#67 How to Not Suck at Design

I know a lot of people who have dabbled in design. I know even more people who, when I tell them I’m a Creative Director and Graphic Designer, that tell me something like, “I’ve always wanted to try graphic design.” Well the fact is that it’s not as easy as a most people think, and in my humble, professional opinion, I think that many more people believe they are good at it than they are. Here’s some tips for you whether you’ve been in design for awhile and you feel like you’re not getting any better, or for you if you’re thinking about getting into design and you want to have a leg up on the competition.


I know, you’re gonna tell me, “Hey, I’m a creative, research doesn’t sound like fun.” But let me tell you, that moving forward with a design when you have not done research will bite you in the rear and will be way less fun. 

Research is a crucial part to the design process. So what do you need to research as a designer? Based on using a creative brief, you have the opportunity to find out your ideal target demographic, the competition, market trends, history of your client, likes, dislikes, etc. Researching these areas will help you better understand your client and who they’re marketing to, and what your design will be used for.

Research will put you in a position that makes you more intelligent than the competition and more respectable to your clients.

You should research colors and their meanings that you will be considering for the client. Research can even be just talking to people in the target market and asking about your client. It can be searching through ad campaigns the competitor may be running or visiting the client’s business as a “customer” to immerse yourself in place of their audience. 

Don’t just use Photoshop

First of all let me point out that design is not about a computer program. Design is not even about the computer. Knowing design is about understanding what design is, it’s about knowing how to think about a design and having a [learned] sense for it. I was talking about this with my soon-to-be podcast co-host Michelle and I basically told her, “I could design something with a magazine, construction paper, glue and scissors”. This wasn’t meant to be some self-confident, or arrogant comment.

The point I was trying to make was that it’s not the tools that make a designer.

When it comes to the software that most designers use, Photoshop is one of those options. The reason I wanted to tell you that in order to not suck at design you should not use Photoshop exclusively is because it limits you. There are things that are meant for Photoshop (photo editing, photo manipulation, etc.) and things that work in Photoshop but that will really turn out better when you do them elsewhere. I absolutely feel that the sign of a unmotivated designer is if they only use Photoshop. Learn Illustrator and InDesign, learn what the other programs are good for and you’ll realize how much better your designs will become.

Find Style References 

I’m not going to assume that you all know what a style reference is so I’ll explain briefly. A style reference is basically a few pre-existing works of art or design of some kind that have the same “feel” or aesthetic that you want for the project you may be working on. Style reference hunting comes after the concept in the process of your project.

For example, if your concept is rustic industrial, and you are working on a poster, your style references could be something like a sign you saw painted on the side of a brick building (because you liked the font). Another style reference could be an ad you found in a magazine that has rustic textures. I mean, the possibilities for style references are literally endless.

The idea behind references is that they give you a visual  jumping off point.

A style reference is also something that will help you stay focused on the right direction and helps you to see what kinds of components you want to incorporate in your design. .

Let me be clear, however, a style reference is not something you look at to copy directly. You always want to be really careful about respecting the copyrights of other artists and designers. This is where you learn to “Steal Like an Artist” and take something someone else has that you like or that is relevant to your project, and insert you into it; bend it and mold it enough so it no longer feels like a copy.

Have a concept 

Once the step of research is done then you can start looking for a concept, or your big idea. The concept is a foundation to build on, a blueprint to map where you will be going, and a reference point to check yourself on to make sure your design isn’t going off track. You can discover your concept by brainstorming taking into account all of your research. I use something pretty specific for my brainstorming to get to a concept and to get to a place where I have a working start, something called a “mind map”. If you’ve never done a mind map, check out my post on brainstorming

A concept is one thing (though not the only thing) that will keep you from being just another hack designer who just does whatever they think looks great. 

Learn Design History

Just like with most things in life, you can’t really do a good job knowing where you’re going if you don’t know and understand where you’ve been.

Design history is such an interesting, deep and endless well for inspiration and finding things that can make you a better designer.

Something really cool happened while I was teaching this last term at the art school I’m a professor at. An assignment required the students to research a famous designer– a designer who made some sort of impact on an area of graphic design. Not only did they have to research a designer, but they had to put themselves into that designer’s shoes in a way and design something from their perspective, with their aesthetics and style.

Most of the students had never heard of the designer they were assigned; and if they had heard of them, they definitely didn’t know why they were important or what they had done to influence graphic design. By the time they presented their projects, every single one of them said something to the effect that they want to incorporate something from their assigned designer into their own work. For some of them it was more of a design ideology and for others it was more specific to an aspect of the actual look and style they ascribed to. These amazing revelations about ways they could improve their own work would never have happened if they hadn’t dug into the history of these designers.  

Start with Sketching

Studies have proved that writing with physical tools is beneficial to productivity, creativity, and retention. Using a pencil and paper helps you clarify your thoughts without restriction. Sketching allows you to concentrate more deeply and engage subconsciously with the work you’re doing.

Sketching by hand allows you the freedom to put any and all ideas out on paper regardless of your skills with any software.

Sketching actually saves you time. Yeah I know, it seems like, “I don’t have time for that”, but if you get all the bad ideas out right away then you can choose which ones are actually viable to take to the computer and really focus on, as opposed to fully fleshing out every idea that enters your brain and ends up on your outer artboards and dies anyway. Sketching is another thing that will set you apart as a designer.

Value Critique

This is something that is difficult for a couple of reasons: one is that many people don’t like or don’t want other people’s thoughts on their work, and the other is that many people work solo and it’s not always easy to find someone who can critique your work. Both are harmful to your work as a designer and both can be overcome. At this point in my career I fall into the second category so I have to go out of my way to surround myself with people who I trust who are willing to be straight with me about my work. If you are in the first category, what you need to understand, especially if you are a newer designer, is that your work will suffer and your design thinking will suffer if you only rely on yourself as a gauge for measuring the quality of your deigns.

It’s important to have someone who will be able to tell you if something feels off or if it’s unreadable, or if it’s doing exactly what you hope.

Design critique is basically like having someone to check your teeth after dinner to make sure you’re presentable.

Critique is not a negative thing, in fact, it’s one of the most positive things you can do for your design work.

Have a Process

This is one that I would consider the magic to ensure you don’t suck at design–ever. If I could offer you the single most effective thing that has made me a successful designer, without a doubt, my process would be it. There are processes to everything in life, from planting a tree to making a cake. It’s important for all of these and many other things in life that you have an order to getting to your “destination”, you have a process. In design, a process has a lot of benefits that simply aren’t there if you don’t have one.

A process ensures the best creative direction for your design, it helps you find a concept and stay on track with that concept, and a process can get you out of creative block.

And these are just a few of the benefits. I will write a post in the future on the importance of having a process but for today’s purposes… Think about your process; do you have one? What does your process look like? Having a process that involves more that just having an idea pop into your head and jumping on the computer will improve your work and set you apart from many designers in the field today. 

So there you have it, eight ways to ensure that you, do not suck at design. My goal is to help the world of designers out there so that what we do is respected and valued. But in order to do that you, the designer, must first realize that there is much more to design than simply liking to draw or knowing how to use photoshop. I have many more useful tips for you so keep with this blog. Design is a wonderful world. I hope you’ll join me here, because design matters.


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