Tom Ross November 24th, 2011

How to Improve as a Graphic Designer

One of the major threats to your career as a graphic designer is to let your work stagnate and your improvement slow down. It's very easy to fall into a comfort zone where you stop exploring new design techniques and simply stick with what you know. This is why most designers experience the greatest learning curve early on, and why after they 'find their style' their future improvement is far more limited. Today I want to argue that designers should never 'find their style'. They should always strive to try new styles, to continually improve, and to push beyond their comfort zone. Imagine if you continually improved at the rate you did early in your design career - I'm betting that you'd be a better designer than you are today! Let's explore some of the ways to improve as a designer:

Read Design Tutorials

Design tutorials are a fantastic way to improve your skillset. Tutorials usually show you how to make a specific outcome by explaining the entire work process in a series of detailed steps. Tutorial sites usually cover a range of different categories, such as text effects, photo manipulations, web layouts etc... Try to explore a range of tutorial sites, as well as tutorial categories in order to broaden your design skills.

Design Improvement

It's important to read a high quality of tutorial. Many sites publish tutorials that actually teach bad technique (for example, the classic example of photo retouching skin using the gaussian blur tool). It's also important to not merely skim the tutorial as eye candy. Try to focus on the workflow and techniques that are used, rather than just checking out the final outcome. The sites below all offer high quality tutorials to improve your technique:

Seek Inspiration From a Wider Variety of Sources

The number one killer for design inspiration is limiting your sources of inspiration. I've already mentioned the importance of design tutorials, but you should look beyond online inspiration. Offline influences can have a tremendously positive effect upon your designs. Inspiration lies everywhere - in nature, in the everyday, bizarre, and transitory. Look to films, art, posters, street signs and photography. The more varied your inspiration, the more varied your work. If you let all the creativity available in the world benefit you, your work will be richer and more profound. Instead of merely skimming over design blogs today, why not try one of the following ideas for inspiration:
  • Take a long walk in a picturesque area. If you have a camera bring it, and photograph anything that grabs your attention.
  • Go and visit some local exhibitions that interest you. Look for interesting photography, art and design galleries in your area.
  • Flick through any magazines or newspapers lying around your house. Rip out elements that catch your eye and pin them on a board as an inspirational collage.

Choose to Design From Something Specific

Often it can be difficult to improve because you consistently design around the same themes. Broadening your inspirational sources is a good start, but I find that designing around a specific idea can also be beneficial. Rather than designing a photo manipulation around the theme of 'nature' for example, why not design around a specific quote, song lyric or even memory. The more personal the specific influence the better, although it can also be interesting to design around an abstract or obscure entity. [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="550"]Design Improvement Source[/caption] When you have selected your lyric, memory, quote, or other influence, try and consider the following:
  • How does it make you feel? What emotions does it evoke?
  • What colors, shapes and images do these emotions evoke?
  • Try to consider more abstract interpretations, perhaps opposites, relating images, and such.

Utilize Your Other Relevant Talents

As you may have guessed by now, it's crucial to add diversity to your design work, as this is a key ingredient in improving. A great way to do this is to bring in some of your other talents. If you draw, then scan in hand drawn elements and integrate this into your design work. If you do calligraphy then implement what you've learnt into your digital typography. If you have no relevant creative skills (which is unlikely) then learn some! Take a class, or if you can't afford that teach yourself. The more areas which you feel confident in creatively, the better your digital work will be. Why not try the following ideas, you should feel more inspired afterwards, which in turn should improve your regular design work:
  • Take a step away from the computer and create an offline work of art. Aim to design a mixed media piece using whatever talents you possess. If you can't draw, why not create a creative collage?
  • Print off some of your digital work and mess around with it using more traditional art tools. It feels liberating to mess it up a little, so get out the scissors and go nuts!
  • Try to recreate one of your favorite digital designs in an offline medium. You'll be surprised at how much you'll learn about the basic ideas behind your original composition in doing so, and you should formulate some great ideas on how to improve your digital work.

Be Passionate, Be Original

Don't follow design trends simply for the sake of it. There are thousands of images out there that look almost exactly the same, and this shows no attempt to improve at the hands of the designers. Always strive to produce original, unique work. The greatest way to be original is to be passionate. If you're copying others you're never going to feel passionate about your work. However, if your design inspiration comes from within, and you really care about what you're producing then it will show through in the quality of your work. A great way to feel more passionate about your work is to design around something that you really care about (perhaps love, loss or friendship), or perhaps even a political or social cause that's important to you. Here are some ideas to evoke more passion and originality in your design work:
  • Produce a piece inspired by a loved one. Try to pour how you feel about this person into your composition.
  • Think of both the best and worst moment in your life. Produce a piece inspired by each. Be honest and transparent in this, don't hide behind anything.
  • Produce a visual diary for a limited time. For instance, you could record a week of your life in a series of 7 compositions.

Don't Just Welcome Feedback - Seek it Out!

Feedback is one of the best ways to improve as a designer. Other designers can cast a fresh look over your work and often offer hugely helpful tips to help you improve. You can receive feedback through a number of sources, and I encourage you to maximize all of them. Try looking for feedback at reputable design networks, your personal blog, your social networking accounts, or even friends and family. [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="550"]Design Improvement Source[/caption] I recommend the following design networks for getting some quality feedback on your work:

Consider Paid Resources

I discovered this method pretty late in my design career. For years I avoided paying for anything apart from my software, preferring to use free resources for all my work. I have to be honest, after trying out some premium fonts, photos and vectors the money is honestly worth it. If you're really serious about improving your design work I recommend finding the highest quality resources to use in your compositions. Don't settle for a lower quality image simply because it's free, this will only hold you back. Another reason for using premium resources is that there are a limited number of quality free resources. This means that these quality freebies have been used thousands of times by designers, and have lost much of their impact. How many times have you seen 'generic jumping figure covered in Photoshop light effects'. Premium resource websites offer a wider, more unique, higher quality selection, and if you're using these as part of your commercial work I'm sure you'll see a financial return due to your improved designs.

Design Improvement

Feel free to continue using free resources if this suits you. However, I'm just saying from personal experience that I've seen a huge jump in quality in my work since switching to premium resources. Here are some of my favorite sources for these: (rb)

Tom Ross

Want more design goodness? Download HUNDREDS of design resources at Tom's new design deals site MyDesignDeals. Access all of these premium quality resources totally free in the Designer Toolbox area. Access the toolbox today!


  1. You can go beyond being average by reading case study type books and find out what great designers/firms do to solve difficult design issues… and not just design for designs’ sake, but actually solving real world issues that are sustainable and meet real business goals. Books like “How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer” by Debbie Millman, “The Brand Gap” by Marty Neumeier, and “Making Ideas Happen” by Scott Belsky [Behance Network] are all amazing resources.

    Once you get into the mindset of understanding what design does, then go and apply your own creativity to solve the issues at hand. It also helps to not design in a vacuum and get under a good Art Director or Assistant Creative Director and consistently them for how they might approach the design.

    More than anything, I strongly recommend being humble and a willing mindset to learn.

  2. Great post. Another thing that also really helps me is to think about product design, and look at things from almost an engineering perspective. Look at daily surroundings that would normally not be part of any design of yours and think of ways you can improve them. Think of the direction these things are headed and also how they originated. It adds more spectrum to your work.

  3. Great article. Very impressive and assertive. May I translate this to spanish so others can read about it?. Thanks a lot Tom!

  4. This is one of the most visually pleasing site designs I’ve seen this year. Also I like the site of that bloke behind Themify…Nick La if I remember…

  5. I ever used premium resources and its give me good impact on my project. Great post! definitely useful. :)

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