You Wanna be Good or Naw?

Passion. Coffee. Brainstorming at 1:47am. Iterations upon iterations. Long meetings. Early mornings. Creative freedom. Creative block. Frustration. Software crashing when you forgot to “save”. Critiques. Confusing clients. Great clients. Sketches on the wall. Sketches in the garbage. Successes. Failures.

If you’re a designer, you’ve probably experienced all or most of the above. If you’re an awesome designer, you know what it takes to go from average, to good, to great. In an age where almost anyone can claim to be a “graphic designer” because of easier access to software or because they’ve put together a flyer or two, it’s important for those who are actually serious about design to rise above the noise.

So the question is, do you want to be good or naw? Are you okay with average or do you want to stand out from the competition? In order to nurture and grow your design skills, you must be willing to understand and do the following:

Understand the principle of the matter

Every good designer knows that being “good” goes beyond knowledge of software. It actually comes from mastery of design principles. Design principles (i.e. message, color, typography, placement, contrast, etc) are the foundation of good design and one’s understanding of them is key to growth and success. Design without good principles behind it will often be less justified in the why, what and how; it will be difficult to explain why you made the design decisions you made, what reasoning you used to reach a particular solution and how the elements of the layout work together to solve a problem.

Practice makes p̶e̶r̶f̶e̶c̶t̶ proficiency

There are some who have a natural eye for design, composition, color and layout. Others have to work a little harder at creating a finished composition. It’s okay to suck at first. Keep going—push past the frustrations, failed attempts and creative blocks. There are designers who spend a few hours a day working on their craft and then there are those who spend day and night building their skills. Your creative muscles can be as big as you want them to be; if you want to confidently flex them, then you’ve got to be willing to constantly work them out. There’s no pinnacle of perfection, but you can be damn good at what you do.

Go past version 3

Your desire for exploration directly correlates with the level of innovation you reach. If you’re lucky enough to get a design “right” on the first try, that’s great. But more often than not, that isn’t reality. Don’t be afraid to explore and expand upon your first, second, third or eighth idea. Fill up a page or two with sketches. Write down keywords on a white board. Mind map. Story board. Then fill up the artboard, design outside of the artboard and create multiple artboards.

How many of your great works have come by accident or after many iterations of the wrong idea? Don’t miss the mark of genius because you didn’t try hard enough to find the solution.

Of course, your devotion and time spent on a design often directly correlates with the time constraints of a project, the people you are working with and the price point tied to it. This notion isn’t to be confused with terms of a design agreement or contract, or the number of concepts you should show to a client. But it is about taking creation a step further and being willing to go the extra mile to produce something great. Dig deep, flow with the momentum and rid yourself of worry about what the next stroke or “click” will be; to get lost in time and in your own thoughts is the essence of creating.

Gain wisdom from failure

It’s not a matter of if, but when. When you fail — when you screw up a print job, when you permanently delete the wrong files, when you present the client with concepts they hate, when your design critique makes you want to crawl under your desk, when you get underpaid or not paid at all, when you make something that you are ashamed to call your own, when you want to pick up your computer, throw it out of the window and cry — it won’t feel good. But you’re still going to be okay.

You are going to mess up. You are going to work on a project or at a job you hate. You are going to totally underestimate the time it takes to get something done and agree to an unrealistic deadline. You are going to have miscommunication with a client. It’s just all a part of the process. You cannot be afraid to have these experiences. You can decrease the frequency of these occurrences over time, but you cannot eliminate the fact that sometimes things will go wrong. Use these failures as valuable lessons. Grow from them, learn from them and become better because of them.

Accept constructive criticism

You’ve got to have thick skin to be a designer. Your work will be criticized, examined, sometimes even turned inside out and then shredded into tiny pieces. No matter how novice or experienced of a designer you are, you must be able to humbly accept constructive criticism. We don’t know everything and we don’t always know what’s best. What looks good to you does not always equate to the best design solution for that particular audience, cause and/or purpose. Be open to other perspectives (even when you know you’re right haha) and never stop learning. Good critique can help us see something that we couldn’t see before, help us to refine or enhance or simply let us know that we need to start over.

Practice tender loving care

People like working with people that they like. They also like working with designers who love what they do. Some call it passion. Your attitude toward your work and your craft will eventually show. Although every project won’t be your “passion project”, make you giddy or be the reason you wake up in the morning (it may even be the exact opposite) — it’s important to put your best foot forward every time. Exuding a positive attitude isn’t always easy, but it is necessary to help get you through challenges and to elevate you to higher levels. If your work is great, but your attitude sucks, you will find it difficult to get far in your career. What does TLC as a designer look like? It could be spell checking a design or sending a thank you note to a client. It could be going the extra mile to make sure a project is executed correctly or it could be staying up late to make sure you meet a deadline. Showing you care could simply be a genuine smile and a willingness to listen. The same care should apply to your own personal design projects. If you’re not working on things you care about, it may be time to reevaluate what you are doing and why.

As designers, we all strive to do better and to be better. It’s no easy task; being good at what you do requires deliberate action, consistency, discipline, perseverance and humility. It’s one thing to have a few successes here and there. But to remain good at what you do, you’ll have to be willing to put in the effort each and every day.



Creative professional, designer, author, instructor. Creating with purpose. Teaching and inspiring by design. Start learning design:

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Shannel Wheeler

Creative professional, designer, author, instructor. Creating with purpose. Teaching and inspiring by design. Start learning design: