Graphic designers or web designers usually come in two different forms.
They’re either self-taught or traditionally trained.
However, neither path is a sure-fire route to becoming a great designer.
I’ve seen professionally trained designers with heaps of experience, working in London based studios whose work was pretty poor.
On the flip side I’ve seen self-trained, have a go designers who take up the profession of design on a whim and their work is even worse.
Then again, I’ve seen some truly outstanding work from self-taught designers with little professional experience.
And likewise, many studios boast heavyweight professionals who are true experts in design communication.
All in all, I think a great designer is someone who builds a combination of both assets.
- Raw Creativity
- Professional Creativity
Raw creativity could be seen as someone who has a passion to create.
This doesn’t mean that they’d make a good designer though.
Sometimes the desire to create can produce poor results without guidance and education.
And that’s were Professional creativity comes into play.
Professional creativity adds attention to detail, experience, principles, theories and practice to produce a piece of work that goes beyond raw creativity and into an effective and calculating piece of design.
And it doesn’t matter whether you’re classically trained or self-taught.
It’s about putting what you’ve learnt into practice to deliver pieces of design that impact and inspire.
And that’s what makes a good designer.
Someone who has taken their raw creativity and built upon it with professional practice regardless of how they were taught or trained.
If you’re new to the design industry or just looking to better yourself then here’s 7 key skills that you should develop as a graphic designer (or any designer).
These skills will hold you in good stead to become a better designer but that’s not the only reward.
You’ll find that the end result will likely get you a better job or get you more clients.
If anything, it will make you a better person all round.
Here’s 7 skills every graphic designer, web designer or any designer should try and develop.
1. Drawing & Sketching will make you a better designer
A lot of designers can’t draw.
And to be honest you don’t need to draw like DaVinci to become a great designer.
But drawing helps to build a visual database in your brain so the more you draw, the more visual notes it will take.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re drawing still life or letters, portraits or scenery, the fact is that if you keep observing and drawing, you’ll be able to:
- Design something in more ways than one
- Design quicker, more effectively with better results
- Broaden your design capabilities
- Become a better designer for it
Mock-ups and concepts will be easier to create and final digital pieces will be original pieces rather than imitations.
It may seem like a simple notion to draw more, and you may think that every designer probably draws all the time but the truth is that they don’t.
Many raw creative talents excel at drawing because they have the time to do so.
Some newbies to the design industry go straight to the computer and skip the sketching process.
Some professional creatives simply don’t have the time to draw out everything.
And some insist on sketching an idea first as a part of the creative process.
It’s pretty much impossible for a designer to draw all the time but at the end of the day, the ones who do draw when needed, display better work.
To become a better designer, try and sketch or draw more.
You don’t have to be good at it.
But it is a fundamental practice of good design.
No masterpiece was ever created by a lazy artist. — Salvador Dali
Further Reading on Drawing
- 10 sketching tips for beginners
- Drawing for Graphic Design: 6 Exercises to Sharpen Your Skills
- New to Drawing? Make Sure You Know These Basic Techniques Before You Start
- A quick beginner’s guide to drawing
- A Secret & Powerful Marketing Weapon: Illustration
2. Learn about Typography to become a better graphic or web designer
Most graphic designers and artists begin their fascination with colours, drawing, painting and creating things from a young age and what we created was typically what we imagined.
Because of that, as a child I drew pictures and not letters.
The only time I drew letters was when we I was practising my handwriting or learning the alphabet.
And in doing so I was taught in school to WRITE letters, not DRAW them.
Writing letters was not treated as an artform of design communication, it was a means to an end to learn English.
However, like most designers, I found that there was something more to typography in three ways.
- Graffiti: I was amazed at how letters, words and shapes took on a new lifeform within Graffiti.
What was known to me as boring old letters became works of art with creative styling.
- Microsoft Word: My first experience of digital painting was of course MS Paint.
However my first experience of different type was via MS Word, where you could select fonts!
- Print Media: Like most people, I was surrounded by print media and began noticing the different moods and tones that typography created within various print designs
Like any great designer in their teenage years, I abused Comic Sans and Impact, and that was my real introduction to typography.
However, I could have learned much more if I were taught to look at Letters in a different way.
Letters are individual pieces of design.
Each one is a shape, symbol and/or icon.
Create a whole set in a similar style and you have a typeface.
Maybe it’s a serif typeface or a sans-serif.
A script font or a display font.
Monotype or blockfront.
Slabbed or ligature less!
Every detail in typography is an artform.
From concept to creation, styling and communication, it’s a skilled job that delivers a final piece of artwork.
Backed by a wealth of history and tradition but implemented in modern day technology, typography is a core aspect of great design.
You don’t have to create fonts but if you use fonts, manipulate them, combine them, pair them, study them and love them, you’ll become a better designer for doing so.
How can there be too many typefaces in the world? Are there too many songs, too many books, too many places to go? — Rian Hughes
Further Reading on Typography
- 8 Typography Tips For Designers: How to Make Fonts Speak.
- 20 typography mistakes every beginner makes – And how you can avoid them
- 10 Typography and Design Tips for Beginners
- Type Classifications
- How to pick fonts for your Branding
- Typography in design: A quick run-down
3. Copywriting and Copyediting as a graphic designer or web designer
When it comes down to it, 99% of professional graphic or web design work spawns from a piece of text.
It could be a design brief, content copy or maybe just a strapline.
In any case text compliments and inspires graphic design in some way or another.
And seeing as text has such a great impact on our work, it helps if you personally as a designer could also mould and shape that text as well.
Having the skill of copywriting is a great help when it comes to web designing and graphic designing.
Clients will give you text which could be too long, too short or just plain rubbish.
This associated copy affects the final outcome because it’s apart of the final piece so being a skilled copywriter (or editor) will help tenfold to produce a final piece of design that works coherently from text to visuals to tell a story and dictate users.
A good designer finds an elegant way to put everything you need on a page. A great designer convinces you half that shit is unnecessary. — Mike Monteiro
Further Reading on Copywriting
4. Growing confidence as a graphic designer or web designer
Once upon a time, designers were admired as innovative and high class citizens in society.
In today’s commercial world it’s pretty much the opposite.
The discipline itself is often mocked and on a whole it does have an effect on a designer’s morale.
As a result, doubts arise: “Am I any good?” “Am I charging too much?,” “Should I do a freebie in exchange for more work?”
Whether you’re a freelancer or employee, having confidence in yourself as a designer will only help you answer those questions above and become a better designer.
It will raise the bar for making sales, attracting clients, increasing your fees and your own expertise.
Having confidence as a designer is a great attribute which is needed to succeed.
Preparation gives birth to self-confidence. – Denise Harman
Further Reading on dealing with dodgy clients
5. More Research will make you a better designer
The most important skill that a designer needs is the ability to do good research because there is no such thing as an original idea.
Everything you do, say, draw or design was in fact inspired by something else.
That something else is a memory of an experience you had.
Maybe it was something you saw or heard, or something you tasted, touched or found.
Whether you created that memory years ago or 2 seconds ago on google, it doesn’t matter, it still had an effect on your brain and that’s what affects your design work…. research.
For me good research, is good design.
It encapsulates all of the above tips and more.
So, to be honest the greatest skill you can develop as a designer is your ability to research or your ability to just educate yourself.
You will be a better designer for doing so.
Copying one person is stealing. Copying ten is research. – Chet Atkins
6. Programming & CSS will improve your design skills
Today the lines of graphic design and screen design have become extremely blurred.
Sure, graphic design still revolves around print but let’s face it, we see more graphic design on screen today then we do in printed format.
The medium may have changed but the need for creativity has not.
If you’re a graphic designer then the sheer idea of “programming” may be a nightmare.
We are after all visual people but we are also creative and believe me when I say that coding is highly creative and enjoyable as a graphic designer.
Coding and graphic design are pretty much step brothers, and in today’s world one will struggle without the other so learning any form of code is a great bonus to add to any designer’s arsenal, particularly CSS which happens to be design driven.
Web design is art wrapped in technology. – James Weaver
Further Reading on Coding
- Coding for Beginners – Best Way to Learn HTML & CSS Codes to Build a Website
- CSS Tutorial
- Just Starting Out with CSS & HTML
- Learn to Code HTML & CSS
7. Learn the Principles of Graphic Design
It’s all good saying that you’re a designer and even practising as a self-taught designer but self-teaching doesn’t mean getting good at Photoshop.
Self-teaching means learning the basics and principles of design.
You see, professional design is not a hobby and neither is it a hodge podge of gut instinct and personal opinion.
When a professional designer creates a professional piece of work there is logic, theory and design principles embedded into every aspect of that work.
None of it is guess work and none of it is just a pretty picture.
Every decision, shape, line, colour and space are backed by science, data and psychology.
If you knew how much work went into it, you would not call it genius. – Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
Further Reading on Design Principles
- Design Principles – Contrast
Based on everything I’ve said, I think it’s justifiable to say that a good designer is one whose willing to continue to:
- Learn and educate themselves
- Keep an open mind and value opinion
- Look into the core basics of what makes a good designer
- Practice, practice, practice.