Like a lot of web designers I didn’t go to school to learn design or development. My degrees are in completely unrelated fields. As a web designer and developer I’m close to 100% self-taught. That self-teaching isn’t random though.
Since the beginning I’ve set a course for self-study that I continue to adapt to this day. I thought I’d share some of the things I do to continue to improve my design and development skills.
First I want to offer a few thoughts on learning in general.
Two Types of Learning
One of the frequent topics of conversation on small business forums is how important a college education is. The argument ultimately boils down to the importance of theory (school) vs. experience (working).
Most people typically fall on one side or the other and I’ve usually found that side depends on their own career path.
There are good arguments for both sides, but I think the best way to learn is through a combination of theory and practice.
Learning through theory is about learning from the experience of others. Design has a long history and there are many years of thought about design from which you can learn.
- Builds a solid foundation
- Shows you how others have solved problems
- Teaches you why things work as they do
- Gives you a roadmap for further study
Mostly I pick up theory through books and through time spent thinking and analyzing my work and the work of others.
Sadly I think far to many design blogs focus on the how without offering the why. You get recipes instead of learning how to cook. Recipes certainly have value, but if you understand how to cook you can create your own recipes instead of relying on the recipes of others.
One of the reasons I focus on theory and principles here is because I think design theory is under served on the web for the most part.
Where theory is learning from the experience of others, practice is learning from your own experience. Theory is often taught under ideal conditions. The real world is seldom ideal. It’s also one thing to know something intellectually and another to know it by experiencing it.
- Gives you a deeper understanding through real world experience
- Allows you to solve problems under less than ideal conditions
- Trains you to physically do something
- With theory it combines the experience of others with your own experience, leading to something uniquely you
You can’t do something until you can actually do it. You need practice to improve your skills. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers suggests you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert so start putting in that time now.
However practice without theory is undirected. Without theory, without a solid foundation, you may need 15,000 or 20,000 hours to reach that same level of expertise.
Tips for Becoming a Better Web Designer
I want to leave you with more practical tips than what I’ve given you above. Below are things I do in order to further my skills and understanding. They’re a combination of theory and practice and aren’t necessarily in any particular order.
Read, Read, and Read Some More
This is mainly how I learn theory. About 3 or 4 times a year I buy anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen books on different aspects of design and start reading through them.
When selecting books I tend to pick one topic of design and get several books on that one topic and then mix in a few books on other topics.
For example over the holidays I picked up about a dozen books, 3 of which were about typography and 2 of which were about visual language. The rest were a mix of books on a variety of design and non design topics.
Set Yourself a Course of Study
With both what you read and what you practice be more conscious of what you’re trying to learn.
Whenever I attempt to learn a new subject I read through a few books on the basics in order to build a solid foundation. From there I dig deeper into aspects of the subject I find more interesting and those I consider most important.
See above for how I choose books. My next round of book purchases will feature several books on constructing grids.
Work Through a Book Instead of Reading It
It’s not enough to read alone. You still have to do.
In typing out code you’ll almost always make some mistakes or find mistakes by the author. Figuring out how to fix these mistakes is invaluable.
With some books I’ll also take notes as I read. Again the act of typing or writing makes the information much more a part of you.
Experiment With Every New Site
As you read and learn begin applying what you learn to your work.
You don’t have to go wild here, but add one additional constraint to a design that’s above and beyond those imposed by the client. Tell yourself you’re going to make a specific color or font work for example and then find a way to make it work.
Make a conscious effort to try one new thing with a design or learn how to code one thing you didn’t know how before.
The knowledge in your head is only useful when you practice using it and apply it to real world design and development problems.
Find a Few Mentors
Choose a couple of designers, developers, marketers, etc and follow them a little more closely than you follow everyone else.
Listen to what they say and more importantly what they do. Study the portfolios of your favorite designers. Dig through the code of your favorite developers. Watch how your favorite marketers promote themselves.
Actions speak louder than words so pay close attention to what your mentors do over time. If you can make connections with these people and get their ear so much the better. However you don’t have to make the connection as long as you continue to observe what they do.
Create Problems for Yourself to Solve
You can’t always experiment on client sites, nor should you.
Do this on your own site or as an exercise. If you want to understand more about color theory start placing shapes of color on a page. If you want to be better at coding navigation bars, open a new file and start coding one.
Think of these as exercises you do to practice new skills. Some of these will remain as exercises and some will eventually find their way in to your work.
Whenever you land on a website you like stop for a moment and ask yourself why you like it. Is it the design? One aspect of the design? Does the site do something you didn’t know was possible with html and css?
Bookmark some for later and more in-depth study and explore every aspect of the design and the code behind the site.
When I was first learning css I constantly viewed source code to find out how a site achieved some effect I liked. Lately whenever I like the type on a site I take a look at what typefaces are being used, how the type is sized, what leading is used, etc.
Don’t Try to Learn Everything at Once
In the beginning what you don’t know can seem overwhelming. Take a little time to learn the basics to build the solid foundation you need. Then start exploring one thing at a time.
Never dwell on what you don’t know. Make the best use of your time today and in 6 months or a year you’ll be able to look back and see how much you’ve learned.
Remember to develop a course of study. A typical undergraduate degree lasts 4 years. A graduate degree another 2 or 3 years. Post graduate degrees continue forever. There’s no reason to expect yourself to know everything in a month or two. Study 1 or 2 things at a time instead.
Good designers copy, great designers steal
—Pablo Picasso sort of, maybe
Vincent Van Gogh thought of himself as a link in a chain. He took from the work of the masters before him, added something of himself, and passed his work on to those after to do the same.
You don’t need to be wholly original or reinvent the wheel. Instead seek inspiration from those before you and the world around you. Use that inspiration as a starting point from which to learn and build on.
Develop your powers of observation and learn to see design in everything you encounter. Be impressed and amazed by the magic of new technology.
Rinse and Repeat
Learning never stops. No matter what your current skills, you can always improve.
Keep doing all of the above. Revisit the basics now that you have a greater understanding of what lies beyond the basics. Keep digging into your favorite aspects of design and development.
Never stop practicing and doing.
No matter what level of skill you have as a designer or developer there’s always more to learn or a deeper understanding to be gained of what you already know. You can never stop learning and working to improve your skills.
Some people naturally gravitate more toward theory and some toward practice. Both are important. Each has different strengths and they complement each other well. You’ll learn more from a combination of theory and practice than you will from focusing on either alone.
We all go through times where we feel like we’ve plateaued or when our passion wanes a bit.
When it happen to me I find that diving in to something on the list above always recharges me much quicker than expected. I can pick up a new book or set myself a problem to solve and very quickly the passion comes back.
Hopefully you’ll be able to incorporate some of the tips above into your own course of learning. You don’t have to do everything I do, though each of the above has helped me and continues to help me in some way.