Like almost any job, designing can become routine. Utilizing a few styles, layouts, fonts, patterns, or color palettes that are proven to work can be a huge time-saver. I recommend taking note of the reasons why a design is successful, but be careful not to use the same strategies and techniques for every project.
Another roadblock to becoming a better designer is the nature of the designer-client relationship. A designer gets paid when the client is satisfied with the product, and that often means you must put creativity aside to please the client.
From mid-2008 to mid-2009, I lost some interest in designing. There were several reasons why I fell into a rut, but I realized that I had become comfortable with my work. I became discouraged until I decided to do something about it, and dig myself out of the comfortable hole that was slowly turning me into a design robot. I decided to challenge myself by doing one thing in each design I had never done before. You ask, “What is that one thing?”. Well, that one thing could be using a font you have never used before. It could be breaking the template of a website design in a new way. I’m talking small things here, because you still have to please the client and finish the project in a reasonable amount of time. If you tend towards minimal/modern, push yourself to incorporate a little texture to fill some space. Use a tertiary color that surprises you or a new tool in Photoshop. By trying new things while not abandoning good design principles, you can improve your design skills and get out of your comfortable rut.
Interact regularly with other designers.
There are many beautiful things about freelancing, but there is also a danger. The danger is isolating yourself from other designers. I think every designer needs the advice, critiques, and friendships of fellow designers. I’ve recently begun meeting regularly with a group of 5 friends: 2 designers, 2 developers, and 1 marketing guru. These aren’t formal meetings, just casual coffee shop gatherings. We share client horror stories, talk business development, share advice, get opinions, and build each other up. I have realized that these interactions are important to my growth as both a designer and a business owner. These interactions may also give you opportunities to have your work critiqued, as I suggest in my next point.
Have your work critiqued.
This should be a no-brainer, but is obviously something that all designers need, no matter their experience or skill-level. Our personalities and life experiences shape our designs – things we’ve seen, techniques we’ve learned, places we’ve traveled, etc. Everyone will look at a design from a unique perspective, and you will gain invaluable insight into your work from the interpretations and critiques of others. If you’re in a group, ask them to critique your work. Family, friends, and old classmates can be good critics. Pleasecritiqueme is a free site that allows you to get free critiques for print or web design, and there are many others.
If you weren’t in design school, you may have trouble emotionally receiving critical feedback. This is normal, and is something you need to overcome to become the best designer you can be. You also need to know how to weigh the feedback. Sometimes you need to stick to your guns, and other times you should revise your work due to the feedback you receive. This process leads to my next point.
Be humble and have perspective.
When you receive critical (and negative) feedback from another designer, you need to be able to take the hit and move on. Sometimes moving on means keeping your cool and trying again, and other times you will trust your gut and go with what you feel works. Designers who have egos the size of Texas are no fun to work with. I’ve had several clients come to me after working with designers who thought they were the only designer in Austin and treated their client accordingly. Be humble, and realize that you’re just one of hundreds of thousands of designers across the world. Be confident, but not cocky.
Receiving critical feedback from clients is another story. Sometimes a client will hire me and then decide they want to be the designer. In those cases, you have to decide whether or not the project is worth your time. If you choose to stick with it, then have perspective that this is just one project and that perhaps the next project will allow you to be creative. If it’s not worth your time, then do what you have to do. Being humble and having the right perspective will make you a better designer.
Get inspired, and aim to inspire.
Inspiration is a huge component to becoming a better designer. Numerous online resources exist including sites like csselite, cssbeauty, logofaves, and logopond. Bookstores and libraries give you opportunities to get off the computer and refresh the creative side of your brain. If I’m feeling uninspired, I’ll pick up a Logo Lounge book (one of several volumes) and flip through hundreds of logos, all of which are professional and inspiring. When you see great work, you have the opportunity to apply the strategies that make that work great to your work. Don’t copy other designs, but analyze them and understand what makes them successful and inspiring. Take that knowledge and aim to become a designer that creates inspiring work. You’ll get there – it just takes a lot of practice, sweat, and tears (no blood, fortunately).
If you created a really nice piece of work, submit it to one of the many design gallery websites out there. They may choose to list your work, which is good for marketing and a confidence booster.
Remember your roots.
I recently designed and built this website for Sko Design Lab. In the process of revisiting my portfolio I found some four-year-old work that I really liked. I had a moment where I realized why I liked the piece. The design was minimal and clean, and the typographical treatment was creative and modern. More importantly, I found that I have strayed from the design style that originally sparked my passion for graphic design. I’m returning to my roots. I encourage you to remember what it is that sparked your passion for design and do what it takes to keep the fire burning by remembering your roots.