A Designer's Guide to Constantly Improving Your Skills

There's no place for stagnancy in the ultra-competitive world of design. If you aren’t moving forward, you’re falling behind. So this begs the question...

Are you committed to constantly improving your skills over time?

The Demand for Constant Improvement

When was the last time you proactively did something to intentionally improve your skills as a designer? We’re not talking about doing a client project or fulfilling one of your job duties, but rather intentional decisions that have the specific goal of making you a more skilled, talented, or informed designer.

Let’s take a moment to consider why it’s important to keep improving your skills.

Changing technology

The web design tools and indeed the entire design industry is prone to rapid changes. New technologies emerge multiple times per year and old methods of doing things are being replaced by newer and more advanced design modes. The only way to keep up is to improve your skills and stay relevant.

Increasing competition

Design is an exciting and lucrative field. This makes it highly appealing to young professionals (as well as people who are looking to make a mid-career pivot). If you aren't growing your skills, the increasing competition will render you obsolete.

Burnout prevention

It doesn't matter how much money you're making or how exciting your work seems at the moment, burnout is never more than a couple of steps away. By learning and improving, you reinvigorate your work and provide new meaning to what you're doing. This delays and hopefully even prevents the onset of burnout.

One way to determine whether you're committed to improving your skills is to ask one simple question.

Am I doing this for my present self or my future self?

There's a time and place for both, but it's imperative that you invest considerable time, energy, and resources into planting seeds that will benefit your future self. That's what it means to continually improve your skills.

5 Tips for Continually Improving Your Skills

There's clear value in constant improvement and growth. But where do you start?

Here are a few specific tips you can use to improve your skills.

1. Study Other Creatives

What does a young baseball player do when he wants to improve his swing and make better contact with the ball? He watches videos of professional players on YouTube.

What does an out of shape person do when she wants to shed a few pounds and become healthier? She reads a book about diet, nutrition, and exercise.

What does a savvy investor do when she wants to find new options for diversifying her portfolio? She hires a financial planner or wealth management professional to help her identify new opportunities.

It doesn't matter who you are, what line of work you're in, or how successful you already are, there's tremendous value to be gleaned from studying what others are doing. As a designer, don't limit yourself to studying others in your own niche.

A good web designer will study other web designers, painters, sculptors, landscape designers, musicians, writers, and other creative types. It's about seeing how other people think and produce, so that you can integrate these same principles into your own approach.

2. Gather Better Feedback

We're all naturally a little thin-skinned. We're born to seek approval and would prefer not to encounter criticism. Among other things, this makes us intrinsically averse to feedback. (The unpredictable nature of soliciting feedback opens the door for the possibility of criticism.) But if you're ever going to improve your skillset, you need genuine feedback.

Feedback reinforces good ideas and skills while simultaneously exposing weaknesses and providing direction for growth and improvement. If you don't already have a client feedback loop in place, now's the time to develop a system so that you can begin implementing tangible insights.

3. Partner With Other Designers

Stop viewing all designers in your niche as competition. While you're certainly competing with them for work, they aren't the enemy. The industry is big enough and there's more than enough work to go around. So why not partner with other designers who are already in the upper echelon of the profession to share ideas and help each other grow?

Mastermind groups, online communities, local design clubs, and Slack chats are all excellent environments for bringing a group of likeminded people together to pursue collective improvement and support.

4. Consume a Variety of Educational Content

Make a concerted effort to consume a variety of educational content through as many different mediums as possible. (You'll find that ideas have a greater tendency to permeate and stick when there's diversity in delivery.) Blogs, YouTube channels, books, podcasts, and industry trade publications are all great places to start.

5. Do Things You're Not Good At

"If you want to improve your design skills, you have to do those things you are scared of doing" UXPlanet.org explains. “Take the bull by the horn, take up that project offer, learn that new thing, and dare to make mistakes. As you move out of your comfort zone, you will discover you are learning new things and improving your skills.”

This is arguably the most important suggestion for improving your skills and also the one that few designers are willing to embrace.

By doing things you're not good at, you force yourself to encounter friction and embrace the reality that you have so much more to learn. And what better way to learn than by trying, failing, trying again, and putting forth the effort required to improve?

This suggestion goes hand in hand with the need to constantly experiment with new ideas. Start with your own side projects (since nobody is paying you and there's less risk/downside to messing up) and then slowly branch out from there. If you aren't doing something that scares you on a daily basis, you're missing out on true growth.

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