16 Thought-Provoking Tips to Become A Better Graphic Designer

After design school, I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was that I wanted to start working so I could learn, grow and get better at my profession. It was exciting to be able to start calling myself a graphic designer. It took a long time but since those early days I’ve had a lot of thoughts about how I work and what keeps me going on this path. Below is a list of those ideas which have now become beliefs that have served me well in my career.

None of these are original ideas by any means. Look into the minds of most designers and creatives and you’ll find very similar thoughts. For most it takes a long time to realize these ideas and it usually doesn’t happen until they’re directly pointed out to us.

Not only is this list a reminder for myself to refer back to over time, it’s also a list for those who need it pointed right in their face. There could be so many more ideas added to this and maybe as time goes on I’ll update it. And if you have others to add too please send me a message.

My hope though is that these ideas, thoughts, beliefs, what have you, will stick in your brain and never come out as they’ve done for me.

1. Failure Is Freedom

Don’t be afraid to try something you’re unsure of. If it doesn’t work out you’ll learn where you need to go instead. It’s in the failure or success that you’ll find guidance toward the next step, but you won’t know until you try.

2. Always Be Learning

Try to use every project as an opportunity to learn something new that you hadn’t before. Practice, study, grow, repeat. Never stop learning…about anything and everything. Yes have an interest in design but don’t forget to look around at what the rest of the world is doing. Life and interest outside design will influence your work much more than design will.

3. Think First, Then Design

Think about what the project needs to communicate to the audience it’s being made for. As in a chess match, every move you make has to have a reason behind it. Just because work looks good doesn’t mean it solves the problem it needs to.

4. Whittle Away

Start with a broad idea as a base to carve into until you end up with a fine point, like sharpening a pencil. Just make sure that point is sharp enough that it will stick into your audience’s mind.

5. Read What You Design

To find the essence of a project and make it work effectively you need to understand what your audience will need to get out of it. The only way to do that is to read the text that you’re designing. The information you get out of reading the text for the project will help inform appropriate design decisions. And just because there is text on it doesn’t mean the text is saying the right thing either. You may need to re-write.

6. Design, Don’t Decorate

Looks can be deceiving. Just because something looks appealing and pleasant doesn’t mean it is (e.g. book covers). Some of the most powerful designs are not clean and pretty. If it has a strong message it doesn’t matter how it looks. And sometimes there is beauty to be found in the ugliness.

7. Start Anywhere

When feeling overwhelmed by possibilities and you don’t know what direction to go in, just pick a spot and move forward with it. Staying neutral is the same as going backwards. When I need to clean my house and it feels overwhelming, I just pick up one thing in whatever room I’m in and put it in it’s proper spot. Then I move on the the next thing until it’s clean. Just start and keep moving.

8. There Is No Perfection

Wanting to do something to the best of your abilities can help motivate you toward achieving a goal but know that in the end nothing is perfect and mistakes will be made. But don’t let perfection paralyze you. Sometimes we can get so hung up on the minutiae of every little detail that we may never begin or end a project because we’re too worried about making it exactly right. Which really means we’re worried about what other people are going to think. When you feel like this, take a walk, come back and continue on.

9. Designers Can Do Anything

The great thing about being an artist/creative person (and we’re all creative) is that whatever you think up can be made. A lot of the time you may need to take a different route to get there than what you originally thought but as long as you go for it you’ll get there. (Read more on this idea)

10. Computers Are Dumb

Take control of the computer, not the other way around. Don’t let the computer dictate how your work should look. You want a torn paper effect? Tear paper and scan it in. You want your text to look like actual handwriting? Use your own and send it to the screen. Like Bob Ross says, “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.” Don’t let a machine dictate how you want something to look. Just make it happen your way.

11. Be Sketchy

The first stage of a project should be messy with rough general idea sketches in pencil, paint, crayon or pixels, just get them all out of your head without edit. Explore your options to see where those can go. Then narrow those ideas down, refine and narrow again. Repeat. At the start don’t be precious. Save the clean up for last. (Read about my sketching process)

12. Get Fearless

We have an incredible amount of freedom in having the skill and desire to make things up out of nothing. The blank page is nothing to fear since we control what goes on it. With so many possibilities there is nothing to be afraid of. It’s all in your head so just let it out.

13. Have Fun

If it’s not fun you’re doing it wrong, right? Most of us become designers because of some cool packaging or artwork that we spent hours as a teenager staring at because it made us feel happy inside. We could tell the artist was enjoying their work and we wanted that too. And when we started learning our skill it was fun to watch our ideas come to life. Again, we felt alive and time passed without us realizing. That’s the space we need to strive for when creating anything. If you’re not in that mode at some point in your process, then change direction until you find it again.

14. Everyone’s A Collaborator

Just because someone has a fancy title like CEO, owner, president, boss, or manager doesn’t mean that you should fear them. Yes, most of the time these people will be the decision makers and gatekeepers to getting the work approved but what they usually want is to be involved and work with you on the thing they’re having you make. Think of them as collaborators and the big scary boss/president/owner title goes away.

15. Trust Is Everything

Trust yourself and have confidence in your abilities to do the work. Likewise, others need to trust you and your abilities to do the work. If either of these are not in alignment the work and the relationship suffers.

16. Find Your PIC (Partner In Crime)

We’re not in this alone. None of us are. We need that person or people in our lives that we can count on for brutally honest feedback, intelligent input and outside inspiration. Once you find them, treat them well.

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