How to Improve Design Skills by Viewing the Best Works

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Learn how to study top-rate designs to get the most benefits

A drawn person jumps on squares that symbolize different websites.
Illustration: Outcrowd

Any web designer knows the importance of viewing good designs. It helps you to stay relevant, take notice of changing visual trends, learn from the masters, and use other people’s experiences to avoid reinventing the wheel. Regularly viewing designs develops your creative thinking and that special designer vision that helps you tell good designs from bad ones. However, it’s not only newcomers that find it beneficial; some very experienced designers also take the time to study top-rate designs. Why?

Because studying designs is more than just viewing.

1. It’s real work

Some designers think that studying top-rate designs is just a useful leisure activity. They are content to flip through some designs while having their morning coffee and believe it’s enough to help them stay in shape. Once in a while, they will have a cram session, viewing a ton of designs to find inspiration (i.e. copy someone else’s idea). In other words, many people view designs only out of necessity or boredom. After all, nobody is paying them to do it.

This is a useless approach. Only by treating the studying of designs as work will you be able to achieve great results. You will start seeing and thinking differently. You will reach a higher level of professionalism much quicker than those who study designs with no system or purpose.

2. It’s regular work

There’s no point visiting a gym from time to time if you want to build up muscles. The same applies to studying designs. It’s your way to build up your special designer muscles. Regular exercise will make them visible to everyone: it will improve your skills, the quality of your design, and your confidence. Allocate some time to this exercise and make it non-negotiable. Don’t steal this time from yourself and don’t let others do it.

It’s not the amount of time you spend exercising that matters. Much more important is the regularity and purposefulness of your efforts.

Illustration: Outcrowd

3. It’s purposeful work

Spending hours on Dribbble or Behance viewing designs until your eyes start bleeding is a waste of time. You need to have a purpose. Obviously, newcomers and experienced designers will have different objectives. Ask yourself, “What is it that I’d like to do better? What skills should I try to improve?” You can write down your objectives on sticky notes or a whiteboard to keep them in view and not get distracted with irrelevant stuff.

Work out a plan of action, both for the short and the long term. For example, some people will find it easier to work with designs for 30 minutes 5 days a week and for 2 hours once a week. Others will need more or less time. What matters is what exactly you do with that time and what your purpose is; then even 15 minutes a day can be of benefit.

Make sure your plan includes working on your weak spots. Some people are bad at structuring the contents, others are inept at color solutions, still others have gaps when it comes to typography. Find someone who does these things better than you and try to understand how they do it.

4. It’s analytical work

Designer vision is acquired through reflection, not through memorizing tricks and techniques. The most important skill in studying designs is learning to analyze a design’s visual and functional potential. What does that require?

Choose 3 to 5 designs that you particularly like. Why did they stand out to you? What caught your eye? Now pick one for a closer look. Your task is to understand why this work was done the way it was. Does it fulfill its purpose? What are its main advantages? What visual methods and tools did the designer use to accomplish their goals? Why is it a top-rate job?

In performing your analysis, try to see it as a user, not just as a designer.

These are the aspects you should analyze:

  1. Adequacy of impression. Does the visual fit the subject matter? What style is the work in? Why?
  2. Visual architecture. Is the design well-structured? What was the reasoning behind the composition formula? Do you understand the logic behind the content placement at a glance?
  3. User objectives. Put yourself in the user’s place. Is it immediately obvious what is being offered? Would you like to buy it / accept the offer? Is it easy to do?
  4. Color palette. Why were these colors chosen and not others? Do they induce the right emotions?
  5. Navigation. Does the navigation look convenient and logical? Is it immediately clear where everything is?
  6. Functionality. Which functions are used in the design? How do they solve the users’ problems?
  7. Content. Is the content understandable? Is there an obvious hierarchy of elements? How are the logical blocks grouped and separated? Does the design feel airy and spacious or does it appear cluttered?
  8. Highlights. What is highlighted? How is it done? (e.g. color, shape, size, animation, etc.)
  9. Graphics. What graphic elements are used? (e.g. lines, shapes, textures, color spots, etc.) What do you think was the reasoning behind their inclusion?
  10. Icons. How are the icons rendered? Are they immediately understandable? Do they fit in with the overall style?
  11. Images. How does the design use photos, illustrations, animations? Do these work toward the main goal? What was the principle for choosing them? How have they been edited? What is interesting about them?
  12. Fonts. What fonts are used and what is their hierarchy? Is the text legible, especially the small type?
  13. CTA. How is the CTA block designed? Why? Does it make you want to push the button?
  14. Uniqueness. Is there anything special about the design that makes it stand out? (There probably is, since you have noticed it and chosen it for analysis!) Try to identify this unique feature.

Such an elaborate analysis may seem too complicated at first. But the more you do it, the faster you will notice all the upsides and downsides of designs, and it will take you less time. You will soon discover that a couple of minutes is all it takes for you to analyze the main aspects. Such detailed analysis is incredibly useful. It will help you develop not just special vision, but a special way of thinking. You’ll be able to immediately grasp the essence of a design, tell good designs from bad ones, find visual solutions and avoid mistakes. This is professional thinking.

Illustration: Outcrowd

5. It’s copying the design

Copying is a useful exercise, and not only for those who are just starting out. By copying, we mean trying to recreate a design or its elements as faithfully as possible. No matter how thoroughly you study the designs, many things will not be immediately apparent. Only by recreating them yourself will you be able to make meaningful discoveries and acquire priceless experience.

6. It’s copying the style

This exercise is quite a bit harder than copying the design, but it’s also a lot more useful. Create a design styled after one of the top-rate works but for a different purpose. There are many styles used in web design, often in various combinations. You don’t need to identify the style you are seeing; what’s important is to understand the principles of visualization that this style utilizes. So it’s a good idea to start with general analysis. Examine the following:

  • Layout structure
  • Color palette
  • Amount and quality of graphics

Now do a more detailed analysis using the main visual criteria listed in Paragraph 4. Understanding the principles will make it easy for you to create your own design layout in any given style. These exercises will help you to quickly grasp the essence and spend minimum time on copying the style.

7. It’s collecting

Create folders for storing useful samples. For instance, you can sort them by website block types, such as “Welcome Screens,” “Galleries,” “Contacts,” “Product Cards,” “Icon Blocks,” and so on. You can group designs by subject matter on Pinterest and use bookmark managers such as Toby to organize your bookmark collections.

Choose a way of organizing your collections that is the most convenient for you and your current tasks.

8. It’s mind-expanding

Don’t limit yourself to viewing designs only. The principles of harmony and beauty are universal. The more you look around, taking in the world’s colors, shapes, harmony, and perfection, the more your mental and creative abilities grow. Studying talented artworks in all realms of human activity will help you develop good taste, designer vision, and creative potential.

Illustration: Outcrowd

Here are some useful resources for regular viewing, learning, ideas, and inspiration:

How to Improve Design Skills by Viewing the Best Works was originally published in Muzli – Design Inspiration on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.