“How do I get better at visual design?”
This question comes up a lot. I coach and mentor a lot of students on product design by tutoring for the Academy of Art in San Francisco, reviewing for AIGA’s portfolio reviews, hosting interns at Facebook and so on.
There’s a bridge from a student’s perspective to a professional’s perspective. For most, it’s guaranteed to be a blend of fear and excitement and curiosity, peppered with a lot of questions.
“What’s going to happen when I get out?”
“What kind of design jobs are out there?”
“What might I be a good fit for?”
“What if I don’t get a job?”
“WHAT IF THERE ARE NO JOBS?”
“What can I do now to prepare?”
We recently hosted a critique at Facebook with a student from Cornell, Jon Lee. There’s something that I really liked about Jon in our brief interaction: he’s self-aware. He already knows that he’s got room to improve in terms of visual design. He knows this because he’s gotten feedback on this from potential employers, and he — like many other students on the brink of their careers — is curious how his skills will prepare him for a design role. He wants to know how he can get better.
Being a solid product designer requires a broad skillset, and having visual chops is a big part of this role, particularly at Facebook. I’m excited that Jon is curious about these skills, and if I were able to pull him aside now, I’d ask Jon the same questions that I ask other students and give him a framework that hopefully will serve beyond this project.
Here’s a quick look at the designs Jon shared. At this point, he was just beginning to look at visual design.
We often refer to visual design as craft and execution at Facebook. In order to evaluate the current state of Jon’s work and encourage him towards well-crafted design, I need to ask questions. Inquiry should come before judgement, because it broadens the understanding of someone’s intentionality.
Having answers to these posed questions is an excellent place to start. Being a good designer—being a good visual designer — requires intentionality. That means that you’re thinking through these questions and answering them as you’re making design decisions, not only when someone asks you the question after the fact.
The next thing to work on as you answer these questions with intentionality, is to ensure that intentionality is based on solid design principles and research and attention to detail, and yes, sometimes things like style and preference. This can be tricky, because not every designer has these sensibilities or well-founded opinions yet. And that’s okay, because the path to improving this begins by understanding that your work isn’t quite there yet.
Ira Glass has fantastic perspective on this:
“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?”
If you have taste, and that taste tells you that you have room for improvement, you can improve your visual design. How?
You observe design in the world and form opinions on what’s good and what’s not good. You solidify your opinions on foundational design principles.
You look at established design systems like material design and Human Interface Guidelines.
You browse websites and apps and Dribbble for excellent design work, and you don’t copy them, but you ask yourself why is this working? You search for answers.
And you practice.
You show your work to people who have the sensibilities—the visual design skills—already, and you listen to the questions they have about your work. (In Jon’s case, this is exactly what he did in our Facebook Design critique.) You think about your intentionality behind them, and you find your answers.
And you ask yourself questions like the ones we just went through.
Now, I could have given Jon reactions, things like “your styles are all over the place” or “that green button feels out of place.” I could have also prescribed solutions like “left align all your filter categories and buttons” or “make the corner radius of your buttons smaller” or “choose a brighter brand color.” But if Jon wants to get better, if you want to get better, it takes more than polishing a single project.
Feedback and mentorship can be very similar; the best development usually comes from asking questions and guiding rather than being prescriptive.
Improvement takes practice. The proven ability to execute again and again is what gets students that first design role, and once that first role is landed it’s the self-awareness and the progress that point towards a trajectory of growth.