How do we go about getting better at what we do?
For the creative professional eager to make that toolbox brighter and shinier, then, but unsure of how to do it outside of school, here are eight ideas you may or may not have thought of:
1. Start a side project.
Creatives in small studios sometimes remark that their leanest periods are their most productive. When clients dry up, good studios work on their own projects, cranking out spec work, competition entries, skill-building exercises, or simply personal interest projects. There's good logic behind this method, as it not only maintains creative momentum, but can add projects to a portfolio unrestrained by budget or client needs, letting the agency nudge its body of work closer to the sorts of things they'd like to do more of.
The same strategy can work for individual designers, too. Whether you're between jobs, fresh out of school, on break or just underemployed, there's no better time to get started on your dream project. If you've always wanted to design posters, but have been stuck doing brochures for the past year, now's your chance. Ditto for wannabe shoe designers, children's book illustrators, or whatever. Picking something that truly engages and inspires you makes for superior creative output, and real passion tends to shine through quite brightly in a portfolio piece.
The big drawback, of course, is the inherent lack of structure: with no client to dictate needs and schedules, you have to be your own taskmaster. So identify a fictitious client or target market. Write yourself a brief, set a deadline, and get started.
2. Set an effort-based goal.
If you're honest with yourself, you probably already know which tools in your box need sharpening, and setting yourself a specific goal for improvement is the obvious next step. Creative growth can be difficult to measure, so the most effective short-term goals are usually based on effort rather than quality:
"I will sketch for one hour after work every day until the end of the month."
"I will design four album covers for a band that I like by the end of the summer."
"I will learn enough animation to make a one minute movie about my last project by September 1."
The beauty of goals like this is that they lift the heavy burden of performance from your labors; a burden which, paradoxically, can prevent you from doing your best work. Bill Buxton's 2007 book, Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, recounts the story of a friend teaching a ceramics class, who chose to divide the students into those whose grade would be based on the quality of their best piece, and those graded purely on volume of output. Across the board, the best work came from the latter group: freed of the pressure to perform perfectly, they instead created prolifically, learning and experimenting in the process, with little fear of failure. Setting a "volumetric" goal like this for yourself can achieve similar results, and has the added benefit of coaxing you into a more flexible mindset regarding skill-building in general.
3. Keep a sketchbook and/or notebook.
We've all doubtlessly heard this piece of advice a thousand times are more, and that doesn't make it any less crucial or true. It's hard to think of a creative discipline that wouldn't benefit from regular sketching, brainstorming, or observational note-taking; and for certain skills - like sketching - it's hard to think of a more effective exercise.
4. Carry a camera.
As a means of building visual vocabulary, it's tough to beat a frequently wielded small digital camera or just a halfway decent cell phone. Interesting forms, clever mechanisms, elegant and innovative graphics, and examples of great (or horrible) interactivity are all fair game, and recording them will make you more perceptive and flexible.
Much like writing something down, taking a picture makes an image real to you; it's the act of photographing something that solidifies in your mind that it's worth referencing, and allows you to organize and analyze afterwards. That's a crucial step, by the way: assuming you're shooting digital, there's no excuse to not build a nice big album of your finds, compare and organize them, and look for patterns.
Having a well-ordered collection of images also lets you show someone else what you mean when making a reference: "Here, look at this." is a much easier sell than "I saw this thing once, and it was really cool..."
5. Take a class.
This is an obvious one, but often more problematic than it sounds. While nearly any mid-sized city or town will have local colleges or studios offering professional development classes with work-friendly hours, finding one with subject matter directly applicable to a creative professional's needs can be tricky. "Intro to Photoshop" classes abound, for example, but something geared toward the experienced user looking to stretch is much rarer. Similarly, life drawing classes are easy to find, but rapid visualization, perspective, or rendering classes are not. If you're in New York, Pratt and Parsons have some more focused offerings, and ArtCenter hosts some truly high-level classes for L.A.'s creative community - similar opportunities might be available in other cities with a major ID program, but you'll have to look hard, and you'll have to pay.
Another potentially great option is to look at the seminars offered by local branches of professional organizations. Because they're planned by working professionals, the topics are often timely and directly applicable. Here in Portland, for example, CHIFOO offers regular workshops for local Interaction Designers, on topics ranging from Design Research to Sketching Physical Devices, often to rave reviews. Implementation can vary widely though: just because people understand a topic doesn't necessarily mean they can teach it.
6. Pay attention to someone better than you.
The apprentice system is largely extinct in the modern creative professions, and that's kind of too bad. It had a lot going for it, not least of which was the daily opportunity to closely observe someone skilled in your profession and ask them lots of questions.
In the modern studio or office, such close proximity isn't always practical; some of us are working on completely unrelated projects, are physically distant, or simply don't like being watched over our shoulder. There's more opportunity for growth in this strategy than most of us take advantage of, though, either out of a sense of independence, or just politeness.
The reality is that many of your more senior colleagues would be flattered by such interest. If you've been in a professional environment for a while, and have a pretty good idea of who would be open to sharing some wisdom, this can be a top-notch skill-set enhancer. "How exactly did you do that?" is a good way to start, or simply watch closely when that rendering/modeling/layout guru starts doing his stuff. Then ask yourself how it's different from how you do it right now, and go from there.
Staying current is its own skill, it needs sharpening too, and love it or hate it, reading is usually the best way to do so. The fact is, the smartest, most skilled co-workers in your studio or professional circle probably aren't the smartest and most skilled in the world. But the smartest and most skilled often write about what they know, and a lot of people read it. Trend-spotting, marketing, technology and creative business all generate plenty of words each year, and some of them are worthwhile. Your task is to figure out what's applicable to your needs and interests, then set aside some time to read them, be they blogs, forums, magazines or books.
So where to start? One easy first step is to look closely at the leaders in your field, and find out if they've written anything, or, barring that, what they're reading. Another is to pay attention in conversation. If someone in your profession does good work and keeps referencing a book or a blog, make a note and check it out. At worst, you'll at least have something to discuss the next time you chat, or when sitting for an interview. At best, you'll learn something that makes you better at your job; it's not all hand skills, after all.
Note: This article was originally written by Carl Alviani