6 ways to become a better designer

Barin Cristian Doru

I find 99designs one of the best places to develop my skills, meet new people and of course earn money. To experience it to it’s fullest, I’ve thought long and hard about what makes a great designer perform to their maximum potential.

While sometimes we prefer to learn about certain new techniques or design trends, this article is all about what you can do physically, right now, without having to develop or understand a new set of skills. Let’s begin.

1. Adaptation is key

flower

Photo: krismadden

What’s the latest trend right now? Even Internet Explorer users know flat design is the biggest thing since hot water. Everybody’s using it – for the moment. This too will pass as other design styles have done so. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t disappear but there was a time where minimal design was the way to go. Full-screen images? Of course! How about 100% illustration-based websites? Mascots? Why not infinite scrolling? Large as life typography? And how about single-page websites? You get the idea.

What you have to do as a designer is imitate. Notice I didn’t say copy. For example: browse around and look for “Top 50 flat designs” and look at what they all have in common. There are usually unseen rules that you must follow. Measure the distance between elements, let’s say the main menu and hero area. Is it 10 pixels or 30 pixels empty space? Check how large the main heading is with the F12 command in your browser. What type of effects do they use in call to action buttons? And so on. Then apply those very same rules in your projects.

This is a bullet proof way to keep up with trends without having to read 50 books on the subject. Sure, those 50 books will make you a significantly better designer but until that point, you need to stay in the game.

2. Get a better chair

chair

Photo: Death to Stock the Photo

If you don’t want to look like a question mark after a long design session, please invest in a good chair. Working on your posture is the optimal decision, but if you want an immediate relief for your lower back pain, get a proper chair.

We all spend hundreds and even thousands of dollars on our computers, but we don’t give a damn about where we sit 4-6-10 hours per day, every day and sometimes every year. That’s something you shouldn’t overlook and with the prize money from your next project you should buy yourself a high-end chair.

Don’t be fooled by cheap stuff. If you’re spending less than $200 it doesn’t matter what brand it is or how it looks. It’s virtually the same quality — mediocre at best. That’s why I recommend you do your research. No, not by reading reviews, but by going down to a chair store and trying them out. Reviews mean nothing in this very subjective field.

3. Invest in your tools

workspace

Photo: Aleks Dorohovich (via Unsplash)

I’ve made my first $10,000 by working in conditions unfit for a sweatshop. I won’t go into details but you should know that with every contest won I invested my money into better tools. It’s true I could have continued with the same gear, but I never could have achieved this level of design knowledge by still working on a 17” CRT monitor.

Don’t find this as an excuse. I’ve seen people stop working because they didn’t have 2 monitors or not enough RAM. If you’re in that category, then I have only one piece of advice for you: get to work! Earn your own money, save it and then invest. You don’t need the best computer in the world in order to start working. Use what you have and upgrade intelligently.

A fast computer will make you faster. Two monitors are absolutely amazing and I can’t imagine myself going back to using just one. This way I can look at the client’s wireframe or my inspiration on one side and on the other I can continue working in Photoshop. RAM is also dirt cheap right now so having at least 8 Gb is a given. If you invest in an SSD, use it as a scratch disk and keep it empty. I know you want to keep your operating system on it, but if you can’t afford a second SSD and you earn your livelihood through Photoshop, set it as a primary scratch disk.

Currently, I have close to a dream configuration at home. I actually posted it in Dribbble in case you’re wondering what I’m using.

4. Stop the music

headphones

Photo: Fey Ilyas (via Flickr)

Listen, I know some of you may not like this advice, but if you’re in it for the long run, then stop the music. Your brain is already working like crazy in your long sessions and singing along to your favorite tune won’t help you concentrate on the task at hand. Fact of the matter is music is a distraction and when you’re designing you need to focus.

It’s a known fact that listening to certain types of music energizes your brain but that effect last for only 15 minutes or so. What you need to do is get into a groove. Put yourself in the zone, charge yourself up and then start working. Stop the music after you’re pumped up because you need every bit of attention in the first 10-20 minutes when you’re usually reading the brief and/or imagining the final outcome.

Experienced designers may use cruise control. That’s the state where you know how everything should look, you know the steps to get there and you just need to undergo the actions. Then, and only then, you can enter this trance mode where you’re letting yourself do the mechanical work while your mind is somewhere else, listening to music and relaxing. For everyday users, I recommend you keep it simple and stop the music no matter what Rihanna says. When was the last time she won a contest, huh?

5. Drink a lot of water

water

Photo: Didriks (via Flickr)

A bottle of lightly chilled water is a must in these torrid days. Actually, even if it’s snowing outside you need that bottle and you must have a goal attached. Usually something like drinking half of it is pretty good, but what’s the most important aspect is how you drink it. Don’t gulp it down, instead drink in small sips.

This will easily turn into a habit and sooner than later you’ll find yourself reaching for a bottle even if it’s not there. I usually have it already opened because I’m very concentrated on my work and I don’t want to stop even for a minute. My eyes surely thank me for that because the more hydrated you are, the less bloodshot you’re eyes are going to be.

A nice side effect is that you’re going to visit the bathroom more often. From what you’ve read you know that I’m very dedicated and concentrated in my designing sessions but sometimes I need a break even if I don’t know it or I don’t want it. That’s where my high intake of water forces me to step away from my desk and take a few minutes off. I know this may sound a bit strange but you need to stretch your legs and give your eyes a break.

6. Exercise

runner

Photo: Gratisography

So now you have to be a bodybuilder to create a logo? No, not at all. But unless you want to look like you’ve been living on a Twinkie IV for half of your life, you need to go out and exercise. Having a gym membership is one of the things that allow me to stack up my prize money. You simply cannot sacrifice your health for your projects, no matter how important they are. Having my body in good shaped allowed me to continue working at a great rate.

Working out will partially compensate for the long hours you spend every day on your computer. Ideally, you also need to run in the park at least a couple of times a week in order to get some sunlight. I’m doing it and I’m not dead yet. Honestly. You may not like it at first, you may be afraid of what other people may say about it, but it comes down to is this: if you want to be a great web designer in the long run, you need to work out constantly. Otherwise good luck looking like Jabba the Hutt.

Final words

These are some of the things I consider very important for an individual who wants to succeed in this field. Some advice may seem a bit harsh or more of a personal choice rather than a rule, but from my years of experience, having felt everything on my own skin, I feel very strongly about these points as you probably do about your own routines.

What are some habits that have improved your lifestyle as a designer?

The author

Barin Cristian Doru
Barin Cristian Doru

Barin Cristian Doru aka 'thislooksgreat' is an experienced web designer and proud member of the 99designs community: http://99designs.com/people/thislooksgreat Besides creating awesome website designs, he is also an entrepreneur, an Android App Developer and a content creator. His work ranges from freebie PSD files to small tips & tricks in Photoshop, all the way to a premium 16 hour long course on how to succeed on 99designs.

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