Learn it, Do it, Be a Better Graphic Designer
There are dozens of things you can start doing right now that will help you to be a better graphic designer. However, not all of them will level up your design skills at the same speed. So here I’ve listed ten relatively simple ways you can be a better graphic designer that will help you get more clients, improve your portfolio, be more creative, and give you an edge in the competitive design industry.
Everything on this list is something you can start right now. So, if you really want to level up your design skills, pick at least one thing you want to focus on and try to implement it today. You don’t have to master it just yet. Simply take the steps to improve one area of your knowledge and skill set at a time.
Some of the things on this list seem like common sense but are too often disregarded by the very designers who need them the most. They are the kinds of things you learn only after having worked in the industry for a long, long time. What you’ll learn here is just a few of the ways you can be a better graphic designer, like organizing your inspiration, specializing, asking the right questions, and more.
1. Organize Your Design Inspiration
As designers, it’s important to be organized in every possible way. We need to keep our schedules and priorities organized and every single computer or paper file should have a specific location that’s effective, logical, and easy to find. But how do you organize your inspiration?
Most designers tend to have a variety of places to curate design work they like and go to when they need some inspiration. The problem is that, eventually, those places become disorganized or too full to find what you’re looking for. Plus, having so much design inspiration spread out over different platforms makes everything very disorganized and hard to find. So what are your options? Well, it depends how you like to work.
Social Media Sites/Apps to Find and Organize Design Inspo
- Instagram is great because you can save posts from other designers and come back to them later, but you can’t really organize those posts. If you’re saving posts often, older posts will get completely lost in the noise. When I find a really good piece of design inspiration I’ll just screenshot it then email it to myself.
- Pinterest is a great option for inspiration of any kind. It’s certainly better than Instagram for organizing visual inspiration because you can create a separate board for every image you pin. This keeps things somewhat organized, though it’s not perfect. I find that Pinterest has the best variety of styles in design work and has such a large collection of imagery that even very specific searches will return great results.
- Dribble is the obvious choice to find and curate design inspiration since it was built to do exactly that. You can save anything you like to a collection and create a new collection for each type of inspiration you gather. This too can get cluttered after awhile, but still feels easier to navigate than Pinterest. I would love to see a search function for the items you’ve saved in your collections though. (Is this available on the Pro version? If so, let me know!)
- Behance is another good option and it’s very similar to Dribble. Behance is often used to showcase designer portfolios, more so than Dribble anyway, and has a similar organizational system for saving images you like by adding them to a mood board.
I prefer to organize the bulk of my inspiration files right on my computer because they’re easiest to add to a mood board or bring right into Photoshop to try and recreate an effect or texture I like. I’ll often grab imagery from social media sites to add to my inspiration folders. This system works as long as I keep everything consistently organized, I maintain it regularly, and consistency add new stuff. Obviously, the drawback to using this method is that it takes up space on my hard drive, though I can still use it offline.
If you’re working on a shared company server with lots of designers, you might want to have a shared place on the server for inspiration. Somewhere everyone contributes to regularly, and can quickly grab imagery for a mood board for when needed. This might be the easiest option for many people since it doesn’t involve logging in to any site, you can organize files however you like, and files are quick to drag and drop into Photoshop to mood board.
Where you organize your design inspiration will really depend on how you prefer to work and where you like to get inspiration from. How you specifically organize your inspiration images or files will also depend on the type of work you do. If you often work on branding projects you might have collections for specific identity design types like isometric logos, line art logos, 3D logos, logo gradients, logo colour schemes, etc.
Even More Inspo Organization
Here are some more things you can do to organize your design inspiration.
- Put together some great font pairings to use in future projects. Show an example of the fonts being used together and make sure to verify that each typeface can be used for commercial purposes.
- Have a folder for rejected designs like logos, layouts, etc. Something a client rejects might be perfect for a future project with some tweaks.
- Collect awesome colour schemes, either on their own or in design work. There are lots of great colour scheme resources online like Cooolors.co but you still have to sort through the mediocre colour schemes to find the great ones. You can organize your colour scheme inspiration by mood to make the right colour schemes quick to find in the future.
- If you find great design inspiration in a magazine or book, take a photo and add it into your digital inspiration collection if you can’t find it online. Don’t wait until you try to remember where you saw it then have to spend the next few hours looking for the design magazine you saw it in.
- Collect design works that not only inspire you, but also confound you. We often see design work that is easy to recreate, which is great for inspiration, but nothing more. When you see design or illustrative work where you’re not sure how it was actually created, that challenges your brain and your creativity. I’ve often started personal projects simply because I liked how something looked but wasn’t sure how to make it. So I experimented and learned new ways to creating imagery.
2. Specialize in Something
To be a better graphic designer you need to specialize. In a professional design environment with lots of designers, every one of them will have an area of design expertise stronger than others. For important projects that require their top skill, they will always be tasked with it because they’re the best. This leads hiring managers to try to have a well rounded team of designers who can handle anything.
When I say ‘specialize’, I don’t mean put all of your attention into one single area of design. You’ll get really good at it, but having other design skills still matters.
You should consistently build all your design skills whenever you can, but try to put the majority of your attention into an area of design you really love.
I’ve worked with super talented designers who were especially amazing at motion graphics, or illustration, or identity design. They were hired to our team because they complimented the skills of the other designers and were highly skilled in areas that were lacking on the rest of the team.
This means that whenever an important project came up that required one of those areas of specialty, the person best in that area got to be the creative lead on the project. For instance, the designer who specialized in branding and identity design would take the lead on the projects where branding was key. The most talented illustrator on the team was given the illustration-heavy projects to lead.
I know, it’s common sense that a company would make an employee do the majority of what they’re best at. Many designers, though, have the same amount of skill in all areas of design. That’s not a bad thing, but it could exclude them from doing the projects that might be really passionate about.
So what are you best at? What do you want to be known for?
If there’s an area of design that you enjoy doing the most, master it. Become the person people come to for something specific like amazing typography, branding, Photoshop compositing, etc. Need help figuring out what area of design to specialize in? Here’s a list of potentials:
- Stylized illustration
- Motion graphics
- Hand lettered logos
- 3D design
- 2D animation
- Website prototyping
- Food packaging design
- Game user interface
- And more…
3. Learn How To Price Design Work
If you’re a freelance designer or working in a small design agency, knowing how to properly price the work you do is crucial. If you price your work poorly you could end up putting in too much time, energy, and resources to the point where you lose money. However, if you know how to price your work well, you should be able to turn a good profit and be able to continue designing and investing in yourself as a designer.
To start understanding how to price your design work properly, the main thing you need to know is:
You should be charging by value, not by the hour. Hourly billing penalizes experience and over complicates the entire process.
If you want a quick explanation on why you should be using value-based pricing instead, check out this video by TheFutur. If you want a bit more information on exactly why and how to do this, check out this video.
Essentially, value-based pricing involves giving a client a single price quote for a project rather than giving your hourly rate and an estimate of how long the project will take you.
For a long time the design industry has thought of hourly billing as the standard. Now we’re seeing a shift. With value-based pricing, designers aren’t penalized for having the skill to do a project quickly and clients get exact numbers for their budget. How long a project takes no longer factors into anything financial on the client-side. Charge the client based on how much of a profit you want to make. Leave hourly billing for small changes and out-of-scope tasks.
I’m not going to go too in-depth to design pricing here, because there are resources that explain it way better than I ever could. The best resource I’ve found to date is a book called The Psychology of Graphic Design Pricing by Michael Janda. This books goes into extremely helpful detail about how to charge for your design work; factoring in production costs, market value, client budgets, strategies for presenting your pricing guidelines to the client, and more. It has charts and formulas that will guide you through exactly what to charge clients so you turn a profit.
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4. Understand How People See
Understanding the way people actually see, process, and remember information is so important but it’s barely touched on in design school. We’re taught the basic principles of design like hierarchy and grouping, which concern how information is laid out, but there’s actually a lot more to how people actually consume information that is separate from the basic design principles. Here are a few examples.
How We See Faces
There is a certain part of our brains that is used entirely for recognizing faces. In other words, when used in design, faces can grab our attention and deliver an instant emotional response when used correctly. A face that looks straight out at us has the greatest impact since we’re so drawn to eyes. Our eyes also tend to follow where other human eyes are looking, so if a composition has a person looking in a direction of the product, our eyes will follow.
Ease of Reading
It’s also important for designers to know that people generally read things easier on paper than they do on screen. When we look at as a screen, as you are now, the image is not stable and is constantly being refreshed and emitting light. This ends up being tiring on our eyes. Use that information however you like. It’s unlikely people will stop using their screens anytime soon.
What you can do to make text on a screen easier to read is to stick to black text on a white background, aim to have good contrast between any text and background elements, and know that white text on a black background can be hard to read. If you do use white or coloured text on a dark background, keep the text larger for readability.
Lastly, you should know that people process information better in small chunks. Since the brain can only consciously process a small amount of information at once, designers need to be wary of giving too much information at once.
The Canadian government website utilizes this quite well in some areas of the site. Headings are shown with drop down arrows to read the rest of the information if it’s applicable, rather than bombarding viewers will all the info at once. You can see how this works on the Canada Child Benefit page, as well as many others.
If you want to learn more about how people see, think, and more, the book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan M. Weinschenk, Ph.D. has taught me a lot about how people see and I highly recommend it. This book gives you insight into ways that your can improve your designs just by knowing a bit more about how the human brain works.
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5. Proof Your Work Many, Many Times
Okay, this one is kind of a basic, but in order for you to be a better graphic designer, you need to step up your proofing. Proofing your work is so crucial to the design process yet it never seems to be factored into project time estimates. Thorough proofing can take a long time.
How you proof your work will be different depending on the type of information in your design. Any contact information, web or email addresses, names, and time-specific information needs to be proofed and checked more closely than anything else.
Have a business card design going to print? Check over all the information with a fine tooth comb. Make sure the contact info matches what is on the company website and there are no typos. Then have someone else look at it to check for errors. The more text you’re dealing with, the more you need to proof it. Basically, don’t send a file to print or post anything until you are absolutely sure there are no errors in it.
- For long paragraphs of text, read it out loud. Then have someone else read it over. Never rely on a computer spell-check to catch everything. In fact, assume the computer spell-check is trying to mess with you. Sometimes it is.
- If you have no one else to look over your work before you send it to print, take a break and come back to it with fresh eyes then check it over again.
- Whenever possible, print a draft of your design to check over all the text. As mentioned above, people read things easier on paper. I always seem to catch typos and grammatical errors better in print than on the screen. This way you can also physically pass your design around to a few people to check.
- For any contact information in your work, always double check it is up-to-date with the correct phone numbers, email addresses, office addresses, etc. I’ve sent clients final design proofs before with their phone numbers wrong and they didn’t catch it, so make sure to check the info is correct yourself or to ask the client specifically to double check the contact details.
- Lastly, if you aren’t already well versed in commonly misspelled words, learn how to use them properly. For instance, know the difference between their, there, they’re, effect, affect, then, than, who’s, whose, or your and you’re.
- Have clients sign-off on finished design work before it goes to print.
6. Do Non-Client, Creative Projects Regularly
The single best way to be a better graphic designer is to do the work. The more you design, the better you’ll be. So with that in mind, why not do some design side projects that are entirely your own?
If you’re already a full-time designer you might get burnt out by the end of the day. This means that if you take on any creative projects at home, they should be fun. This means you pick the project. It doesn’t matter if your project is based in reality or completely ridiculous. You’re the client and designer so you can do whatever you want.
Doing creative side projects is a great way to level up your design skills, especially if you’re doing projects that you wouldn’t normally get to work on. This is also a great way to improve your skills if you’re new to design and not yet doing it full-time.
If you’re not sure where to start, you can go with something simple like your own personal brand identity or promotional materials for a family member’s business. If you want to get really creative, how about an event poster for a New Years Eve party held on Mars or a billboard ad for a handheld black hole generator? The ideas are endless so don’t feel limited.
If you need ideas that are a bit more grounded in reality, check out sharpen.design to generate a random project idea.
If you’re a brand new designer, these types of projects are great because they can help you build your portfolio without doing actual client work. Just create the project you want with your fake client, complete the project, and add it to your portfolio. Don’t forget to include your visual and thought process in your portfolio, as well as your rationale for why the project was a success based on what you initially wanted to accomplish. Over time, as your design skills and process improve, you can go back and tweak these projects so they reflect your current level of skill in your portfolio.
7. Ask Why
When you’re meeting with a client who wants a new identity design do you just start brainstorming and sketching ideas or do you explore the reason it’s needed on the first place?
Do you know why the client wants a new logo? Why wasn’t the old one successful anymore? Maybe the client has excellent brand recognition but sales are poor. Why do they think a new visual brand would help sales? Maybe their social strategy needs to be overhauled. Is their competition doing something better than them?
Knowing how to ask the right questions is crucial for a designer to create something truly successful. Specifically, asking why over and over again will drive you to the root of any problem.
Asking Yourself Why
Questions aren’t just for client meetings. When you’re creating something, remember to ask yourself why you’re designing it in a certain way. The best designers don’t just place elements to ‘look pretty’. There should be a reason for everything in your design to exist. Design elements can be used to inform, educate, frame, grab attention, differentiate, etc., but never just ‘because’.
Why did you choose this layout for the magazine? Why should this poster have a border? Why is this logo more effective than the other? Why are these colours better for the demographic?
To be able to effectively communicate your ideas to your boss, fellow designers, or your client, you should be able to communicate your thought process. You should know at every stage why certain decisions were made and be able to defend them if necessary.
In your head, ask yourself questions a more senior designer or creative director might ask you and be prepared to answer or change your design accordingly. For instance, here’s a conversation from my head regarding a design:
“Why is this text right aligned? It is harder to read.”
“Yes, but it’s such a small bit of text so readability won’t really an issue.”
“Why don’t we care about readability? Is this not meant to be read?”
“It is meant to be read, but it doesn’t really matter weather it is or not, it isn’t adding anything important.”
“So why is it there if it isn’t adding anything to the design? Why does this composition need that bit of text?”
“I guess it doesn’t”
8. Read All The Books
In the journey to be a better graphic designer, you need to read. Read every design book you can get your hands on. The new ones and the old (but non-obsolete) ones too. Read books from experts in the fields of design, art, and marketing, and books that can help improve specific areas of your design knowledge.
TheFutur has a great list of must-read design, marketing, and creative business books on their website that you can check out here. There are currently four lists, divided into book type, that include awesome books like The Brand Gap, Logo Modernism, Thinking With Type, and so many more.
Here are some of the books I found to be the most useful for leveling up my skills and knowledge of the industry.
- If you want to learn the ins and outs of running a design agency, working with clients, or really anything regarding the day-to-day stuff you deal with being a designer, read ‘Burn Your Portfolio’ by Michael Janda. This is one of the absolute best design books for learning practical information and step-by-step advice about the business of design.
- As I mentioned earlier, if you want to learn about how people see and process information in a way that relates to design, check out 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan M. Weinschenk, Ph.D.
- If you’re wanting to learn the basics of branding, the 60-Minute Brand Strategist is fantastic. It gives you a simply explained, visual guide to things like brand value, brand leadership, and overall brand strategy.
- If you want to be better at research, brainstorming, and improving your overall design process to be a better graphic designer, read Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming by Ellen Lupton.
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9. Get Creative With the Grid
Most of the work designers create is built on a grid. This is standard for page layout and website designs, but can also be true for illustrations and logo designs. So since we work with grids so often, why not get creative with those grids?
Experimenting with different grid types can really help to improve the creativity of your design work and teach you to be a better graphic designer. You can start simple by experimenting with adding more columns or rows to a grid, making more dramatic size differences within the grid, then get even more creative with diagonal grids, radial grids, and beyond.
These poster designs below both use diagonal grid structures but in different ways.
Illustrations and logo designs are usually created using different kinds of grids that are uniform and patterned like the ones below. Designers use a ton of different types of grid designs to create unique looking logos so don’t be afraid to experiment and create your own style of grid.
If you want to learn more about using grids in your design work check out Layout Essentials: 1000 Design Principles for Using Grids by Beth Tondreau.
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Sharing our work with the world can be difficult. It can be hard to handle criticism of something we’re proud of, especially for new designers. Online, a lot of the feedback we get isn’t helpful and we always run the risk of our work getting straight up plagiarized within the same platform we’ve posted it to. Fortunately, great things can come from sharing your work online.
For the most part, the design community is helpful. If you want to start a conversation about a design you’ve created, social media is the best place to do that. Not sure how to decide which direction to take a design in? Ask your followers for help. Creatives are eager to help out their peers. Sharing your work online also opens the door for you to find new clients and collaborate with other talented designers.
Some Ways You Can Use Social Media To Be A Better Graphic Designer
- Start a poster a day series where you share one poster every single day on Twitter and/or Instagram.
- Start an experimental logo creation Instagram account where you challenge yourself to create and share your logo creations for fake companies.
- Use social media simply as an extension of your portfolio, sharing the same work, but opening the discussion to other designers to comment on your work.
- Designing strictly on your phone, use an app like Assembly or Canva to create design work and share it socially.
- Collect design work from others under a specific theme like flat logo design, logo redesigns, abstract poster designs, etc., but make sure to ask the original artist for permission to use their work, give the original artist credit, and tag them too. This should be a way to show off work from inspiring designers, not to flat out steal their work.
How To Be a Better Graphic Designer – In Summary
Implementing anything from this list will make you a better graphic designer. Implementing everything will make you even better, but don’t get overwhelmed. Pick one thing to start first, and run with it.
Not sure where to start? Start simple and organize the design inspiration files you have on your computer. Maybe start reading one of the design books you have sitting on your shelf or pick up a new one?
Maybe there’s a creative design project you’ve been wanting to tackle for awhile but haven’t started yet. Maybe a fake fitness company logo or a poster design to hang up by your desk? Start small with the first task in the project- the ideation phase, and build from there. Keep your inspiration and project files organized. Try to experiment with unique grids in your design, whether it’s a layout design or a logo. Keep at it until it’s perfect then thoroughly proof it. Lastly, share it online if you’re feeling confident or looking for some feedback.
What do you think are some of the best ways to learn to be a better graphic designer? Let me know in the comments below!
Photo by Kerde Severin on Unsplash
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