How To Learn Design When You Feel Overwhelmed

After finishing last’s week’s post about design principles and decision decisions, I realized I may not have answered Mita’s question that led to the post. The question also dealt with that overwhelming feeling you might get when looking ahead at all the things you need to learn to become a proficient designer.

When you first start out there’s so much to learn and it all seems necessary to know. It’s understandable if you feel some confusion about where to start or what to learn next. There’s always going to be a lot to learn, but if you keep a few things in mind you can get rid the confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed.

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Tips for Learning When You Feel Overwhelmed

There are 2 sides to learning. First is the practical side that teaches specific techniques you can directly apply to your work. This practical side teaches you how to do something. The second is the theoretical side that helps you understand the why of things. It gives context to the how.

Both the how and the why are important and you’ll go further by learning them together than learning only one or the other. Plan to spend some time with both theory and practice.

Here are the general steps I take when learning.

  • Understand that you can’t learn everything overnight
  • Start with the general to build context for the specific
  • Pick up techniques along the way and apply them
  • Think critically about what you’re learning
  • Identify your strengths and weaknesses
  • Adjust your course of study

You can’t learn everything overnight — The first thing you should do is take a deep breath and realize you aren’t going to learn everything in an instant. Not accepting this will only keep you from getting started.

Instead take stock of where you currently are and set a goal of being a better designer than you are today. Accept the challenge ahead of you and don’t worry about how long it will take to get there.

Build context — Start by looking to general theory. A large part of that overwhelming feeling is not having any context to help you decide what’s most important to learn first or next. The truth is when you first start you probably won’t know what’s best to take on. Context will help you decide.

I find that picking up a book or two that presents a beginner’s overview is often a good starting point. You’ll be shown the topics you’ll likely want to study and probably in the order you should start studying them.

Pick up techniques to apply — As soon as you can pick up a few simple tips you can apply quickly and directly to your work. You may not understand why the technique is important or how to modify it for different situations, but applying something and seeing the improvement in your work will give you a sense of accomplishment and some confidence in continuing.

For example when I started learning design I picked up the idea that aligning elements to each other was a good principle to follow. I didn’t completely understand why, but whenever I placed an element in a design I looked for other elements to align it to. It was something simple I could apply and while it didn’t turn me into a great designer, it did improve my designs.

You can really do this at the same time as the step above. I prefer the contextual overview first, but I don’t think it matters which comes first as long as you do both. Work this step and the one above together, always seeking more theory for context and more practical techniques to improve your work.

Think critically about design — While you’re taking in design theory and applying specifics like aligning elements, start to think critically about your work and the work of others. Once I’d learned to align elements I started to pay more attention to how others did as well.

When I’d land on a site I liked (or didn’t) I spent a few minutes observing how elements were aligned. I’d ask myself why I thought the designer had chosen to align the elements the way he or she had. I looked for other possible ways to align them. Was my way better? Worse? Why? What did each way communicate?

Critically thinking this way helps connect theory and practice. It’ll show you there’s usually more than one way to do something and it’ll help you understand why you might choose one technique over another.

Identify your strengths and weaknesses — At some point you’ll realize your work exhibits certain strengths and weaknesses. Emphasize your strengths and set a course to improve your weaknesses. Your strengths help set you apart as a designer. They’ll be why someone chooses you over another.

Your weaknesses hold you back in certain ways. You’ll probably want to find some quick techniques to ensure you do passable work where you’re weak, but go beyond and take on topics for deeper study.

What interests you? Where is it you want to go as a designer? What is it you wish you could do and what’s holding you back. Follow your passions to help you decide what to learn that next.

Adjust your course — As you’re doing all of the above adjust the course of study you’ve set for yourself. Look to your strengths and weaknesses and also your interests as far as what to learn next. Choose what to learn next based on the specific needs of projects in front of you.

You don’t have to be the same designer as everyone else. Think about the type of designer you’d like to be. Don’t think about what others think most important. Think about what’s most important to you.

My Course for Design

The above is a general approach to learning something new. Let me offer some quick specifics about my course for learning design. Understand that my way isn’t the only way. It’s just how I chose to to take on the challenge of learning to be a better designer.

My first stop was a two books for beginner’s which offered a mix of general context and some practical advice.

I started observing everything I saw. Whether it was a website I liked or the pattern made by a series of cracks in the sidewalk, I asked questions about what I saw and why and how it might be used in a design.

When setting a course of study for myself I decided on the following topics.

  • Principles of composition
  • Grids and layouts
  • Typography
  • Color
  • Aesthetics

The above came about through an analysis of my strengths, weaknesses, and interests in design. I’ve bounced around topics in the first three for a few years and I’m now trying to put more in-depth study into the last two.

I’ve mixed lots of different sub-topics in the above and at times take on more about front end development before jumping back to the design side of things. Often the two need to be studied together.

It’s a never ending and very fluid course of study. Fortunately I feel more than enough passion for both design and development and can objectively see my skills with both improve.

Summary

Don’t let that overwhelming feeling paralyze you. Take a step back and realize it’s ok to feel like that. You aren’t going to learn everything overnight. No one can. Don’t waste time worrying about all that’s ahead or where to start. Just start.

Your goal should simply be to design better tomorrow than you do today. A tiny bit of general theory or a single technique you can apply is enough to do that. Continue to learn both the theoretical and the practical. Together they’ll take you further than either will alone.

Regardless of how much you know, think critically about design. Observe what you do and don’t do well. Think how you might improve the work of others. There’s no right or wrong here. The exercise is in the thinking.

Observe where you’re strongest, where you’re weakest, and where your interests lie. Use all three as a guide for what to study tomorrow, next month, and next year. You don’t have to be like everyone else. Think about where you want to go as a designer and continue to adjust your course of study.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for your very inspirational and thoughtful notes. These days there’s so much to learn, anyone trying to keep up will almost certainly feel overwhelmed. In the article you showed some very practical steps one can take to reduce stress and learn more efficiently. I’ll almost certainly checkout the two books you talked about. Thanks again. — Ahsan

    • Thanks Ahsan. I’m glad you liked the post. It can definitely feel overwhelming at times. The key really is not to try to learn everything immediately. Just pick something and learn what you can and improve something. Keep doing that and one day you look back and realize how much you’ve learned,

      I thought both of the books were really good. I hope you like them.

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