When it comes to learning, I always stress that both theory and practice are important. One reason theory is important is because it helps you build a context for learning. It helps you direct your study and it helps you better understand the subject you’re learning.
After finishing a series of posts with advice I’d share with my younger self, I realized I had more to add to help establish a context for learning. I hope you don’t mind one more post in the series.
Here are the previous posts, in case you missed any
- What I’d Tell My Younger Self About Learning Web Design
- What I’d Tell My Younger Self About Learning HTML/CSS
- What I’d Tell My Younger Self About Learning Development As A Web Designer
I also realize I could continue with post after post of advice for my younger self. There should be an endless supply of topics, since I should know more about most things than my younger self knew. I’m sure I’ll come back to these topics again, but next week let’s move on to something else.
A few times in this series I said everything starts with a real world problem. Clients don’t typically approach you and ask for a website with an accordion menu or one with off canvas navigation.
It’s less important to know exactly where your next step will take you than it is to take a step that will move you in some direction
They might point you to examples of either and say they like it, but they approach you wanting a site that can sell more products or attract more people to it or helps them run their business in some way. Probably all three and more.
Spend more time defining the design problem than you think you need. Spend as much time as possible. Clients won’t always know exactly what they want or be able to tell you what they want. It’s on you to figure it out. Ask questions and then ask more questions.
When you think you understand the client’s goals, state them back to the client in your own words. Then ask more questions. If you don’t understand the problem, you can’t come up with a solution.
Everyone has their own process for coming up with design solutions. Many will have parts of their process in common, however, I doubt many share exactly the same process. We set our own conditions for working. We prefer different tools. We have unique sets of strengths and weaknesses.
You have to find your own process. I like to break the process into steps that separate productivity and creativity. I think it’s easier to optimize either when it’s separate from the other.
Productivity is about speed and repetition. It’s following the tried and true and seeks efficiency and quantity. Creativity on the other hand is slow and meandering. It explores the new and seeks the highest quality. Each thrives under a different set of conditions, which is why treating them separately is best.
Regardless of how you set up your process, continue to iterate and improve it. Borrow from the process of others. Combine those parts with more of your own. Keep iterating and improving your process so it works better for you.
Solving design problems involves a lot of decision-making. Some decisions you make up front. Many others will only come up during the process. What size should the type be? What color should the footer background be? Is that page really necessary?
Learning also makes you aware of more things to think about, more questions to ask, and ultimately more decisions to make. It means more work for you, but better designed sites at the end of the process.
You need confidence to make better decisions and you need to be confident in your decisions after you make them. At first your taste will exceed your skills. This gap can be hard to deal with. It’s frustrating to create something that doesn’t your own standards. It might lead to feelings of not being good enough. It’s ok. Everyone starts with this gap in their tastes and skills. Everyone feels like they aren’t good enough at first.
That’s why you learn and practice. The more you do of both, the more you close the gap and the more confident you’ll feel in your work and your ability to make good design decisions. Keep at it and trust the gap will close.
Look back over your work and think critically about it. Would you make the same design decisions in hindsight? Why? Why not? How might you do it better now? Ask similar questions of the work of others. Do you agree with their choices? What might you have done differently to make their design better?
Don’t compare your work to the work of those you admire. It sets you up for failure. Only compare your skills to yourself. Be better in six months than you are today. Be better today than you were six months ago. That’s the only comparison you should make. Are you getting better? As long as you continue to improve you’ll get where you want to go.
Design problems don’t have single absolute solutions. It’s not math where there is one and only one answer to the problem. Many solutions exist for every design problem. Many of those solutions are equally good or bad. You’re seeking the best solution knowing that you can never know if you found it.
Change and Thinking Forward
I hope you embrace change, because rapid change is a part of this industry. The method I learned for developing layouts was outdated before I started putting it into practice. The method that replaced it is becoming outdated now.
Things are going to change and you better be prepared for it. Never get locked into a single way of thinking. Don’t expect any technique to last forever.
You’re always going to feel like there’s more to learn, because there always will be more to learn. Don’t worry about learning everything. No one can. Trust yourself to see what’s important to learn and what you can wait on.
Explore many things. Dig deeper into some.
Make decisions with an eye to the future. Better to be ahead of next year’s trend than behind last year’s trend. Better to start coding to the standards of tomorrow than hanging on to techniques of the past.
Always be aware of the next big shift and be there before others. You don’t want to build sites that don’t work now, but you do want to build sites that are prepared for what’s next. It’ll get you ahead of the competition.
Remember that no matter how you build websites now, a better way will come along before you realize.
Get to Know Your Materials
The skills to become a better designer reach far beyond design principles and typing out the code that becomes a website. The information that helps you make design decisions can come from anywhere.
It doesn’t have come from the principles of composition or techniques for developing a navigation bar. You should be curious about everything. You never know when some obscure fact will help you make a design decision.
I’d highly recommend learning something about psychology and what makes people in general take action. The better you understand people, the better you can design things for them.
Learn as much as you can about the materials you work with. Learn about browsers and the capabilities of different devices. They are your canvas. Learn to code. Learn to use different graphic, video, and code editors. These are your tools. Learn these things the way a print designer would want to know more about paper and ink.
Anything that can help make you a better web designer or help you develop faster and more secure sites is something you should want to learn.
This time I mean it. This really is the end of this series. Hopefully you didn’t mind the late addition.
More than anything remember that designing and developing a website starts with a real person with a real problem. You’re learning principles and technologies to help you solve these problems. Everyone has to find their own process for solving design problems, but you can borrow from the process of others. When you find your process continue to make it better.
The more you know, the more confident you’ll be in your design decisions. Think critically about decisions you’ve made and the decisions others have made. Trust in yourself. Trust in your decisions. And continue to get better making them.
Change comes fast in the world of web design and development so be ready for it. Keep learning and looking to the future. Learn about your materials. Learn about people. Learn anything you think will help.
The learning never stops. It should never stop no matter what you do for a living. It’s life. You learn. You grow. You get better. And then you do it all again. It’s less important to know exactly where your next step will take you than it is to take a step that will move you in some direction.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.