updated: September 23rd, 2009 / Ross Johnson / 7 Comments

Better design by brushing up on your techniques

I often fall into the trap where I limit the scope of my design capabilities by what techniques I have learned for my design tools (in this case photoshop, and illustrator.) You may not realize it, (and I often do not either) but the techniques that you don’t know actually hinder your overall design capabilities.

Even if you have been through graphic design school or experienced in fine arts, you will still suffer from a narrow design capability if you don’t work to learn more about these tools. This is because there are techniques you could use but don’t even realize are an option while creating a new piece of work.

Photoshopers vs Designers

I see two different skills related to this subject, “Photoshopers” and “Designers.” I used to be very specific about calling myself a “designer” over a “photoshop guru.” The reason being that photoshop gurus tend to be amazing at altering photos, or developing incredible works of digital art in photoshop (sometimes making the surreal look real.) Where design requires functionality, usability, balance, and finesse. These are two different and specific skills, however it pays greatly to have both.

Getting to my point

When you are working with a design, even if you have done sketches, thumbnails, etc… chances are you are not even considering some great design accents because you simply don’t know how to do them. Maybe you don’t even realize that they exist as a possibility. If you were to know about them, in the right moment you would realize said technique would be worth trying and it would raise the quality of your work.

You may be looking to create a specific look, feel, or develop a specific mood. Naturally you will be thinking in terms of “what can I do to achieve this goal?” However “what can I do?” is actually “what can I do to achieve this goal that I know how to do?”

This is why it pays to take time to continually expand your skills and capabilities with your tools so that you have a wide range of available technique and have more to select from. Eventually you will have thousands of techniques and capabilities to create a wide range of moods/impacts/feelings/etc, and won’t be limited to the basic techniques you have used in a hundred of your old designs.

Long story short, you should have the skills and capabilities of a photoshoper with the design fundamentals of a designer.

Some Examples

You can often tell which designers have not only mastered the fundamentals of design but the tools used to create the work as well. N Design Studio and Veerle are two excellent examples of this. In the case of N Design Studio, Nick La clearly has a great sense of design. His work is balanced, the typography is well crafted, and the color scheme communicates a specific message. However he is able to take the design to a whole new level by some of the advanced as well as stunning techniques he has learned.

If you take a look at Avalon Star you will notice the same trend. Again the designer has a clear mastery of design fundamentals. So much so that the site would be very well designed even with out the level of detail put into it. However he is able to create a truly memorable, high impact design through his understanding of photoshop.

So what am I saying?

If you have time it is worth while to practice your photoshop/illustrator skills as often as you can. With so many great tutorial sites available, there are always new techniques and methods to learn. Below is a list of the ones I follow,

What sites do you follow for tutorials?

7 thoughts Better design by brushing up on your techniques

  1. For websites, I skip the photoshop step and I start building the website right away.
    It gives you a realization of your limitations, and its a more accurate representations of what you’re actually producing than based on a photo.

    I don’t find much of the resources listed above to have worthy content, its just the same vanilla flavored magazine kind of content. I like following wufoo’s design blog. They have some really great stuff.

  2. Thanks for the tip about wufoo, I will put that on my reader.

    I have herd of the technique of starting by building the site, but I wonder if that too limits your creative capabilities because you are now thinking more about what you can do in XHTML/CSS rather than push the boundaries of design THEN see if you can develop techniques to make it work in xhtml/css.

    However I know the designers at 37 Signals use that method so obviously it works in the right situations.

    I think I will still stick to design comps and learning new ways of doing things, but it is no doubt not the only way to skin a cat 🙂

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. I believe that, as a designer (I consider myself a designer and not a Photoshop guru) I have to continually expand on the techniques I know by adding more to the arsenal. I do this by allotting myself at least one day a week to read through the tutorial sites you’ve mentioned and actually practice the techniques I didn’t know were necessarily available or I had never even thought of implementing.

  4. so true…create something unique in this way..:) nice one 🙂

  5. Indeed,
    It is always a struggle, especially in the early stages of learning webdesign, trying to balance graphics skills and design skills.
    Though I see a lot of starters focussing much on graphics skills, and calling themselves a webdesigners because they’ve done a lot of tuts at pixel2life.com

    Skipping Photoshop is purely a personal preference.
    I cannot design a website before sketching one first, because a blank canvas in photoshop limits my creativity. If designing with css offers you creativity, than you should indeed use that approach.

  6. I like that, but think Photoshop should be used. At our studio we use it all the time.

  7. Hate to bust your bubble, but the internet is for content. Design is nice but content is what it is all about.


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