5 ways to hone design skills away from the computer


The digital age has just about swallowed the graphic design world whole. This, however, doesn’t mean we need to be in front of a computer to improve our design skills. In fact there are many ways to become better designers simply by changing the way we intellectually explore the outside world.

Seeing graphic design work in its “natural habitat” and experiencing the tangible manifestations of design work, is an indispensable resource for improving our design skills. After all, the designs we create under the glow of our computer screens are destined for the outside world; perhaps on a store front, in a coffee shop or on a t-shirt.

1. See the world through “design goggles”


Often, we forget that nearly every aspect of our civilization is designed. Simply taking a moment to become aware of this can allow our surroundings to be utilized as an exercise in honing our eye for design.

Seeing the world through design goggles allows a trip to the grocery store to be seen as a packaging study, a trip to the library to be seen as a cover design gallery viewing and a trip to the city to be seen as a design field trip. Not to mention how this practice keeps us mentally productive in moments that we might otherwise be waiting for the light to turn.

2. Focus on relevant design


Packaging design: “Food Should Taste Good” (via Living Rich with Coupons)

While design can be compelling in all forms, to most effectively utilize the design around us we can visually filter for designs in our specific field of design work. This way, the insights gained through observation will apply to the design work we do later on.

Take this “Food Should Taste Good” packaging design for example. A logo designer can look at this and think about the impact of the logo font and color choices. An illustrator can think about the techniques used to create the texture in the chip illustration. A package designer can think about the element proportions and placement.

3. Think about what works


Photo: Gratisography

It could be said that the mark of a good design is that it not only attracts us aesthetically but that it also honestly communicates the style, quality, and integrity of a product or service.

If a store front logo attracts us aesthetically, we can then walk into the store, explore the products, and think about how well that logo represents the products. When we think about and find designs that work, we can then analyze the designs in regard to concepts or techniques that can be taken back to the work room.

4. Try on other designers’ shoes


Photo: Lacey Raper (via Unsplash)

When looking at real world examples of design work it can be helpful to imagine what the design would look like as vector art in our own design program. Thinking through this perspective allows us to ask: How might I have arrived at this design if I were hired for this job? Where might my design tendencies have taken me on a different design path than this designer took? What skills does this designer have in their arsenal that I have yet to learn? This thinking allows us to adopt qualities from successful designers.

5. Don’t forget


Photo: Kristian Karlsson (via Unsplash)

In our amazing and visually stimulating world, chances are that creative insights gained through passive observation won’t make it back to the work room. This is easily solved by taking cell phone snap shots or even jotting down a quick note on a napkin.

These mental reminders can become delightful surprises later that day when digging through pockets or scrolling through cell phone pictures!


By making some simple mental adjustments and becoming intellectually aware of our design surroundings, trips away from the computer can take on a whole new meaning. We can actually grow as designers without opening a single computer file.

With practice, exploring the outside world can become an integral part of the design process, and a breathe of fresh ideas can be brought back to the work room on a daily basis.

How else do you find inspiration offline? Share in the comments!

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