We all want to be at the top of our game. But where to begin? Society misleads us into believing we have to shell out for an expensive education or “do the time” in an unpaid internship to become better or “credentialed” as designers. We’re taught as kids that practice makes perfect, and research suggests it takes 10,000 hours to develop a new skill to the point of mastery.
Either way, the prevailing thought is that the only way to become better at design is to spend countless hours practicing design. But in this nonstop world, who has that kind of time? The truth of the matter is that, although practice is essential, there are unusual techniques you can use to accelerate your learning and become a top UXer faster than you ever thought possible — and they’re not what you might expect.
Here are five unconventional — yet totally effective — ways to take your UX career to the next level.
There’s a myth that creativity flows from divine inspiration and that the most brilliant creatives come up with completely original ideas out of thin air. While this is a very romanticized view of creativity, it’s not so comforting when you’re staring at a blank art board that is, unfortunately, reflecting your current state of mind.
Albert Einstein once said, “The secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” In other words, using inspiration from others as a starting point is the key to great creative work.
If the idea of “stealing” creative ideas makes you feel guilty, it’s time to get over it. “Pure” inspiration is a lie. The fact is, all artists “steal,” meaning that they derive ideas and inspiration from the work of others.
In his book Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon explains how creativity is really just a remix, and that the obsession over trying to be original is the quickest way to creative block.
“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self,” Kleon writes. “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”
Now let me be clear: I’m not suggesting you steal other people’s work and pass it off as your own. But finding work by others you love and imitating it, remixing, and making it your own is a surefire strategy for igniting your creative fire. And as you consciously “steal” inspiration, keep asking yourself why the designers made the choices they did. By doing that, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the methods and processes that lead to the creation of some of the most memorable user experiences.
Spending hours in front the screen is an inherent part of being a UX designer. Whether you’re a Photoshop wizard or a Sketch savant, it’s all too easy to get lost spending too much time in pixels — which can leave you stuck in the ideation process. So when you’re fresh out of new ideas, it’s time to shut off the technology and break out the sketchbook and pencil. Stepping away from fancy design tools and high-tech processes frees up your innate creative energy to flow through your hand onto paper.
Allowing yourself to sketch freely across the paper will unleash ideas you may not have been consciously aware of. I know when I’m feeling stuck, it’s immediately energizing to lay out a fresh sheet of paper and ideate manually, without attachment to the results. Studies have shown that sketching frees up short and long-term memory, increases attention span, and helps produce new creative insights, so close that laptop and use the most powerful “old-fashioned” tools you have to get your inspiration flowing freely again.
You wouldn’t immediately make a connection between writing and visual UX design, right? But expressing your ideas regularly through writing can help you gain clarity about your ideas and how to express them, ultimately leading you to become a better designer.
Design coach and consultant Tom Kenny writes on his website about how writing has made him a better designer by keeping his “creative muscles” active.
“Creativity isn’t something you’re born with,” Kenny writes. “It comes easier to some people than others, but no matter who you are, it has to be exercised like a muscle. Those who practice creativity more, find it much easier to be more creative because they’re used to it.”
But it’s not always simple to jump the bridge between visual interface design and crafting words on a page. It’s easy to stay stuck in the identity of a “designer,” thus limiting your potential to expand and deepen your knowledge through writing.
Designer Paul Jarvis experienced this struggle before realizing he was the only thing standing in his own way. “To be honest, I made every excuse in the book to not write for years,” Jarvis says in inVision. “I kept telling myself I wasn’t a writer, so I had no business writing. Then I realized that was a total BS excuse. All it takes to be a writer is to start writing.”
You know more about your specific methods and processes than you realize. Expressing that in words will not only help others understand more about your design style and philosophy, but will also give you a new perspective on your craft.
And since the web is mostly made up of words, it’s vital that you understand how to integrate them with the experience you’re creating as a whole. Thomas Byttebier, founder of 37signals, points out that “[c]opywriting is interface design... If you think every pixel, every icon, every typeface matters, then you also need to believe every letter matters.”
Whenever you’ve been on a design sprint, completely oblivious to the biological needs of your body, you’re doing yourself and your career a disservice. Keeping your physical body balanced with a healthy diet and regular meals will keep your mind and emotions stable, building the foundation needed for excellent work.
While it can feel exciting to be so caught up in a project that you forget to eat, you’re ultimately taking your body on a roller coaster ride that can take hours to recover from. And that moment when you’re straight up hangry makes even the most interesting design sprint a chore. Even worse, it can lead to burnout, team conflicts, and all-around misery.
So the solution to all of this? Eat regularly, eat healthily, and incorporate foods that support creative energy. One 2015 study from researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands found that the amino acid tyrosine — which can be found in protein-rich foods like chicken, turkey, and dairy products — promotes “deep” thinking. Additionally, walnuts have been shown to boost memory and overall brain function, dark chocolate helps with short-term cognitive function, and carbs can give your brain a quick shot of glucose when you’re feeling slow.
Long story short: Eat a balanced diet of whole foods and stay away from processed snacks for ideal energy levels.
As designers, our ability to express ourselves fully and authentically is the key to who we are. So it makes sense that the more ways we can express ourselves the better, right? Well, outside of pixels, it turns out that swearing is a great way to boost creativity and actually feel stronger. A study from psychologists at Keele University in England found that cursing is a “harmless emotional release,” which can lead to people feeling more enlivened and resilient.
So if you’re feeling something — whether it’s joy, frustration, or anger — let it out! Research says it’s good for you.
Putting it all into practice
These are just a few creative ways that you can take your UX design game up a notch, without investing in expensive programs or selling yourself out for low-paying work. You’re lucky enough to be in a field where you truly can go as far as you want, fueled totally by your own motivation and desire to succeed.
I recommend putting one or two of these practices into play at a time in order to figure out what works for you — and what doesn’t. Remember: As UX designers, we’re used to constant iteration. So consciously apply those same skills to your own skill set, and you’ll level up your UX skills in no time.