10 Ways to Be a Better Designer

Sam DeMastrie

November 21, 2013

Design is a sophisticated machine—structured by rules and yet judged by its creativity; informed by history, but always redefining the cutting-edge. And if you’re not an active part of the profession, design can be a difficult thing to grasp.

In fact, design is deceptively difficult. I remember when I first began studying it in school I had a terrible time trying to understand right from wrong, yes from no, and why. Needless to say, the transition from art-kid to design-kid was anything but smooth.

This lesson rings truer than ever once you enter the professional design force and begin working with real clients, with real opinions. Often it’s necessary to educate the client about the work and design in general—why this is successful, why that doesn’t properly communicate, and why.

Here are ten powerful quotes from some prominent designers (and other famous figures) to help you refine your design skills or better understand the field of graphic design.


“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” —Abraham Lincoln

Research. This isn’t the most colorful aspect of the design process, but its importance cannot be underestimated. Research is critical in order to understand the audience, understand the competition, and formulate a successful strategy.


“Socrates said, “Know thyself.” I say, “Know thy users.” And guess what? They don’t think like you do.” —Joshua Brewer

Know Your AudienceThis one may seem obvious, but it is incredibly important. By knowing to whom you are communicating, you can more easily gain an understanding of your design process. Understanding your audience will inform your entire design solution, from the strategy to the actual design. This alone will work wonders in becoming a better designer.


“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” —Jeffrey Zeldman

Gather Content First. This was hammered into my brain in school. Design has a purpose. That’s essentially what separates it from fine art. A designer needs to be familiar with that purpose before he can design. Form follows Function.


“It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow. You have to get bad in order to get good.” —Paula Cher

Practice. Nobody is born an amazing designer. It takes years to refine your creative understanding and abilities. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Of course this applies to not only making design, but also critiquing and judging design (for all you non-designers) as well.


“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” —Leonardo da Vinci

Simplicity. Even as far back as the 15th century, it was clear to the painter of The Last Supper that simplicity is a powerful quality. People often forget that nowadays, with the widespread availability of design software and clichéd visual effects. If you feel yourself getting caught up in complexity, just remember this helpful acronym: KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid.


“Math is easy; design is hard.” —Jeffrey Veen

Solve Creatively. It takes a certain kind of mind to become a mathematician. It takes a wildly different kind of mind to become a creative. Both fields though, are continually striving for solutions. While math is generally rigid in its single solutions (I think–I’m not a mathematician), design often involves dozens of creative solutions to a single problem, a certain amount of subjectivity, and potentially unreliable human subjects.


“I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares, as opposed to ugly things. That’s my intent.” – Saul Bass

Beautify. Designers are inherently attracted to pretty things-it’s what we do. We’re waging a war against ugly, bad design that seems to be so prevalent these days. Eye candy is our weapon.


“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Refine. Process is a huge part of design. The greater the purity of your solution, the easier it will be for your audience to understand the concept and receive the intended message. It is through the refinement and editing process that design gets distilled into its purest and strongest form.


“The worst logo applied well is better than the best logo applied poorly.” – Jacob Cass

Think of the Whole. Metaphorically speaking, your brand is an iceberg. The logo, what many wrongly consider to be your brand, is merely the tip of that iceberg—you know, the small part that breaks the ocean surface. In fact, it may be the top of that part. It’s the visual piece of your brand people are most familiar with, but the success of that logo is largely determined by how well it is applied within the context of the entire brand.


“There are three responses to a piece of design—yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.” Milton Glaser

Go For Big Impact. As designers, we are constantly trying to satisfy creative briefs and communicate a message to our audience. A strong impact should always be a goal. Of course, not every client is inherently exciting or creative, but a powerful design solution will always have a big impression. You can create the most interesting piece of design you’ve ever seen, but if it isn’t impacting people, it’s not working.