12 ways to become a better designer in 2012

Judging by the developments at 99designs, this year is going to be an important one. We’re growing and improving at an ever increasing pace and we want our designers to grow with us too.

We have 12 months ahead — let’s use each month to become a better designer by learning a new skill and trying a new tip!

1. Learn to use the grid

Building a well-balanced design layout, whether for web or print, is one of the most difficult and excruciating design tasks. Grids provide an instant remedy for this problem: an organized and systematic approach to building layouts that takes away the “trial-and-error” that normally occurs.

Divide your artboard into several evenly spaced columns and rows, then use them as guides for your artwork placement. To see this in action, go to www.thegridsystem.org then click on “Show Grid” button at the top right corner.

This enables you to focus on the creative  part of your design work, such as concept, typography and atmosphere, while letting the grid guide your layout decisions.

Most importantly, you will never feel intimidated by your next design project because once you create a design grid, layout options become instantly visible.

Here are some great resources to get you started:

 2. Use technology to make better font choices

How do you normally decide on a logo font? Most likely, you set the company name in your default font, then browse through your type library until you find a good-looking option. More experienced designers will know which typefaces they want to try, so they will pick them directly.

But there are problems with both of these approaches. First, you are limiting your choices to fonts available only on your computer. Second, you are not using freely available technology which is important in our fast-moving design world.

Check out the tag section from Myfonts.com.

For your next design project, head over to MyFonts.com tag section. Pick the word that best describes the style you’re looking for or use the search box in the top right corner to type a specific tag.

You will be presented with an array of typefaces that match the style you’re looking for while having the ability to type your own sample text.  For example, you can pick the “restaurant” tag, type the restaurant name in the sample text box and instantly see some great fonts for your project.

3. Explore different palettes with free color generators

We are creatures of habit and most of us pick the same color combinations over and over. Believe it or not, these choices are often influenced by your software defaults – notice that most vector designs use default color swatches from Adobe Illustrator.

Adobe Kuler lets you explore and share great looking color combinations.

The simplest way to break this habit is to use online color generators, such as Adobe Kuler. This tool will let you browse through thousands of great looking color combinations, then save them in an ASE format which can be easily imported into any Adobe application (note: you need to register to be able to save but it’s free).

Another good trick is to generate your palette from an image or photo, which is immensely helpful when your brief includes mandatory images or photos, or when you simply like the colors in an image. Try Color palette generator from cssdrive.com, which will build CSS and Photoshop palettes straight from your images.

4. Design to tell a story

Great design is less about decoration and more about communication. What makes a designer famous is not the ability to create nice looking work – it’s the ability to send a message and get a point across effectively.

Environmental issues are often hard to explain, but this WWF ad is a classic example of good storytelling.

The best way to learn this skill is to study advertising techniques. Advertising can teach you about analogies, metaphors and other creative tools that will help you create convincing and persuasive designs.

If you’d like some examples, check out this post from Alex Bigman or explore these how-to articles from AdCracker.com

5. Use pen and paper while brainstorming

Starting your design project inside Photoshop or Illustrator can be a serious handicap for a number of reasons but most notably… loss of creativity.

Jon Hicks, a notable icon designer behind MailChimp, Shopify and new Skype emoticons, always starts with pencil sketches.

Design programs weren’t made to explore design ideas and options, but to execute them once they’re already set. When you use them during the idea stage, you’re actually working incredibly slow – you need to worry about clicks, points, buttons, weights and swatches… none of which is required by your pen.

Also, you might be tempted to play with colors and effects which will only drive your attention away from the idea itself.

6. Never settle for one idea

I have a question – how do you know what’s good, until you’ve seen what’s bad?  The answer is that you don’t, yet many designers make the simple mistake of settling with the first idea that comes to mind.

Mario Ocon developed 6 different ideas for Thomas & Gray before deciding on the final idea. 

Always develop at least three, completely different, design ideas for your project… no matter how overwhelming this might seem. This will not only get the generic stuff out first but will give you something to compare and separate the good from the bad.

7. Use RIS approach to drive your design decisions

This is an acronym for Response – Imagery – Solution, which is a 3-step system for coming up with highly effective designs. This method works best for more complex design pieces such as brochures, websites and posters but it can be used for logo inspiration too.

To elicit feelings of relaxation and luxury, Four Seasons uses imagery, colors, patterns and fonts which trigger such emotions. 

You need to split your work into three distinct stages:

  • Response – which emotions and impressions do you want to elicit with your design? For example, if you’re doing a website for a popular ski resort, you might want to elicit emotions of joy and excitement while making people think the resort is upscale and prestigious.
  • Imagery – which images and visual elements can be used to stimulate such responses? Think in terms of colors, textures, photography, patterns and fonts. For our ski resort example, joy and excitement could be provoked with images of people skiing and having fun, while prestigious element can be introduced with big serif headlines, silvery-black palette, and perhaps slightly textured background. For this stage, it’s best to develop a mood board, but it’s not absolutely necessary.
  • Solution – develop the design concept based on your imagery and check to see if it makes people feel the way you intended them to.

8. Make a cover version of a popular design

Copying and imitation is generally bad for most purposes but it’s an excellent learning tool for beginners. Just as many musicians practice their skills by singing cover versions of popular songs, you can create cover versions of popular designs.

The task is simple – find a website, poster or logo design you really like, then try to reproduce it as well as you can. You can either make an identical replica, or change it to reflect your personal style.

Because of it’s popularity, the poster for the US army has been reproduced in numerous cover versions, most of them funny in their appearance.

Covering a design will make you even more appreciative of the original work, and best of all, you will expand your creative and technical skills.

You will understand how the layout was constructed (and why), which combination of fonts were used, how the particular texturing was created and which technical challenges the designer faced in order to get the details right.

Note: this exercise is just for learning. Do not copy other designs and submit it to a contest or to a real client.

9. Decorate your office – intelligently

Designers need inspiration and white walls will not give you much inspiration. However, instead of building a generic “creative” office which looks good but serves no purpose, why not decorate with practical items?

Lou Dorfsman, a graphic designer who took care of CBS identity for over 40 years, created a famous work titled Gastrotypographicalassemblage — a 35 feet wide work of art decorating the CBS caféteria.

For example, you could:

  • Print out your font library and hang it on a wall.
  • Create 20 color combinations you like and paint them on your ceiling.
  • Print out and frame common website or brochure layouts.
  • Buy a flipchart and use it to sketch ideas while standing.

This will create a stimulating environment which will get your juices flowing while providing you with references to typefaces, colors and other important elements.

10. Research more

When you don’t know a lot about the subject of your design, you are missing out on many ideas and opportunities.

For example, a recent contest I participated in asked for a 1920’s-inspired design for a cocktail bar. I explored different type options from that time period. Interestingly, I discovered a well-known building in the client’s city which contains reliefs and typography from the same era. I decided to use the same typefaces in my design.

This definitely caught the client’s attention and gave a whole new perspective to my design proposal — all it took was some Google work.

Working on a coffee project? Go to Google images, type “coffee ad” and see how coffee clients think.

Here are suggestions on what to search when exploring your design subject:

  • History & place of origin – for example, if you’re designing a logo for a “Cocoa place,” search for “Cocoa history” or “Cocoa stories” and see if you can find something interesting
  • Industry advertising – go to Google images, then search for “X ad,” X being your subject matter. You will see examples of your client’s industry advertising, which will give you some great insights into their design language
  • Localities -  if your client’s product is localized or made for specific geographic market, explore that location
  • Facts and figures – type into Google what you’re interested in, followed by the word “facts.” You will narrow down your results to easily digestible blog posts and articles, perfect for quick introductions to less familiar subjects

 11. Learn to draw

Knowing how to draw will make you twice as good and valuable because there are certain design problems that are best solved with this basic artistic skill.

Drawspace offers 200 free, printable drawing lessons. You can even enroll in a paid course and get teacher guidance.

When you don’t know how to draw, you will keep inventing less than perfect workarounds for things which essentially require a drawing or illustration skill, such as icons and character logos. Plus, you will miss the innate sense of visual balance and harmony that develops naturally with this skill.

Today, learning to draw is easier than ever — just google “learn to draw” or go directly to drawspace.com.

12. Learn to (copy)write

Designers often overlook the importance of writing skills in their work, yet messages and communication are the reason graphic design exists in the first place.

Some design pieces can be based purely on good copywriting.

Though copywriters are usually asked to handle the writing part of the project, understanding basic principles of good writing is a mandatory skill of every professional graphic designer.

Start small – pay more attention to your writing style in emails, then go from there. For those of you eager to improve quickly, checkout Copywriting 101, a free guide from Copyblogger.

Which tip or skill do you plan on learning? Let us know in the comments below.

Peter Vukovic is a seasoned designer & creative director with 10 years of experience in worldwide advertising agency. He is a proud member of the 99designs community. http://99designs.com/people/pvukovich
Peter Vukovic
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  1. ludibes

    realy nice article, I recognized some of mine professional goals in those lines ;)
    thanx on sharing.

    Reply January 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm
    • Peter Vukovic

      You’re welcome, I’m sure you’ll manage to achieve your goals, you look quite committed as a designer :) Best wishes for 2012!

      Reply January 10, 2012 at 8:50 am
  2. enkodesign

    It is very difficult to decide upon single tip, simply because all of them are of crucial importance to create an outstanding design, whether it is a logo, brochure, poster, web-design, whatever. A good designer should have all of these tips and plans in mind while creating his design solution.

    As for me, I think I will focus on drawing my preliminary designs, since I haven’t practiced this before, and I hope it will bring me more efficiency and fluidity in future work.

    Reply January 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm
  3. uyunq

    Love it. Thanks for sharing : )

    Reply January 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm
  4. cicki

    wow really good article, thanks

    Reply January 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm
  5. zesthar

    WoW! Thank’s.. ^__^

    Reply January 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm
  6. Tae

    great article. Back to the ol’ chopping block!

    Reply January 9, 2012 at 9:23 pm
  7. 6star

    thank you “Adobe Kuler” is really fantastic.

    Reply January 9, 2012 at 11:15 pm
    • Peter Vukovic

      Yes, it really is :)

      Reply January 10, 2012 at 8:46 am
  8. WizDan

    I like the research part.
    I hope to read later abt “Execution” also.

    Reply January 10, 2012 at 10:01 am
    • Peter Vukovic

      Sure, will do that :)

      Reply January 10, 2012 at 10:32 am
  9. Bratislav

    Saveti su dosta korisni, hvala sto si to podelio sa nama

    Reply January 10, 2012 at 11:12 am
  10. Jason Aiken

    Awesome Job Peter!

    Thanks for putting this together.


    Reply January 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm
    • Peter Vukovic

      No problem Jason, thanks for the praise!

      Reply January 11, 2012 at 4:38 am
  11. Adeline

    Brilliant job.I liked the way this was explained.I am inspired by some of what you have told.Will check out these sites=)

    Reply January 10, 2012 at 11:59 pm
    • Peter Vukovic

      Thanks, that’s great to hear Adeline!

      Reply January 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm
  12. Tijana Šušnica

    Svidja mi se!

    Reply January 11, 2012 at 6:12 am
    • Hrvoje

      i meni! xD :D

      Reply January 16, 2012 at 9:50 am
  13. Erick

    It is really nice… great.. Hope to be as good as you are someday…I a new designer here.hope to learn from you guys.. keep it up…

    Reply January 11, 2012 at 9:48 am
  14. Amesh

    I wish I had seen this before I went to Uni its brilliant!

    Cheers, Amesh

    Reply January 11, 2012 at 10:43 am
  15. Rajesh

    Nice article… thank u for this.

    Reply January 11, 2012 at 10:46 am
  16. faz

    I started Drawing first in a paper and a cam ready for upload for picture to pc. Thanks Peter

    Reply January 11, 2012 at 10:10 pm
  17. Vivek

    I like the 12 ways how to become a succcessful Designer. Hats Off..Bro !!

    Reply January 12, 2012 at 5:55 am
  18. Reply January 12, 2012 at 6:13 am
  19. BIPLOB

    i have no paisa but i have lot of loves that’s can i give u for your nice articles.-

    Reply January 12, 2012 at 11:13 pm
  20. Ari

    very valuable tips & inspiration. thanks for posting this.

    Reply January 13, 2012 at 6:49 am
  21. lynrite

    Very well thought out and put together!

    I especially like the part about decorating your workspace for inpiration (#9 “Decorate your office – intelligently”).

    Reply January 13, 2012 at 10:02 am
    • Peter Vukovic

      Thanks lynrite, I have to say that’s my personal favorite too.

      Reply January 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm
  22. adrijanaz

    I like the tips and very useful

    Reply January 14, 2012 at 5:23 am
  23. par

    its great!thanks for the ideas…

    Reply January 14, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    word up bro love it

    Reply January 15, 2012 at 6:55 pm
  25. hantoko

    very nice article! Thanks Peter.. :)
    I hope this make my annual goals achieved this year.

    Reply January 16, 2012 at 1:17 am
  26. Hrvoje

    Mislim da ja pohvalu mogu i na hrvatskome napisati :D
    U svakom slucaju, lijepo napravljeno i objasnjeno! :) Nadam se da ce mi biti od pomoci.
    Hvala ti, Petre! :)

    Reply January 16, 2012 at 9:48 am
  27. gabroeldc

    Terima kasih boss ,, saya akan lakukan tips2 dari anda..

    Reply January 31, 2012 at 1:02 am
  28. Bambi Corro III

    Peter, this is really great. thanks man! I am sending this to my printer for future reference.

    Reply January 31, 2012 at 6:27 pm
  29. adi

    Great Tips, step by step, inspiring, thanks a buch peter…

    Reply February 1, 2012 at 8:56 pm
  30. Web Design

    Thanks for Sharing!!
    This blog really helpful for the beginners. They acts as a informative resource for them…

    Reply February 15, 2012 at 11:46 pm
  31. Monika

    Great article. Thanks for such brilliant tips. I like whole article but “Never settle for one idea” is very good tip.

    Reply May 4, 2012 at 3:12 am
  32. Nispaara Solutions

    Wow!! very inspirational Article on web designing. Thanks for sharing ideas and tips to improve knowledge on web designing.

    Reply June 13, 2012 at 11:18 pm
  33. Logo_Blaster

    I think I definitely need to pay more attention to typography, not sure how I’ve managed to evade it this long. Also using popular campaigns from the past as inspiration, can’t say i’ve eevr been directly inspired by it.

    Reply July 30, 2012 at 7:12 am
  34. KS

    No. 3 is my favorite. thanks for sharing.

    Reply July 30, 2012 at 11:01 am
  35. Angie

    I was just thinking…Why there are a lot of pretend-to-be designers here in 99designs without the original idea? They are very good in Photoshop and illustrator presentation but just copying the original idea and changing the way it was presented. They will wait for an original idea-high starred design and suddenly here comes with a good presentation, layout, etc. but take note “without an original idea”…It’s really unfair to those who has a unique-originally created designs… 99designs should hide all design contest and just present all designs after the contest…Anyway, CH can comment all designs if he/she feel interested. not just copying other idea and incorporating/presenting it. An example of that…A Vitamart logo…CH commented any other original designs except for the leaves? Nothing came thereafter…What came were a lot of good design presented of leaves..They presented on T-shirt,Van, Business card, etc. The CH didn’t ask these..What was ask is “any original idea” I am new here but this is not supposed to be the way it was…
    Also there should be JUST ONE ORIGINAL LOGO DESIGN in the center of the layout not with that beautifully-presented-no-original-idea…Also there should be a logo disputes on all designs…What i mean is that there must be quality control center.

    Reply August 14, 2012 at 8:08 pm
  36. Charliemen

    Thanks for these wonderful tips it really helps me a lot. I’m inspired to pursue my dreams to become a professional graphic designers.

    Reply August 15, 2012 at 4:45 am
  37. Shekhar Ghosh

    I have just started my career as a graphic designer. Found all these tips very helpful and inspiring. Shared this with my colleagues too.

    Reply September 8, 2012 at 1:15 am
  38. themorningair

    thanks for these tips. great work!

    Reply September 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm
  39. Internet Advertising Australia

    The points are clear. Excellent ideas.

    Reply October 11, 2012 at 4:14 am
  40. Jessica kasule

    Love it u will get it

    Reply October 16, 2012 at 9:00 am
  41. Heiko

    Great and motivating article.

    Reply October 25, 2012 at 1:29 am
  42. Leilanix

    Great article. I loved it. I’m going to get started on improving my drawing skills. Thanks

    Reply October 31, 2012 at 12:34 am
  43. madhavi

    v nice thks.i’ll improve my drawing skills

    Reply November 1, 2012 at 2:17 am
  44. Monowar

    Many many thanks for this tips :-) this is really awesome?

    Reply November 2, 2012 at 11:30 am
  45. matre


    Reply November 6, 2012 at 4:34 am
  46. Mich

    Wonderful article and great resources. It was very inspirational to read, especially for someone who feels behind in the game ^^. Thank-you!

    Reply November 12, 2012 at 10:30 pm
  47. K Narayanan

    Yes….I really valued all the 12 tips…I definitely feel that all are necessary to become a better designer and a professional….Thanks for the valuable jewels….

    Reply November 14, 2012 at 7:29 am
  48. Mahisa Medari

    great tips..i’ll do that..thanks lot

    Reply November 21, 2012 at 10:46 pm
  49. Rian

    very helpfull…will do redecorationg my room :)
    Great article dude.

    Reply December 20, 2012 at 5:38 pm
  50. K Narayanan

    Good guidance…..I would like to develop more on Justification in Coreldraw…How can I do it more efficiently without the pulling and pushing of the para or characters….Please guide.

    Reply December 21, 2012 at 6:56 am
  51. Micheal Keefer

    I really like this text. Best read in a very long time. Hopefully you will keep write such as this!

    Reply January 11, 2013 at 2:47 am
  52. BK

    Thanks, sir ….. this useful and valueable advice…. thanks

    Reply January 17, 2013 at 11:25 pm
  53. Alaa Eed

    i like the research and colors.

    really thank you

    Reply January 18, 2013 at 9:59 pm
  54. Swetha

    Great article on how to tackle design problems. I especially liked the one which spoke of decorating your surroundings with stuff that gives you ideas. Keep posting more of great stuff!

    Reply February 2, 2013 at 5:31 am
  55. Val Walker

    Awesome article – really useful, great tips, new ideas for me!

    Reply February 5, 2013 at 12:17 pm
  56. Dipansh

    What are the tips and tricks to win more and more logo design contests.Please help me thanks.

    Reply February 6, 2013 at 3:41 am

    one of the best articles i have seen, thank you so much!!

    Reply February 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm
  58. Chris Kim

    Awesome tips! Gave me good insight to where to begin with.
    But with all the software, sources accessible for everyone, it’s starting to get harder to distinguish the actual professional ones…

    Reply February 13, 2013 at 1:36 am
  59. fajoui

    thank you so much!!

    Reply April 2, 2013 at 3:24 am
  60. Dave Goodman

    This article is really helpful and practical. I’ve read some “how to become a better designer” blogs that offer nice advice, but don’t exactly work in the real world where you’re stuck in an office behind a cubicle with a deadline (i.e. “when you’re feeling uninspired, take a walk or go to a museum.” Seriously?). Anyway, thanks for writing this.

    Reply April 3, 2013 at 5:55 am
  61. Anita

    Hi Peter

    Most disciplines are gleaned without realizing the formulas, but essential nevertheless and good to have them listed. However, just found the grid content a bit thin, coming from more of an art direction than design background. But otherwise right on the nail. Thanks!

    Reply April 12, 2013 at 12:20 pm
  62. Pat

    A great read. Thanks Peter.
    I can’t understand how a designer with 10 years experience would de-value their craft by submitting to a website like 99 Designs. How can you justify pitching for work for pennys. When you work out the amount of hours you actually spend designing before you turn them into dollars you are working for less than the minimum wage. You also devalue an art that you love. Shame.

    Reply May 1, 2013 at 11:39 pm
  63. cassie

    awww thank you this will help a lot I’ve stuck all these tips on sticky notes and ready to act on them thank you!

    Reply July 6, 2014 at 4:26 am

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