How to become a better designer

I was musing on the concept of copying design, and while how it can be an excellent tool for learning as a designer, it can lead to stale average design taken further when taken literally from others as a request.

Copywork is a great tool when starting out as a designer, and is something that great artists, writers and craftsmen have been doing for centuries.

Basic steps to Copywork

  1. Choose a design that's way better than your current skill level.
  2. Replicate it detail for detail in your design tool of choice (I like Figma).
  3. Notice the details. Notice when things are consistent and repeated, and when things are different. Obsess over the little details.
  4. Ask yourself why - why did they choose this spacing, these fonts, this colour scheme. How does this make me feel as someone using this design.
  5. Make notes, and repeat. Don't share it, as it's not your work.

Try and work this into your regular design practice and learning, and like any exercise, you get stronger the more you do.

When copying goes bad

So when is this bad? it goes bad when you have others wanting you to design things for them, and you hear them say:

"I want this, and make exactly it like (Apple|Facebook|Amazon|Twitter|Insert well-known company here)".

Copying something exactly, and passing it off as your own is never good.

This isn't their fault necessarily - they see successful company X and think 🤔 "If I just copy X I too will be successful! 🚀".

What they don't see is the specific market of that company, their customer needs, the timing of when they launched, the internal company values and a million different things that make up the DNA of a product and company - something you just can't copy.

So what to do? Ask them why. Get to the bottom of what it is they are trying to solve.

Often, what works for Amazon at Amazon-scale on their homepage won't work for a small business. Try and get your client to identify what their own DNA is and what their customers' real pain points are. Dig into what their customers' real problems are and design towards that. Put designs in front of real people and test they actually work.

Be inspired by existing patterns, but make your own

I'm not saying don't get inspired by others, oh no - there are so many existing proven design patterns for a myriad of things that work well, that you can totally steal ideas from successfully. But don't directly copy. Be inspired by. Take and adapt to your own customers DNA and the users they serve. As in art and culture, everything is a remix.

The more obscure your references, the more sources you combine, the more moves away from the original you can take, the more original your design will become.
Dan Mall.

If you want to take this further I highly recommend Dan Mall's excellent article Stealing your way to original designs, where he walks you through his solid process for finding design inspirations and remixing them to make something new.


I've been noting down quotes I like while reading, and think I'll start sharing them.

“If you’re the kind of person who needs an “enemy” to be productive, don’t choose another company as your competition. Your customers’ pain is the enemy. If you can’t latch onto that, odds are, neither can your customer.”
Alex Hillman. “The Tiny MBA”.

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