For a long while I’ve been focused on taking charge of my creative development; I’ve had a strong desire to design in my spare time to improve. I used to suck a lot and now I suck a lot less; for me that’s got a lot to do with the extra effort I’ve been putting in around my job.
I do believe ‘success’ and talent scales with the amount of effort. Just like getting high levels in video games, getting good at something is mostly about the grind. That’s what I’ve personally found; if I put in more effort, over time I get better, quicker. It’s a sentiment I’ve read about in a bunch of places (like peeps who analyse the rise of famous musicians/artists/thinkers of the past)
I personally break getting good at something into the following elements; planning, goals, reflection, practice and immersion. Some of these areas I think I do well and others I struggle with (but that's life).
Planning - Scheduling your time for development around work/life stuff.
Goals - Setting mid and long term goals. What do you want to achieve? I carry out a monthly review where I set out what I achieved last month and plan my goals for the next month. I could also do a quarterly review but I often overlook that.
Reflection - Figuring out how well am I doing with my goals, where could I be going wrong?
Practice - The part where you work at improving. For me this is my daily designing, longer term projects and challenges.
Immersion - Learning and understanding the area I’m trying to develop. As a designer it means taking time to read about perspectives, be informed and seeing lots and lots of design.
How would I begin?
My first little rule is that if you want to do something you have to commit. There are some things that I might say to myself like “Oh, It would be really nice to be able to do digital concept art illustration”. But I’ve never committed to that idea, so if I find myself thinking it I don’t take myself too seriously. If I did commit to learning digital concept illustration, then it would mean I’d have to weight my time and energy towards that. It would require compromise. Sometimes I would have to accept that I couldn’t do photography, write, or design because I would need to practice concept illustration.
It’s not always easy to accept trade offs but if you want to actually get better at something you need to. I feel like by doing that you’re affirming the intent and hard work required
Goals are an obvious place to start. I must admit sometimes I don’t rely on goals as much as I should and that is because at the moment I’m in motion with my 365 day design challenge, but it’s important to know where you’re going and what you hope to gain from what you do.
So if you wanted to improve your photography it would be important to think why you want to. What would you do if you had improved your photography, how would parts of your life change as a result? Thinking in terms of outcomes beyond just being better helps you plan what to do.
For myself I know I have a goal of becoming an excellent an illustrator. That’s still pretty vague, but I know that I want to be more flexible and be able to illustrate different topics in different styles. So far I can see progress and feel that I’ve migrated from solely being an ‘icon’ designer to something much more, but there’s still a lot of room to develop.
For my monthly reviews I use the F.R.E.S.H (focus, relationships, energy, stimuli and hours) format detailed by Todd Henry in The Accidental Creative, with the same format applying to Quarterly reviews but with more detailed. The monthly review helps to define your priorities in a given month.
This part I do pretty good at. For years now I’ve been making a list of my goals for the next week each Sunday night (I use onenote). It’s a deeply ingrained habit. I break each weeks notes into challenges, personal tasks, creative tasks, social tasks and backburner items which continue week to week. Compared to years before I’ve got a reliable structure that I actually use, and I can see as I tick items off if I’m on track or not.
Where do I struggle? Particularly mid month I’m rubbish at checking my monthly review and ensuring that my weekly tasks and monthly direction are fully aligned. As really the weekly tasks in my notes app should take a steer from the objectives in my monthly review so I’m not going off track.
If during a given month I have new ideas or new things I want to do, then I should probably compare them against the monthly review which is something I rarely do. But overall my weekly task list is really helpful.
This is the big bit; doing the stuff that you want to get better at.
For me frequency is such an important part of getting better. I think regular creation asks a lot of a person and of course you’re left with a lot of great work as a result. I’m a big fan of design challenges which influence or theme what I create. Some of my recent 21 palette challenge can be seen here.
Doing things with others is another way to help yourself practice. You could buddy up with someone who is working to improve the same skills you are, or at least be someone’s accountability partner so you know there is someone who cares about whether you meet your goals. Basically challenges rock!
I struggle here sometimes. When I think to the past, reading about design and creativity, either in books or online has given me a much more of a rounded view of dsign. It’s like I used to be a triangle and now I’m a hexagon (or something like that), but it’s true. Reading other perspectives and ideas adds to your own and gives you more building blocks with which to create new ideas. I believe this will follow across all kinds of disciplines.
For design at least, seeing is also important. I remember when I was in University I was introduced to the ‘Four rooms theory’ for creating and executing an idea. Each room represented a certain task or mindset you would exhibit when working on a project. The room of great works is a place where you would experience and see great ideas and be inspired.
Seeing other designers’ work gives me a great deal of excitement and drive. If I see something cool or smart I think to myself “I want to make something that cool as well.” So to me immersion and visiting the “room of great works” is an important part of development. If you wanted to get better at climbing, watching others would be an important way to gain inspiration and study technique.
It’s important to understand what’s working and what isn’t. Every medicine becomes poison. Whatever habits or challenges you’re employing it’s important to ensure that they are still relevant and still serving your outcomes. Challenges are great but I think it's evoking change which is the real winner. Doing anything the same for a period of time can cause you to settle into unhelpful routines, or routines that you have outgrown.
So that was a little bit about my general strategy for improvement. Setting goals, trying to intelligently plan each week in alignment with my goals, creating time to learn and be inspired, a whole lot of creating and reviewing all the habits and if they have a place in your life. A lot of what I do was a mix of stumbling into it, reading articles and books (like "The Accidental Creative").
I think the strength of any strategy is that you follow the rules. I certainly have room to get better at that. I think ultimately you're habits are a response or a dream. I started my 365 day design challenge as a response to situation at that time; I wanted to shake things up and make myself create more. I was doing great at work and wanted to boost that development.
Having said that, I'm still modifying and improving my processes for developing and keeping track of everything, and there are a few things I think I need to axe.