The Best Way to Improve Your Design Skills

A question I’m commonly asked by newcomers aspiring to enter the freelance design field is how I reached the skill level I’m at now.

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I don’t consider myself too much of an advanced designer given my experience so far, but assuming they’re impressed with either my portfolio, my screencast tutorials, or maybe both, they want to know how they can go from where they currently are to where I’m currently at in terms of skill level.

There’s many different ways in which you can (and will) sharpen your design skills, but the absolute most effective way to improve is by gaining real-world work experience in the form of freelance design gigs.

It’s not until you’ve been cornered by a difficult request from a client that you’ll be forced to think outside of the box, look closer at a problem, find solutions and apply them, that you’ll truly be forced into improving your skills.

For example, detailed character/mascot design has never been a strength for me. A regular client of mine needed a mascot character designed for one of his logos, and I didn’t want to leave him hanging or send him looking for another designer, which inevitably would’ve translated to me losing that client. Instead of saying “I can’t do it” and avoiding the challenge, I accepted it and set off to learn.

This is a task that I never would’ve approached on my own, but once accountability had been placed on me, I was determined to perform at a level I previously didn’t think I was capable of reaching.

This is how you improve as a designer.

Everything I am today is a cumulation of my years of experience from working with over 1,000 different clients

It wasn’t very long ago that I too was learning from screencast tutorials.

This is why gaining real-world work experience with actual clients is essential to truly growing as a designer. You can spend all the time in the world preparing a portfolio of fictitious logo designs in preparation for entering the freelance market, but those designs will never look as impressive as the designs you came up with after a client shared their insights, preferences and critiques, then challenged you to step outside of your comfort zone.

Two heads are better than one

When you design a logo for a client, it’s not just you who designs it. The client is designing it as well by sharing their critiques and preferences. Often times a client will spot imperfections, recognize areas that need improvement, and offer creative input of their own, all of which you hadn’t originally seen.

After several rounds of back-and-forth revisions, you eventually reach a final design that neither you nor the client could’ve made on your own. It’s a byproduct of both of your creative efforts working in conjunction with each other, and it’s a good example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

What my portfolio used to look like…

Let’s take a brief look back in time at what my portfolio used to look like when I first started out. Here are some designs from my portfolio, from back in 2011, before I had ever been hired for a single project…

badlogos

Although these designs demonstrate that I clearly know how to use the software, they’re far from impressive. They’re a bit dated (even by 2011 standards,) and just about all of them violate major principles of design. I spent months coming up with these, too.

I look back at these designs today and wonder how anyone ever hired me to create a logo for them. Nevertheless, they did. It wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of effort, but I got hired. And my skill level and eye for design improved to what it is today from the years of experience, critique, challenges and higher standards being continuously placed on me.

There’s no reason you can’t do the same

If you’re just starting out on your journey and wondering if your work is worthy of being paid for, you’ll eventually have to accept your portfolio for what it is and have enough confidence in yourself to start getting out there.

All the preparation in the world will mean nothing until you put your plan into action.

A less than impressive portfolio isn’t a death sentence for your freelancing career. There’s many other variables involved in the hiring process, such as how well you wrote your proposal and how competitively you’ve priced your work. And although I would never recommend being the designer who places the lowest bid, in all reality, you’ll most likely have to keep your rates on the lower end of the spectrum when you’re starting out. Once you have some experience under your belt, you can start to gradually increase your rates.

I am not special, I am not gifted, and I am by no stretch some kind of genius. I’m just a regular person who had a genuine interest in graphic design and worked diligently to make a career of it. There’s no reason you can’t do the same, and I hope you do. Good luck!

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Curious about the creative process that inspires me to come up with design ideas and how I go about executing them? Be sure to check out my logo design course for a look behind the scenes at my systematic approach to coming up with design ideas.

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Nick

Nick Saporito is a Philadelphia-based graphic designer who specializes in branding-specific design.

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3 comments
  • David Kisvari

    Thanks Nick for all the motivation! I respect people like you – hard working, honest, and want to help people who haven’t got the courage (yet) to take on the road you are already on! All of your blog posts as a designer combined with the tutorials are great help! I’ve alwyays thought of myself as a creative person, lacking the graphical skills as it was some kind of gift or talent (like those who are good at freehand drawing). I work in IT (also have business education), and had some (simple) graphical/design tasks/challenges in the past few years, and now I think I’m ready to take this serious and master Inkscape (or vector graphics in general, bust since I use Ubuntu as well, Inkscape is my best option). All in all, I’d like to thank you for your great tutorials and honesty about your way becoming a graphics designer, it’s very motivating!

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