10 habits to help you master graphic design
Traditionally, we tend to think the only way to learn more is either through practice or theory. We do more, or we study more, and that’s about it.
While this is essentially true, it’s worth noting that there is much more to learning than theory and practice. It’s the habits we create, day in and day out, that defines what we learn in the long haul. If you read 15 minutes every day, you’ll probably know much more than the person sitting next to you. If you write 10 sentences every day, you’ll probably write better than someone who writes nothing.
For those who want to master graphic design, some habits work better than most. Here they are.
This is an obvious start but nevertheless, creating something every day is the surefire way to success. Why? Because perfection comes from repetition: the more you do something, the better you become at doing it.
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book on this subject, explaining that you need to practice something for 10,000 hours to become an actual expert and gain recognition.
Whether this number is right or not is beside the point, but it does give you an excellent reason to start counting those hours today.
If we rule out our survival instinct, plain old competition is one of the best — if not the best — motivators out there. Once you know someone else is chasing after the same thing you are, you go way over your head to catch it first.
For a designer, it means it’s very hard to deliver the same level of quality with and without competition. The fact that you know someone else is trying to win a design contest will make you try harder, do your best and then some — which is something you’re simply not inclined to do when working alone.
Competition makes us grow. So while having regular clients is great, picking a good 99designs battle is useful in a wholly different way.
3. Switching projects
In real life, we gain experience by wrestling with different problems and obstacles. It would be impossible to learn anything new if we stayed at home the whole time (although I wouldn’t mind watching endless reruns of Game of Thrones).
The same rules apply to your design ability. If you keep doing only logos, or only websites, or only illustrations, you’ll surely get good at it — but you’ll also lock yourself into a different type of house, the one that keeps you away from the design knowledge and experience waiting for you.
Change the projects you do once in a while. Use the experience you gain to grow your understanding of design and become even better at projects you prefer doing.
4. Switching styles
I’ll make a confession — I fought with myself for months trying not to use glossy finish on every logo and button I do. I succeeded.
I also fought another battle, this time with typefaces — I kept picking the same ones over and over! I’m still fighting that on and off.
People are creatures of habit, and designers are probably the worst kind — they keep doing the same things to their artwork, which eventually gives them their “style”.
While having a style is a very good thing for a painter or musician, for designers it’s kind of a hindrance. Our job is different from art because it requires us to adapt our style to requirements of the project and its audience. This is very hard, because it asks us to deliberately ignore our own preferences in favor of doing the right thing. But it pays off in spades.
Switch styles often, and learn to design for the project, not for your own taste. This is what graphic design is about.
Imitation is a form of social learning — it means we mimic what other people do, so we don’t have to learn things from scratch.
In design, this means you’re free to use the layouts, styles and typeface combinations you’ve seen somewhere else — if it works, why bother inventing it all over again? In fact, imitating the approach of more advanced designers out there will give you some instant improvement in the quality of your work.
HOWEVER, be careful not to confuse imitation with plagiarism — you should never, ever copy every aspect of another person’s work. It’s illegal, and you get nothing from it.
You just started a new project and decided to get some juices flowing. You sift through online portfolios, making occasional “ooooohs” and “aaaaahs” as some stunning designs fill your screen.
But have you ever stopped to wonder WHY a certain design works? Is it because of the layout, the photography, or a specific combination? Is it the grid-based approach?
This is where analysis comes in. Try to be scientific in the way you observe other people’s work, and derive some conclusions concerning principles and rules behind their looks. To this end, it’s useful to know graphic design principles so you can recognize them at work, but just thinking things through will give you great results.
This “CSI” meets the design approach is packed with insights you’ll learn and remember forever.
And it’s fun!
Occasionally, I look back to certain things that happened in my life and I always find something new to learn, some new insights that never occurred to me before… like knowing that too many beers are not a good match for an empty stomach.
Reflection is a powerful learning device and it works just as well for design work. It’s worth to occasionally look at projects you’ve done months or years before, and see the mistakes you’ve made. You’ll understand the progress you’ve made, and more importantly, where you need to go.
Most designers agree on one thing: you don’t really need an education to get ahead in this industry.
It’s true. If you’re talented, you can do very well just by doing, and no one will ever ask you for your educational background. It’s the way it goes with visual arts.
But in my opinion, “doing” is a very limited experience. I started this way, and quickly learnt that my “expertise” has more holes than Swiss cheese. I knew nothing about why something I do works or doesn’t work, or how to apply design principles to my work. Shortly after, I started devouring design books.
Just as practice, studying is indispensable. Whether you decide to do it by reading some good design books, or by taking an online course or college, education always makes you better at what you do.
Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse.
Anybody taking acting or speaking classes will find these three words very familiar.
In design terms, it means a very specific thing — do not stop working and re-working until your design “works”. If something doesn’t look right, trash it and start all over, even if it took weeks to complete.
The only thing that counts is the end result, not the time you’ve put in. Perfect until its perfect.
Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky
Do you know how designers and artists worked 20, 30, 50 years ago in your country, and in the world? Do you know how they influenced the design community, including you?
For example, a grid based design pioneered in 1970’s by Josef Muller Brockman changed and shaped generations of graphic designers, being the most praised and popular way to build web layouts today.
Similarly, many of Kandisky’s illustrations from 1920’s inspire the work of illustrators around the world.
Make a habit of recognizing, respecting and sharing great work you see today. It helps you understand where design is going, and build a sense of design zeitgeist.
Learning through habits
Good learning habits are a powerful tool to master design, especially if you practice them long enough so they become like second nature. Pick a few from the list above and start tackling them 15 minutes a day — you’ll notice the difference in your work in a week.
What are some of your design habits?