Why You Shouldn’t Evaluate Your Design Skills Through Comparison With Others

It’s natural to compare your skills and abilities to others who do the same kind of work as you. How helpful is it, though? Do you feel like a better designer after the comparison? Did the comparison help you learn something?


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A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of The Gently Mad podcast (another good design focused podcast by the way). Adam’s guest was Jason Santa Maria and Adam commented how sometimes you see people who are really good and it makes you feel inadequate because you think you aren’t as good as they are.

He mentioned Jason as being one of those really talented people and I can empathize since I greatly admire Jason’s work myself. It’s pretty easy to feel inadequate after seeing some of the work he’s done.

While I think good can come from observing another’s work in relation to your own, it’s generally not a good way to evaluate your design skills. The only fair comparison is a comparison with yourself.

Comparing Yourself to Others isn’t Fair to You

When you try to compare yourself to others to gauge your abilities you almost always set yourself up for failure.

Odds are you’ll choose someone you admire and think does good work. You’re choosing to compare yourself to someone who you likely think better than you to begin with. How can you possibly come out on the good side of that comparison?

Every designer has strengths and weaknesses. You’re more likely to see the strengths of the designers you admire and you’re more likely to see the weaknesses in yourself. Not only are you trying to compare yourself to someone you think better than you, but you’re trying to compare the best of that person with the worst of yourself. Again how can you possibly come out on the good side of that comparison when you’re not looking looking at the work and skills of both of you objectively.

On the off chance you’re choosing to compare you work to someone who you don’t think is particularly talented, you’ll maybe feel good about your ability for a little while. Then you’ll remember that you just decided you’re better than someone who you don’t think has talent. It’s not really a confidence booster and if anything you might feel angry wondering why that other person is attracting business when you’re struggling.

Compare to Others to Learn From Them

It’s ultimately a losing game to assess your skills based on the work of others. Where you can look to others for comparisons is to learn from them. You need to be as objective as possible and drop any notion about comparing abilities.

Look at their work with a critical eye. Think about what they do well to make you like their work. Study it. Learn from them. Don’t be satisfied to know what you like in the work, ask your why you like it. What can you take away from it and make your own? Use your observations to motivate and direct your improvement.

Also look at what the designers you admire don’t do well. Trust me as good as they are, they aren’t perfect. They’d be the first to tell you that. See where their designs might not work and think how you might improve them. This will help you understand how to make your own work better.

It will also make you feel a little better about yourself knowing that like you, your design idols aren’t perfect. And you just figured out to make their work better, so you must be pretty good yourself. Now that’s a confidence boost.

Compare Yourself to Yourself to Evaluate Your Skills

If you want to see how your abilities hold up the only person you should compare yourself to is yourself. You compare yourself to yourself over time.

Are you better today than you were yesterday? Six months ago? Two years ago? Do you make better design decisions? As long as you’ve put time in working to get better you will be better today than you were in the past and you will be better tomorrow than you are today. It’s the only reasonable comparison you can make to judge where you are as a designer.

You probably aren’t going to notice improvements from day to day. You need some distance to notice changes. Allow a reasonable amount of time to pass when comparing your work now to your work before. I find six months is usually enough distance, but it’s really up to you.

Don’t let too much time pass either. A year is probably as long as you want to let pass. Unlike comparing yourself to others, comparing yourself to yourself in the past is beneficial to see how you’re progressing and to help identify what you do well and where you need to focus to get better.

Take stock of your skills and where you currently are as a designer. Be as objective as you possibly can with both the good and bad. Your goal for tomorrow and the coming months is to improve those skills in some way.

It doesn’t matter if today or a year from now you aren’t as good as someone like Jason Santa Maria or whoever you admire. It only matters that you’re a better designer than you are now. If you can take some of your good and do it better or learn to minimize something of the bad, you’ve done well. Don’t try to be better than someone else. Be better tomorrow than you are right now.

Who knows. In time someone else might come across your work compare themselves to you and get that inadequate feeling you’ve learned to leave behind.

Summary

It’s natural to try to compare our abilities to designers and designs we admire, but it only sets us up for disappointment. We won’t ever choose fairly to make the comparison. It’s comparing your first play to Shakespeare and being depressed because yours isn’t as good.

If you can be objective and learn to train a critical eye on the aspects of someone else’s work, you can learn from them and improve your own work, but don’t compare in order to take away the subjective who’s better.

The only fair comparison you can make to assess your skills is a comparison with yourself. Don’t worry if you aren’t as good as someone else. Only worry about being better in the future than you were in the past. Train that critical eye on yourself and use it to objectively improve your own work. If you’re better next year than you are today, you win.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

4 comments

    • I’m glad I could help with the confidence boost. I compare myself to others all the time too. Or at least I used to. Now I just appreciate the work of others and try to learn from them.

      To evaluate my skills I only look to myself and see if I’m better than I was at some point in the past.

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