Any time I’m able to look back at older work and think it’s horrible, that’s a good sign because it shows that I’ve grown in my understanding from what I knew before. It’s especially funny when I can’t stand decisions I made that I was once really proud of or felt great about at the time. This happened quite frequently in the first few years of my career. I was doing so much visual work in those days and the amount of improvement was really exponential because of all the time and practice I was putting in. I would look back at work from 6 months prior and see a big difference.
As I’ve gotten deeper into product design in the latter half of my career, I’m not in the pixels as much as I used to be. Because of this, growth in the visual design area has slowed while I’m gaining experience in other things. I still have some moments, though, where I’m able to come back to visual design, feel immense impostor syndrome or that I’m out of touch, and then somehow create something I’m proud of once again. Those are great moments, to think “whew, I’ve still got it!” It’s nice to acknowledge that growth can still come even if you are out of practice. Your new knowledge in other areas will inform your visual design in ways you may not have realized.
One thing I want to add is the question of what “better” means is pretty subjective, and a lot of times it’s very difficult to articulate. There is some innate sense of what feels and looks right. I can look back at my older work and see where spacing was slightly off, the curves weren’t perfect, the type didn’t have the right balance, or I did something to be trendy and it wasn’t serving the audience/user or paying any mind to accessibility. But there are also times where I know something is off or not quite working but you can’t pinpoint why it’s not working. And that’s OK! The inner sense is still valuable and guides me to explore new solutions until I have satisfied it.
I think those were moments when I surprised myself at how well something came together. In the early stages of design and in the “messy middle,” it can be easy to doubt yourself. Then when something finally clicks and you think it actually looks decent and the client is happy, you feel so relieved and proud that you pulled it off. I remember being proud that I could actually produce something that not only fit a certain standard I had internally, but also was good enough to be out in the real world for a real business. That’s a big deal, especially for a new designer who hasn’t had that happen before!
If I’m honest, most of it crept up on me. After I had the head knowledge from going to college for graphic design, I was immediately working in an agency and churning out a TON of design work (mostly advertisements for print and some web design). I wasn’t actively trying to improve by learning more techniques like how to make a realistic skeuomorphic button (this was back in those days!), or thinking specifically about the elements and principles of design — I didn’t have time. I had a lot of work to do on a very short deadline, which forced me to learn what worked and what didn’t very quickly. Doing that hundreds of times led me to improve naturally.
It also helped that I was working under a talented Creative Director and had a peer designer alongside me to critique my work and get me through the moments of “help, I’m stuck and I don’t know what to do next.” As a new designer, having those mentors and other eyeballs looking at my work was absolutely crucial for getting things to click. If I couldn’t explain why something wasn’t working, they could. If I knew the type or color was off, they would tell me how to change it. Little tiny moments like that throughout the years were a huge part of me improving, though I didn’t think of it as that at the time.
My jobs that have had that feedback and critique loop built into the process automatically lead to a sort of “forced improvement,” you could say. I’m super thankful for all of those little conversations in the early years. As a young designer, I absolutely needed someone who was willing to spend the time to help me get to a good solution through that trial and error period. So, the short answer: it all crept up on me.
It varied, but I was often juggling 4 projects at once that were all in different stages. So I could have been sketching logo concepts on paper, whipping out weekly ads for print, or wireframing a new website all within the same week or even the same day. That level of context-switching is challenging, but it makes you very fast.
This is a hard question, because like I said, so much of visual design is hard to describe in words. It’s also hard to separate from the larger context it lives in – a time period with certain trends and limitations, a medium, or a certain project or client. But I’ll try.
As previously stated, my visual design growth has mostly been made unintentionally outside of asking for critique from my colleagues. I would best describe them as refinements in the small details. These are things like: having stronger type hierarchy and readability, knowing the “right amount” of breathing room to give an element on its own and in the context of other elements, and making things more harmonious in regards to color or contrast. Even though they’re small things, having a more refined eye elevated my work so much over time.
When I got into UX, an entirely new set of visual rules came into play that I had to learn on the job. I wasn’t taught any of this in school, so in that sense I was more intentional about improving—I had no choice but to improve because of the projects that were on my plate. I learned how to make something visually match the interaction it’s sitting on, how to design the various UI patterns that people are familiar with, how to display data visually in a way that makes sense to people, and how to design for flawed humans with all kinds of strange behaviors and the psychological principles that drive them. This whole realm was really fascinating to me and really informed my visual design ability and vice versa.
For sure. I’m a bit type-A and tend to be a rule-follower in general. Knowing the “right way” to design is both a blessing and a curse. It helps guide me to things that generally work well, but if I get too caught up in “the rules,” it leads to things that are more safe than innovative.
Because of this, it can be a struggle for me to push my creativity outside of the box of what’s familiar or expected, and I think my layout and type skills tend to be kind of cookie-cutter if I don’t push myself. I’m also not always caught up in the hottest trends of the moment (some for good reason) and lean on classic styles to an extent, so I think I also struggle with finding the balance of designing something that looks current and fresh while also being practical for the situation. A lot of product design is not primarily about the aesthetics, so trendy design for trendy design’s sake simply won’t make the cut. There are cases where I need to be able to break out of that mindset, though, and it can be hard to switch into a “it’s time to be super creative – go wild!” mode.
Sometimes it helps me to step away from the computer and sketch something out on paper, otherwise I can spend too much time fitting everything into the grid and using the right styles from the design system before I know if something is even going to work. It also helps to find some external inspiration for ideas or a reference point to start from.
I do think some people are born with a great eye for design, even if their skills do not match up to it right away. These are people who will pick up the skills quickly and sometimes without even being taught. There are some incredible self-taught designers with hardly any professional experience that just seem to get it right away. Lucky them!
That’s not to say that some people are doomed to be bad visual designers, but it may take more time and training to get to the same level that others have naturally. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I’ve always had a knack for certain aspects of visual design from a young age, but I needed years of instruction and experience to get my skills up to where they are now.
I’ve always had a thing for visual balance. I would tear up magazines as a kid and make collages, carefully balancing color, pattern, words, and visual focus across the whole piece. (Side note: the thing about collage is that it is a sort of chaos, but there has always been a lot of thought put into what makes it into the collage, how the items are arranged. Are they in a grid? On an angle? How much of an angle? Do they overlap? By how much? It’s a very formulaic sort of chaos for me.)
Later on that would translate to my first blog site I built in high school – I’d switch up the entire look and layout every couple of months just to play around and create something new. In college I would cover entire walls of my living space with carefully curated collages. A way that shows up today is being pretty meticulous with hanging photos on a wall.
I’ve also been obsessed with color my entire life. I can look back at those early designs for web and see how I had a knack for fun color palettes. Today it is very easy for me to bring colors together in a way that feels harmonious.
I tend to keep up with a lot of design newsletters and trend reports, and I follow a handful of designers on social media. This gives me a steady diet of knowing what’s out there, how folks are pushing the boundaries, where technology is going, and how design is coming into play with new technologies and cultural shifts.
I’ve also recently found myself interested in interior design as I’m in the process of updating my home. This has forced me to pay attention to design in a completely new way, which has been really refreshing. I knew what interior design styles I preferred, but what was it about those pieces that made them that style? I started paying attention to materials, shapes, colors, and form in ways I hadn’t considered before. I think this kind of detour has helped me to open my eyes and pay attention to design all around me even more.
It’s kind of a chicken and an egg problem: you need to know what you want to learn or how you want to improve and you also need to actually practice those things yourself for things to really click. So while all of this reading and observing is stuffing my brain with new knowledge and ideas, I’m not really sharpening my skills until I actually get to pushing pixels in Figma. Unfortunately it seems I’m in that zone less and less over the years. I definitely miss it.
It’s tough because while there are great resources out there, they can be hard to find. I actually think your side projects contain one of the best collections for the study of visual design I’ve seen! There are a bunch of YouTube tutorials where folks will redesign something and explain their design choices as they go. You can learn a lot from watching someone else work. I’m also a fan of Refactoring UI for UI tips in particular.
I’d recommend someone not get too caught up in finding the best crash course in UI design or whatever and instead look for resources that really focus on the basics. Just like going through design school, we weren’t designing full projects right away. It took a year or two of getting very familiar with the elements and principles of design beforehand. So, learn things like color theory, typography, composition, line, shape, balance, hierarchy etc. Once you’ve got a handle on those things, you can start to pay attention to examples of “good design” and break them down into these basic concepts. There is a noticeable difference in the work of someone who really understands these vs. someone who doesn’t. Spending the time to get your foundation in design will pay off.
Everything I have to share for new designers can be found on my YouTube channel! I’m not actively making new videos at the moment but I shared a ton about my experiences over my career that hopefully a new designer can learn from.
I also want to add that 2022 is a ROUGH time for new designers. It is more competitive than ever before and companies are not prepared to hire and develop new designers as they should. I feel for them! And along the lines of this conversation, I think having a strong visual design sense will help set any new designer apart from the pack.
A lot of portfolios I look at particularly for early UX or Product Designers can demonstrate that they understand the process well enough, but they are often lacking that level of visual polish that only comes with practice. I want to encourage new designers that this is an area they can grow in, as the rest of us have, over time. I hope the industry starts correcting back to open more junior-level roles, but until then, taking the time to develop your visual sense is going to be a huge asset for any new designer.