My skills in marketing and copywriting paid the bills, but it was new design projects that got me in the zone, hitting my stride on a project after dinner and not realizing it was 2am until my contacts started drying out.
Since then, it’s been constant practice, reading, observing, studying, and striving to get better (I’m starting to suspect this is the new normal). Now, several years in, I wanted to share the resources that actively helped me become a better designer and that I still reference on a regular basis.
Every resource in this list is freely available online (or accessible through the local library, as is the case with a couple of books). I definitely think that, as you dig more into design, you should support fellow designers who are publishing courses, books, and tools to help their peers. However, if you’re just exploring, there are plenty of free resources to get you started. Once you’re in it a little more, it’ll be easier to recognize which resources are worth investing in.
I’ll add more resources as I go (or perhaps publish resources for intermediate designers as a Part 2), but for now, these are the resources that helped me be more confident and skilled at my craft during my “beginner” years.
Books & Blogs to Read
- About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design
About Face is the first design book that I read when I decided to make the switch full to design, and it continues to be the one I recommend when people ask what resources they should check out. It’s a fantastic overview of interaction design. The 4th edition was published in 2014 so some of the examples may be outdated, but a lot of the information is still relevant, especially for beginners who are just stepping into this world.
- The Design of Everyday Things
This book by Don Norman is on every designer’s must-read list. I try to read it once a year, at least. It opens your eyes to exactly what its title implies: the design of the things we use every day. It made me realize that design isn’t about making something look good. The purpose of design is to make something work well for the people using it. (And then also make it look good so people want to use it.)
- 10 Principles for Good Design
Get familiar with this list from Dieter Rams. Better yet, print the list out and stick it by your workstation.
- LearnUI Design
Erik Kennedy has a full UI course you can enroll in, but he also gives away a remarkable amount of free content that’s really high quality and easy to follow. Also, sign up for his newsletter, because he packs them full of helpful info.
- House of Van Schneider
I think Tobias van Schneider was the first designer I really started following. His blog features more advice on the “soft skills” of being a designer (like working with clients, the highs and lows of freelancing, how to set yourself apart as a great designer, etc.), instead of how to use specific tools. He is a self-taught designer and the way he pulls back the curtain a bit to his life and process helps his level of skill and accomplishment feel more attainable for more junior designers.
Videos to Watch
Nothing is more helpful than watching a designer talk through the improvements they are making to a specific UI, and that’s exactly what Steve Schoger delivers in his tutorials. The early ones are really quick (~15 minutes) and he talks you through the why behind his decisions as he improves a specific design. Follow him on Twitter, too, because he also shares UI design tips there.
I’ve stumbled upon Every-Tuesday videos so often in my search for “How to do X in Illustrator” that I just go straight there for tips now. Teela explains in detail how to quickly achieve specific effects in Illustrator, and it’s great if you know what you what to make but not how to get there.
- Zimri Mayfield
Like Teela’s site, Zimri’s videos kept popping up as I’d search for help on some Illustrator task, and he shares a lot of good content on a bunch of topics. Plus, I find his witty one-liners and overall positive personality really uplifting when I’m feeling bogged down by a time-consuming project.
Platforms to Get Inspired
Dribbble is the first and last place I go when I’m designing something new—first for inspiration and ideas, and last to share whatever it is I’ve just made. It’s a great place to be inspired and see what other designers have come up with. Two top profiles to follow on Dribbble are DKNG, for illustration work, and DeeKay, for some pretty remarkable animations.
Tutorials to Try
- How to Draw Apple iCloud Icon – Photoshop Tutorial
This tutorial (which I followed almost two years ago) introduced me to some really helpful functionality in Photoshop that I’d never used before. After learning how to create a brushed metal effect, I made a replica of the thermostat in my apartment. (Side note: the explanation of Vector Masks in this article is poor. I just used a clipping mask for those portions instead.)
- How to Design an iPhone Music Player App Interface With Photoshop CS6
The helpful thing about this tutorial and the one above is that you’re learning how to build something complete. Instead of “here’s how to do this one thing,” they demonstrate how to get a professional polish to a complete design, whether that be an icon or a complete user interface.
Tests to Take
When you’re ready, test out what you learned! The below visual design tests have explanations in them, so I won’t go into the details here. They’re each a great way to test and train your eye, and fun to come back to, to see how you’ve improved.
I hope this list was helpful! I’d love to know if it was. If you have comments, questions, or (constructive) feedback, reach out on Twitter!