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How to Become a Better Designer: A Simple Two-Step Process

Imagine this.

You’re a junior designer, working at a job you like. You want to take your career to the next level and produce work that wows, but you’re not sure how to become a better designer — one that will ultimately lead award-winning creative teams.

By now you’ve been around the block a few times, so you know the ropes — and you feel you’re getting close to moving up to a senior design position. You think: Maybe if I do a completely awesome job on my next assignment, that’ll take me to the next level. So when your boss asks you to design a piece — a print brochure or report, or maybe a web page — for a new program or a new initiative, you realize this can be your big chance.

Since you’ve been on staff for some time, your boss assumes you have all the background you need. You receive a content draft, but you don’t get a creative brief…and the always-critical step of a kick-off meeting with key stakeholders is omitted because everyone is just too busy.

So you just take a deep breath and get down to work. You start with the layout. But since this is a new program, it’s not too long before you realize that developing new brand assets requires deeper thinking. For this you wisely seek inspiration. You take the time to search online sites. You look at pretty creative on Behance or other designers’ portfolios. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll do pencil sketches as well. But by now you’re feeling the time pressure — deadlines loom! So you take what seems to be the next logical step: you dive into full layout and design mode.

STOP!

Here is exactly where the problem lies: You just skipped a crucial step — the one that can make you the superstar design hero.

How do I know? Because I’ve hired and mentored many young designers over the course of many years. And no matter how motivated or talented they are, they all seem to make this same mistake. Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you know what the skipped step is?

Ready, Set, Read

Okay, here’s my big reveal: The sure-fire way to advance your career by leaps and bounds is just to follow this simple advice: Read the copy you’ve been given.

I cannot stress this enough. I’ve been in kick-off and brainstorming meetings where the designer has not read the content provided, and believe me, they do not impress. Seriously — if it were up to me, I would make reading comprehension a mandatory test for a design job. So if you want to shine, now is the time to put all those skills you learned in advanced English class to work.

How to Become a Better Designer

Here’s my simple 2-step process:

Read every word of the provided content. Read it if it’s only a few lines long. Read it if it’s ten tightly spaced pages. Read it even if you find it deadly dull. Read it so you know if it’s good, and read it when you know it’s not, so you can understand why it’s not. And now that you’ve read it once or twice, read it again. This time, annotate your copy.

When you’re done with step 1, you will have questions. If the content you’ve just read is well-written, you will have answers. You should be able to recognize the big idea, and separate it from all the supporting evidence. Ask yourself: What is the “ask”? Where does it belong? Can you discern which super-interesting passages deserve the extra attention of becoming pull-outs? Can you recognize sections that don’t belong or don’t flow, or where the text gets confusing and hard to follow? Would it help your reader to better understand the copy if the text were broken up? Are there sections that resist understanding no matter how many times you’ve read it? If so, highlight the parts that don’t work. Circle any confusing or misleading language. Make a list of what’s missing. It is not uncommon to be handed a “final” document that’s missing an introduction or conclusion. Or even a compelling title.

Get the Clarity You Need

What should you do if — despite your best efforts — you just can’t get through the document because it’s so dull or badly organized? Go back to the writer. Because if you can’t read it, neither will your audience. So ask the writers for a meeting. Bring your list of questions and missing items, and start a frank, clear discussion. See how you can help them improve the structure and enliven the content.

I know many people are not comfortable having “critical” conversations with colleagues. But some of the most complex and most rewarding projects I’ve worked on are the ones where there is a lively, honest back-and-forth between the designer and the writer, with each helping to shape the work of the other. So, set your ego aside, and practice collaboration. This alone will make you a better designer and a sought-out colleague.

Design Prep

Layouts are the moment of truth. While a seasoned designer can pick up most text problems before the layout stage and can work closely with the writer to get them fixed, some content problems are invisible inside a Word doc. When this happens, you’ll find they’re always revealed in layout.

Here’s how I suggest working on your layout:

Start by deciding on a format and size for your piece. Both of these critical design decisions must be borne out of a clear understanding of your creative brief and content.

Ask yourself what format will best help you bring out the main written ideas. Determine what size will make this project particularly useful for your main target audience.

Next: pagination. To better understand the flow of the document, develop paginations based on early copy drafts. We typically do this for all jobs, from a 6-panel brochure to a 32-page report; you can think of it as a wireframe for a print piece. To make a pagination work, you need to think about how to break and present the content in a logical and compelling order. What will be pulled out and what will be given priority? Remember, paginations are not about design, so they’re done in black and white. Their main focus is to organize the ideas you wish to present. Much like an architectural blueprint, you’ll want to know where the door will go and how big it will be before you create a “real” door” on the page. Sketch out page- by-page content layout to determine pacing from spread to spread, and try your best to create a visual rhythm that matches the beats of the content.

Get ready to take a bow! With all the prep you’ve just done — from inspiration research to careful reading and re-reading, to size, format, and page-planning — you should be able to explain the project goal to yourself and to others in a sentence. And once the goal is crystal clear in your mind, you won’t just be ready to begin designing, you’ll be ready to design strategically.

If that doesn’t catch your boss’s eye…well, maybe your boss needs a wake-up call. RoundPeg’s Creative Team Leadership Training and Consulting provides short-term creative direction and mentoring. We’re great at running interference between designers and your bosses. We bring structure, calm, and clarity to overburdened or chaotic workplaces. We help run brainstorming meetings and creative reviews. And in addition to helping junior designers like you advance up the professional ladder, we help make your good bosses even better. It’s a win-win!

Learn how to become a better designer:

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As RoundPeg’s partner and creative director, Polina has over 20 years experience turning complex concepts into compelling visual communications. She also knows how to speak Russian and make delicious sauerkraut! Polina enjoys knitting despite her fear of pointy objects and loves nothing better than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. See more posts by Polina..
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