6 foolproof ways to improve your graphic design skills

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Wow. Doesn’t time pass quickly? We’re almost halfway through January and many people’s New Year’s Resolutions are already on the wane. 

Crowded gym changing rooms are emptying. Pubs are filling up with those who’ve decided ‘dry January’ might have been taking things too far. But if your New Year’s Resolution was to improve your graphic design skills in 2017, we’d urge you to hold fast and stay the course. And if you’re still wondering how to go about it, here are some practical and achievable suggestions... 

01. Study design theory

A formal program of study will give you a thorough grounding in concepts such as the Golden Ratio. Image courtesy of Matthew Oliphant, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fajalar

Graphic design is a profession, not a trade. So while being self-taught and learning on the job can get you a long way in life, there’s really no substitute for a formal design education. 

If you’ve never taken an accredited course that’s taught you the fundamentals of the discipline, including a proper understanding of concepts like grid theory, colour theory, typography and the golden ratio, then you’re really missing out.

So whether you opt for a full university degree, a short course with the likes of Shillington College or a distance learning institution, organising a formal program of study should be your first port of call when it comes to improving your skills in 2017.

02. Seek and give feedback

As creatives, one of the most emotionally draining things we can do is deal with criticism. And yet, it’s absolutely essential if you’re to hone and improve your skills. 

Positive feedback is great when it’s deserved, but you don’t really gain anything from it other than an inflated feeling of self-worth. And when it’s knee-jerk and undeserved (see: mutual backslapping on many forums), it can actually be counterproductive to your continued development. 

So whether you’re posting your designs on Dribbble, Behance or Facebook, or just sharing them with a few select friends or colleagues, it’s important to choose your words carefully in order to elicit the maximum (constructive) criticism. 

For instance, rather than just saying ‘What do you think?’ (sample answer: ‘it’s great’), it’s better to ask specific questions. For example, “This is the brief, do you think I’ve fulfilled it?” or “Which part of the design did your eye focus on first?” That way people will be able to critique your work in a constructive way, without coming off like a boorish troll.

It can also be useful for you to give your feedback on other designers’ work, helping you to empathise and improve your critical skills in ways that you can apply to your own work. Check out this article on how to give constructive design feedback

03. Start a side project

Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap side project project brought her to global attention

Doing the same thing over and over again in your nine-to-five job can lead to your skills getting stale and your enthusiasm waning. So keep up your motivation to learn new things by starting your own side project. 

Learning a new design skill is always far easier if you need it to create a specific thing, particularly if that’s something personal to you. So a passion project can lead you to learn new skills you’d never even thought of, without needing the kind of self-discipline associated with formal study. 

No clue where to begin? Read our expert tips on starting your own side project

04. Experiment

In the world of web startups, there’s a saying: “Fail fast”. In other words. it’s only by trying out lots of ideas and putting them into practice that you find out what works best and what you’re good at. 

It’s an approach graphic designers can learn from when it comes to experimenting with new media, skills and techniques. So in 2017, rather than always using the same fonts/colours/layouts/software for every design you tackle, mix things up a bit and try something new. 

Throw in a crazy new typeface. Try 3D rather than 2D. Learn some new design software. Sketch with a ballpoint pen or charcoal rather than a pencil. Break a rule and see what happens. Ask yourself: how would this design have been approached in a bygone age? Use illustration not photography. Double the amount of whitespace. In short, throw convention up in the air and see what lands. 

Most of the time, what lands will be a hot mess. But sometimes, you’ll hit gold. And even if you don’t, the very process of experimenting will help free up your mind, to better see which of your creative skills need improving, and why.

05. Talk to other designers

Behance is a great way to discover other designers in your field

One of the best ways to develop as a designer is to interact with a lot of other designers. But sometimes that can be difficult. You might be the only designer in a big company, a freelancer who works from home alone, or perhaps you’re employed by a two- or three-person studio. 

But really, these are all just excuses. There are many easy ways to get out there and chat with other creatives. 

Go to meetups, events and conferences. Hit people up on social media. Check out forums. Make friends. Talk design. Discuss problems, challenges, questions. Collaborate on a project.  Email a designer you admire. Ask them to be your mentor. Appear on their podcast, or start your own so you can interview your heroes. 

In short, force yourself in 2017 to just get out there. You’ll meet some fascinating people, and learn more than you could possibly imagine.

06. Read a book

Michael Bierut’s How To showcases over 35 of his projects and reveals his philosophy of graphic design

Even if you have a degree, as the saying goes: ‘Education is for life’, and you never stop learning. So next time you have a long train journey or flight, put your phone on silent and curl up with a good book on graphic design. It will certainly be a better use of your time than snarling at trolls on Twitter or looking at food pics on Instagram.

There are plenty of informative and inspiring reads to explore. But if you really don’t know where to start then check out our lists of the best graphic design books, great designer monographs and graphic design must-reads for 2017.