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Why Your Designs Are Not Getting Better

Why Your Designs Are Not Getting Better

Everyone starts their design career in the same place. We might have an inclination of what good design is, but we suck at the execution. But we go to school or teach ourselves the software, the rules, the techniques and we improve dramatically. If you don't believe me, open up your first Photoshop project (if you still have it) and just look at the Frankenstein you created. Remember back to when you got excited about the dumb little features you learned in Photoshop and fully abused them (think Blending Modes, every single Layer Style, Filters, etc.).

Early in ones design career we go through a stage of rapid improvement. But after a few years, that dies off. We have a design job. We do passable work, but it never really gets any better. I can remember when every design comp I made was better than the last. You might even feel your work is pretty good but you know there are people better.

You know the tools, you put in the time, plenty of other wannabe designs have left the field and you are still kicking. But why are other people still producing better work than you? You have an eye for design, and can recognize great design instantly but aren’t producing it yourself.

So what are the differences between you and people producing consistently outstanding work?

We Stop Learning

At some point, after the newness of working in the design field wears off, we begin to dig ourselves into a hole. We don’t have time for experimentation so we begin to do what we know works. Copying your successful designs is easier than trying something new. So you develop best practices and ways of quickly producing passable work. And you cannot really improve it because you aren’t willing to strip it down and start completely over, or do anything that will put you over deadline. Risks just don’t happen as much or at all anymore. We may try something new with our initial design but we almost never start over if we’ve come up with a semi-decent design.

It also becomes harder and harder to do anything that doesn’t bring in money. The days of design just to design are over. We have to do paying gigs to keep the lights on and anything that doesn’t bring in a paycheck takes a back seat or is forgotten completely.

We replace discover with design inspiration. Essentially, we become lazy.

Design inspiration can be like television, a distraction from doing something meaningful with your time.

Instead of experimenting and learning, we look at other people’s work and wonder and wish we could be doing the same. Surfing around the internet reading blogs and looking at design galleries is not a substitute for doing work yourself, and it isn’t the same as surrounding yourself with great designers. Looking at great design doesn’t mean it will rub off on you.

We Settle

We often take work from clients who make it impossible to create amazing work. They don’t allow for enough billable hours to produce great work. Or they micromanage each job or put in unwanted or damaging design direction and revisions. And some clients simply have terrible design assets that no matter what you do with them, they still looks bad, and the clients are often unwilling to make a change.

We get positive reinforcement every time we get a paycheck for doing mediocre work. But we don’t get a monetary reward from doing more than the minimum. Or at least we cannot see it right away, so we have less incentive to do more than what is necessary.

Good enough pays the bills.

Doing mediocre work can create an endless cycle of unfulfillment. Doing mediocre work for bad clients brings in more bad clients. Clients who don’t pay enough, aren’t able to budget enough design hours. Clients who are difficult to work with and clients who have bad design assets to start from.

We Surround Ourselves with the Wrong People

Many of use end up sticking with a job where we are surrounded by the wrong people. We work with other designers who do not produce quality work. We work with designers who have given up themselves. We end up dealing with negative people or people who don’t understand design and have no concept of how to foster it. It doesn’t matter if you are in-house, work in a studio or a solo freelancer. We all have people around us who bring us down.

Do You Really Want It

You really need to ask yourself, just how important is it. Are you content where you are and do you have the drive to get better? For most people the answer is no.

There are lots of really good athletes who never make it as pros because they just didn’t want it bad enough. They had relied on natural ability up until that point but when the competition finally caught up with them, and they were just another player, they didn’t take that next step. That next step involves hard work and most people just don’t have it in them.

The design field is largely the same, except we don’t get million dollar paychecks for being the best. There are millions of amateurs who dabble in design, then there are us, the people who do it for a living, and then there are the top 3% or so, who set the trends for everyone else.

Are you really putting in the time needed to get better? If you cannot remember the last time you did a project for fun or just to learn something new, than how can you expect your work to improve. Kick yourself in the ass and get to work.

How to Find the Motivation

The only way to get out of the rut you are in is to make changes, some of which can be scary. You might have to fire some clients, quit your current job and burn some bridges, but it is all for your benefit and is all necessary.

Do whatever it takes to surround yourself with the right types of people and steer clear of the rest. Get in touch with designers who inspire you and make them part of your network. Find designers who will give you honest and useful feedback on your work. Eliminate negative people/negative clients from your life.

Noah Stokes put it best:

Find someone who will tell you what sucks about your work. Make friends with them.

Critiquing our own work is really hard. Find someone who is hard on you and pushes you to get better. Someone who calls you out on anything less than your best effort.

You also need to find other ways to gain positive reinforcement aside from getting a paycheck. Set up goals for yourself.

Some examples:

  • Create one piece of work this year that gets featured in a design magazine
  • Submit your work for design awards (when you know it will be judged you will push yourself more)
  • Share your work with the designers that inspire you
  • Find a mentor and mentor a new designer
  • Do at least one pro bono job this year
  • Visit a museum you’ve never been to and pull something you saw into a current design of yours
  • Redesign a website purely for fun

I think you get the idea. Find other ways to gain rewards from your work other than getting a paycheck.

Make Discovery Part of Your Life

Find ways to get inspired. Start up a meeting for designers or find other ways to meet people outside of your circle. Plan time every day or at least a few times a week to learn new things. This could be recreating a design you like, learning a new technique, creating a typeface, painting in Photoshop, working on a custom illustration or anything you don’t commonly do. Think back to art school, if you attended, and what you used to like to do then, that you don’t do know. Pick up that old skill and work it into your current projects.

You cannot learn a new style by just looking at it. Find something you like and tear it apart. See how it was done and adapt it to your own uses.

Work with other mediums and bring them into your workflow. Scan in your paintings or sketches and see what you can do with them in a digital format.

Improving the Design Process

Having the motivation to improve and keep improving is the first step but you need to refine your design process as well.

The best things to do are often the most obvious. Like making better use of your time. If you struggle with distraction, schedule short breaks in your day for social media, email and other time wasters. Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. Instead. tackle your biggest task of the day right off, while your fresh and the distraction of other deadlines are at a minimum.

During your workday you should try to have no more than 3-4 tasks to complete and they all should get accomplished during that same day. Making long lists can often be a hindrance. The stress gets to you and your mind wonders off to other tasks you need to do, preventing you from focusing on the task right in front of you.

Plan out bigger projects with lots of smaller deadlines. The more time you have the more of it you will waste. If you have a website comp due in two weeks, give yourself a four day deadline. Get something completed in that time and then get it critiqued. Create revisions in another couple of days. Get it critiqued yet again, and you should be in a better place than if you just took the whole two weeks to come up with one iteration.

Most of us come up with a passable design and then spend hours making small little changes here and there. Knock out a design as fast as possible and get feedback on it. Tear it down and start over if you have to but getting the first design done quickly allows you the time to make serious revisions. The hardest thing to do is destroy good work but most times a good piece will never become great no matter how you tweak it. If you want to make something great, you sometimes have to start over or delete elements that are holding you back.

Expect and look forward to your original design concept changing. The client will have changes, and you should get ideas for changes from your critiques. Don’t let curve balls through you off. Don’t fight to keep your original vision, do what is best with the current version in front of you. If the client asks for a radical change revise your idea and find the best way to do it, don’t just “work it in”. It might take extra time but the end result will be better.

More Useful Info

Here are some more useful links to check out.

Tips on becoming a better design from Brian Hoff

A list of some tips from various successful designers from ComputerArts.

Excerpt from How to Grow As A Graphic Designer by Cathy Fishel at AdamsMorioka

What pushes you to be a better design? Share your thoughts below.

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Couchable is a web design blog created by Tyler Herman. Not really updated anymore because I'm busy doing freelance design work and busy launching my little WordPress theme shop Real Theme Co. You can read a little more about my at my personal site