towards newer designers, but listening to real professionals in the industry discuss their daily lives, design industry trends, overcoming problems, and tools is actually a fantastic way to understand what you’re getting into, and how to prepare for things to come. Check out my list of recommended podcasts here.
LEARN ABOUT CRAP
Don’t actually learn about crap. It’s an acronym for Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. These are the 4 core principles of design seen and utilized in pretty much every successful design, ever. So let’s quick touch base on them!
- Contrast – This can be achieved through a multitude of different ways. For instance, using contrasting fonts such as a bold headline coupled with a thin subhead or using contrasting colors.
- Repetition – Every piece of your design needs to feel like it belongs with the rest of it. Repetition can be achieved by using cohesive colors, shapes, graphic styles, grids, and fonts throughout your design.
- Alignment – If design elements are scattered all over the place and not aligned properly, your audience can get flustered. It’s the designer’s job to effectively guide the viewer through the design.
- Proximity – Ensuring proper spacing between different design elements can make for a much more professional look. Try to have a plan for where every element is placed and how the spacing will affect the rest of the composition.
MASTER THE ART OF WHITESPACE
One of the most common issues that rookie designers struggle with is over-complicating their designs. Understanding the importance of white space and how to properly utilize it will make a huge impact on the quality of your work. White space makes a design feel more sophisticated and allows it to breathe.
START WITH BRAINSTORMING
Brainstorming is a very important part of the design process for creative professionals. Many designers neglect this phase and jump right into projects without putting deeper thought into what they’re creating. Try to learn a few different brainstorming techniques and stick to those that work best for you. My personal favorite brainstorming technique, “mind-mapping”. Begin by writing your problem in the middle of the page, then connect lines to it with creative solutions for the problem. Continue connecting more thoughts branching off of those ideas until you’ve got a full page of creative ideas.
ESTABLISH GRID SYSTEMS
Using a grid system—no matter what you’re designing—is a great way to give your design a sense of structure. Think of a grid system as your design infrastructure. If you put some thought into a grid system before you begin arbitrarily placing elements throughout your design, it will make for a much more professional looking end product.
DISCOVER COLOR PSYCHOLOGY
Color psychology plays an important role (whether you realize it or not) in almost every effective design. Professional designers rarely choose a color palette without a purpose. In-depth research has shown that every color has some sort of psychological effects on the human brain. For example: the color orange evokes feelings of happiness, warmth, and energy. I’d recommend printing out this color cheat sheet (or something similar) and always have it near you!
“BORROW” COLOR SCHEMES
Choosing an effective and relevant color scheme can make a huge impact on your design. As a rookie designer, it’s a great idea to “borrow” color schemes that have already been tried and tested. There’s no shame in this. In fact, copying from great designs is one of the best ways to becoming a better designer. Over time, while you grow as a designer, choosing a color scheme won’t be such a daunting task.
Bonus task – go to Dribbble or Behance, find a few color schemes you like, create a folder on your computer and save the color palettes there. Continue adding more and more and start a collection that you can refer back to.
Typography is undoubtedly one of the most complex areas of design. Choosing the right fonts for your design is a crucial part of creating a successful design. Knowing when it’s more suitable to use one particular font style over another will help in becoming a better designer. When you’re looking at other designs, try to focus on the typography and understand what makes it effective and figure out what you love or hate about it. Never choose a font solely based on its popularity or because it looks cool. Here’s an extraordinary article to read through and bookmark—The Ultimate Guide to Font Pairing.
BUILD YOUR PORTFOLIO FROM THE START
This may be the most important piece of advice I share. In the creative industry, nothing matters more than your portfolio when it comes to finding work. Keep this mindset all throughout your education. Focus on crafting a strong portfolio from the very start and you’ll end up with a nice compilation of work you’re proud of instead of scrounging around for your past assignments and throwing something together when it comes time to look for a job or new clients. Keep in mind that as a creative professional, the good old-fashioned résumé means very little in comparison to your portfolio.
DIVE INTO PASSION PROJECTS
Remember to step away from the assignments and tutorials now and then. Find something you’re passionate about or just interested in learning more about and start designing something. Like video games? Design a new home page for your favorite game. Coffee fanatic? Design an ad for your favorite brew. You get the idea! Just start making things you’re passionate about. These will likely become your strongest portfolio pieces for multiple reasons; it will be easier to talk about, you’ll appear more excited about it, and your passion will show through.
PUT YOUR WORK OUT THERE
This is huge. In order for people to know you exist as a designer, you’re going to need to put your work out there. If you’re not confident in your work yet, or afraid of what people are going to say about it, refer back to what I mentioned earlier about finding a mentor or two. Ask for feedback on your design from your teacher, your classmates, your friends/family, anybody you’d trust to give you honest feedback. When you’re confident enough, start putting your work online and connecting with other designers. This opens a whole new world of networking possibilities.
And there you have it! Thanks for making it all the way to the end of my mini-course. I hope you found it helpful. If so, do your fellow rookie designers a favor and share this with them!