(If you have any interest in looking at the one I did this year, go here. )
In times of more intense introspection I tend to dig into the archives, looking back even further to see how I have progressed in my craft. It is always a bittersweet experience, because old projects can fill one with both a sense of nostalgia and contempt. Emotions and reactions range from "Wow, that was a great idea!" to "Oh my, that was awful!"
All the successes- and perhaps even more so the failures- usually make me want to improve myself in the coming year. A brief perusal of Vimeo's Staff Picks or the trending shots on Dribbble is both an exercise in humility and a motivation to step it up a notch.
The real question, however, is how exactly does one get better? What steps can one take to make marked improvement in design?
1. Pick One
It can be tempting to set so many goals for oneself that they are impossible to achieve in the aggregate. The subsequent failure can be disheartening and lead to disillusionment or even a paralysis towards trying new things.
To be sure, it's not easy to embark on these sorts of improvements. Deadlines are always pressing in, making the comfortable (and usually successful) routines and techniques second-nature; a reliable fallback for the really crazy times. And certainly there is nothing wrong with that. But skills never develop if you do not stretch yourself and take some risks.
Over this last year I decided I wanted to improve my illustration, since that was one rather glaring hole in my repertoire. Although I ended up going all-in with it on a few projects, I saved those for when I had gained some more experience.
I started off by working on my illustration for some projects that were not as critical- the sort of throw-away ones that inevitably come up. It wasn't that I didn't try, but rather that those types of projects gave me the space to experiment and even to fail a little bit. It was within that space that I was able to grow to the point of being comfortable enough to utilize the techniques I developed on more important projects.
For me, the end result was to use those techniques on my biggest project of the year, and the small steps ended up paying off since it was a success. (Phewww!)
Choose one thing to get better at, and set reasonable goals for yourself. As you progress in your proficiency, gradually incorporate what you pick up into your normal workflow. Over time you will discover that the transition can be more seamless than it first appears.
2. Teach It
One of the fastest ways to develop proficiency in something is to instruct somebody else in how to do it. This doesn't mean that you suddenly achieve Photoshop guru status; rather, the goal is to approach the skill set you wish to strengthen from the standpoint of trying to understand it enough to pass that skill on.
The advantage of doing this is that you essentially have to understand not only the 'how' but also (and more importantly) the 'why.'
For example, the internet abounds with tutorials on just about any conceivable digital effect you might wish to duplicate. Most of the tutorials are pretty good about showing you 'how' to duplicate an effect or style, giving a step-by-step direction. The difficulty, however, is that very few of them actually bother to explain 'why' certain actions bring about a particular result.
It is unfortunate, because if one only knows the 'how' then the tutorial is only useful for that particular project. But once one knows the 'why', then it can be expanded and integrated into all kinds of applications.
Try creating a tutorial on how to perform a certain task. It might be something you are very familiar with or something you are learning yourself. But instead of just giving a step-by-step, try explaining why each step does what. It will probably involve some research in your part and some more experimentation, which is, of course!, the point, since in the act of teaching you will be learning.
3. Pin It
One of the best (and perhaps paradoxical) ways to get inspired is to look back at your own work. This doesn't have to be a fit of narcissism, but rather a healthy appreciation for the work you have already created. If you're like me, you are probably never satisfied with anything you create, and if the project limps along long enough you even begin to really hate it.
The thing about any creative field, however, is that you will almost always be your greatest critic. But that doesn't mean you should lock all your past projects into a safe and never expose them to the light of day. Rather, you should exult in both your successes and your failures. Be proud of what you have done, and allow yourself to laugh at the ridiculous things you have made as well.
In my office I have a wall that is completely dedicated to all the projects I have done over the past few years. It reminds me of all the work that has been done and even sparks ideas for future projects. I can also look at things I am embarrassed by and know exactly what not to do in the future!
This coming year, share what you make with others. Make a wall full of projects. Post your work on your blog or Facebook, etc. If you don't have an online portfolio- make one. Let these little monuments to your creativity (both the good and the bad) spur you on to better things in the year to come!
4. Make Something Fun
If you work full-time in a creative field, it can be extremely difficult to carve out the time (or the energy!) to create artwork just for fun or because it's something you are passionate about. We all probably have great intentions to do that one thing once we have time to get to it, but invariably there is never time or other things come up.
The reality of our condition is that unless we specifically make the time for something, there will never be time for it.
This coming year, intentionally set aside time to work on something you want to work on, something that interests you, expresses your creativity, whatever. It doesn't have to be the greatest thing ever made, something terribly profound, something you ever get paid for or even something anyone else sees. But we all need those pieces that are created because we want to create them.
Over this past year I had to force myself to do this, because I am always over-extending myself with work and other commitments. Initially it can even seem like a waste of time, because there are so many other things competing for my time and attention. But the more I specifically set aside time to work on personal projects, the more I started liking design again. It was rejuvenating to create just for the sake of creating.
Determine this year to grow as an artist, to make the things you make this year better than last year.
You never know, it might just happen!