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6 foolproof ways to improve your graphic design skills

Three women sitting on sofa with laptops
(Image credit: Christina Morillo on Unsplash)

As a designer, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut, especially if you find a niche or style that you're really good at.  Before you know it, you're known for a certain type of art and your design portfolio starts to look a little... samey.

So how do you add a new dimension to your work and break out of the mould? Here six practical and achievable ways to help you improve your graphic design skills. 

01. Study design theory

grid theory

A proper understanding of concepts such as grid theory can transform your work

Graphic design is a profession, not a trade. Of course, there is plenty you can learn by doing, and there are plenty of ways to get into design without a degree. But at the end of the day, proper understanding of the fundamentals of the discipline, including concepts like grid theory, colour theory, typography and the golden ratio, is vital. 

For many designers, this is where a formal design education really shows its value. There are plenty of options, from full university degrees to focused short courses to distance learning setups, and if you're strapped for cash there are even some decent free graphic design courses.

02. Learn how to get more from 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 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. 

people sitting around a laptop

There's a fine art to getting the most from feedback

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. 

03. Start a side project

darth vader shot

Conran Design Group had some fun on May 4th

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.

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 experimental design 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, rather than always using the same fonts, colours, layouts or 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. Pick up some of the best digital art 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 Graphic design homepage

Behance is a great way to discover other designers in your field (Image credit: Behance)

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 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 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, 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 list of the best graphic design books.

Read more: 

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. He is author of Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books. He was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine.