Next Steps: from classroom to competency

Several weeks after one of my design classes, I got together with one of the students. Over beers, he expressed frustration with the gap between his desire to be a skilled designer and his current abilities.

In class, he was eager, attentive, and dedicated. His design skills and thinking impressed me. Yet, here he was, unsure about his next steps and how to bridge that gap. I was also disappointed in myself and my own apparent gap in teaching. My hope is that students leave class with a proficiency in design. But, more importantly, the creative confidence to continue developing their craft. Obviously, this wasn’t happening. So, how can students confidently move from the classroom to a capable, competent creative?

The gap.

The Great Chasm

The Great Chasm

The great chasm between where we are now to where we want to be is intimidating. It’s either too overwhelming or too far away. So, how to address this gap? How can students move from guided, hands-on, in-class learning to the mastery and confidence in their own abilities and expertise? Developing this creative confidence is critical to being a successful designer. This takes a lot of effort to fight through the self doubt. It also takes time. A lot of time. Here’s a few things that has helped me working through gnarly projects and problems. These can also help in the fight to creative confidence.

Start small.

John Cage preparing a piano, in 1947.

John Cage preparing a piano, in 1947.

We easily get overwhelmed with all the requirements, tasks, and demands on us. We don’t know where to start. And when we start we quickly get lost in the process. The great composer, John Cage, once said, “Start anywhere.” So, if you got to start something, start there — anywhere.

In my work, I often start out lost, but I know that if I just continue exploring my idea, a solution will appear. So, I may do some initial typographic or color studies. I may investigate various imagery approaches. I sketch. I write, take notes and jot down ideas. The key is to make things. Make things and then reflect upon them.

Give yourself small, focused creative challenges. Don’t go off re-designing a complete site or creating a new product line. No need to make the too real. Think of these as simple design studies. Find something that interests you that you can build upon. Try taking the class exercises and assignments exploring them further without the constraints of class. This will lead to a series of studies that you can now reflect and examine to find further inspiration or perhaps to provoke another design study.

Journaling is another way to constant capture and reflect upon what you are experiencing. Random notes, goofy sketches, and quirky ideas fill my journals. Most of these will never see the light of day. but the process of capturing and then reflecting on them keep me on my “creative toes” and creatively limber.

Time is on your side.


The great design sage, Mick Jagger, once sang, “Tiiiime is on my side, yes it is.” Well, it’s actually on your side. Despite our tendency to procrastinate, time is an important part of the design process. So, how can we use it?

There are several ways to harness the power of time. To achieve my small, creative successes, I dedicate periods of time to do the work. It may be to complete a task by a certain time or by end of the day or week. Whatever, but keep it within a concise, set period to avoid having it stretch on. This is sometimes called timeboxing. Timeboxing breaks down the larger creative process into smaller periods and actions. Blocking this time out as a calendar event can help remind you and keep that time dedicated.

I find that this helps me plan my day and week. It also gives me a period of time where I can focus without distractions on the creative process. And, it helps get me in the right frame of mind. The key is to make things over time.

Make it a habit.

Malcolm Gladwell’ s    Outliers   and Bernard Roth’ s    The Achievement Habit

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Bernard Roth’s The Achievement Habit

Achieving design proficiency is like building washboard abs. You don’t get it unless you work at it constantly and consistently. Both Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Bernard Roth in The Achievement Habit wrote extensively on habit. I don’t think we need to read these books to understand the power of habits. We all know that the more we work at something the better we become.

This is why starting small and dedicating time is so important. Brilliant design and creative skills are a result of many small actions over time. Like compound interest, the constant “reinvestment” in developing your design skills and proficiency leads to success. The key is to make things — constantly and consistently — over time. Unlike other investments, past performance is a guarantee of future results. Results that bring both great design and creative confidence.