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How you can use deliberate practice to accelerate learning design


It’s common knowledge that if you want to get better at something, you need to practice. “Practice makes perfect” is what we’re told whether we’re learning to tie our shoelaces or win an Olympic gold medal. But there are different types of practice, some more effective than others. In this article, I sit down with Marcus Handa, a student of Design Fundamentals, who has used deliberate practice to learn design fast.

What is deliberate practice and how does it differ from regular practice?

When most people think about practicing, they see it as repeating the same task over and over again until it becomes second nature.

An easy example is learning to tie a tie. Typically, this will look something like this:

  1. Learn the 6 steps and repeat them in order until you’ve memorised them
  2. Start to speed up those steps until you can tie a tie quickly and mistake-free
  3. Advance into different knots and work on presentation

There are a couple of ways you can achieve this same result. First, you could practice each of these steps in order until you’ve mastered it. Or you could practice each of these steps, evaluate your progress, and change your practice sessions to focus on one aspect you are struggling with.

Which of those two do you think would see faster improvement? Probably the second, right? Well that’s exactly what deliberate practice is. As James Clear states, “Deliberate practice always follows the same pattern: break the overall process down into parts, identify your weaknesses, test new strategies for each section, and then integrate your learning into the overall process.”

So how can we apply this same theory to design? I recently had a conversation with one of our most successful students of Design Fundamentals, Marcus Handa, about exactly how he has been using deliberate practice to accelerate learning design.

Setting a deliberate (and regular) practice schedule

The first thing Marcus did was create a schedule for him to practice design. It wasn’t enough for him to just practice when he found time, he needed something to keep him accountable and to help him push through those times when he didn’t feel like practicing design.

So he set himself a challenge to post three new designs every week to Dribbble.

“Committing to posting my designs on Dribbble was a way to ensure I would carve out time in my schedule to practice design. In the past, I had tried setting myself private challenges, but I found without that public accountability, I always ended up giving up,” Marcus said.

Three designs every week might sound like a lot. But regular practice is key if you want to learn design fast. The longer the gap between practice sessions, the more you’ll have forgotten and the further back you’ll be.

That’s not to say you have to do three sessions a week for you to see improvements. You need to be realistic with your schedule but at the same time make sure you’re pushing yourself to commit to a regular goal.

Another benefit to doing regular design practice is that you’re going to see a much faster rate of improvement. At the beginning, four out of every five designs you create you won’t be happy with. But as you keep pushing yourself to create more, that number of designs you’re unhappy with will keep decreasing until your good designs outweigh your bad designs.

In other words, you won’t hit the mark on every design you create, but by practicing regularly you can be sure that sometimes you’ll create something incredible.

I was recently at a small conference/mastermind called CaboPress, and one of the sessions was about writing a book. The speaker, Allison Fallon, asked, “What if I told you that you had to write a handful of really BAD books but then you would write one brilliant one? A book people would remember for decades to come. Would you still be stalling? Or would you get of your butt and get that first bad book written?”

It’s exactly the same with design. You’re not going to hit the bullseye on the first design you create. If you wait to start learning design for when you have the project, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Start practicing now, and practice as frequently as you can. Know that some of your designs will be bad. But by the time you’re ready to work on something significant, you’ll have drastically increased your odds of success.

Don’t just practice. Learn.

So you’ve set yourself a challenge to practice regularly. That’s great! But simply going through the motions of practicing design isn’t going to cut the mustard. You can’t just put in the hours and expect the same amount of success as somebody who is using the deliberate practice method we mentioned at the start of this article.

That’s because learning design isn’t just pure repetition. It’s problem solving. It’s learning to analyse why something doesn’t look good and fixing it.

Learning how to identify your weaknesses and create practice sessions based on them is a skill that will help you master design quickly. It can be tempting to practice what you’re already good at because it’s comfortable and easy — but you’re not going to see big improvements.

For example, say you were trying to learn a song on the piano. You have half the song in the bag, but there are a couple of bars at the end that you’re struggling with. Do you think you’ll learn the song faster by playing the parts you know flawlessly over and over again? Or will you learn faster by focusing on those two bars that are giving you trouble? Both can be classed as practice, but only one is going to help you reach your goal.

Marcus understood this as he was doing his weekly Dribbble challenge, “I know that I’m pretty good at designing mobile apps, but I always struggled with marketing websites. So I made sure that at least 50% of my work was going to be a website. It was a challenge, but it forced me to learn about the differences and I saw a drastic improvement in my web design work that I wouldn’t have had if I just stuck to what I was good at”.

So as you’re designing ask yourself, “Is there anything that is tripping me up time and time again?” and create practice sessions that force you to focus on just those things.

Getting feedback for your deliberate practice

Now we know that deliberate practice is being able to analyse what your weaknesses are and making your practice sessions focused on those. But what if you’re not sure what specifically you’re struggling with, but you just know you’re struggling?

There are a few ways you can figure this out. First, you can compare your work with other designs that you like and try to figure out what it is their designs have, that yours doesn’t. Maybe it’s the typography. Are they using multiple styles throughout their work, whereas you’re sticking to the same fonts, colours, and sizes? Is it the spacing between elements? Does theirs feel roomy while yours seems cramped and cluttered?

The best way to do this is to open up your design and place it side by side with another which you class as well-designed. Grab a piece of paper and note down as many differences as you can think of. From the large to the small. Then, each one of those points could become a practice session — or you could combine a few and blast through the details.

Marcus found comparing his work to others had a big influence in what he ended up practicing. In one case, he was looking through Gabe Becker’s work on Dribbble and realised that the quality of photography that Gabe had chosen was in another league to his. So Marcus started spending more time scouring through high quality stock photography websites and sourcing images that had some impact, instead of just picking whatever came up first. He learned the difference between a good image and a bad and realised the importance of carefully considering your photography in a design.

Gabe Becker’s work which served as inspiration for Marcus

It’s small moments like this that end up having a profound effect on the quality of your work.

“The more you study other people’s designs, the more you become aware of the smaller details that make a big difference. Whether it’s the photography, a box shadow, or a colour — you’re building up an arsenal of knowledge about design and your work will just keep on improving” Marcus said.

Aside from comparing your work to others, you may also find coaches to be a fantastic source of coming up with ideas for deliberate practice exercises. A coach or mentor who is already an expert in the area you’re trying to learn will have a much clearer view of where you are now, where you need to be, and the steps you can take to get there. They’ll be able to guide you and find ways you can improve while measuring your progress.

That’s actually why I made sure to have a feedback system in Design Fundamentals. As well as getting access to the course materials, you also get access to myself and other alumni in our community so we can help track your progress and guide you on how you can improve. We’re using the same techniques outlined above, but in a more streamlined way.

Marcus found that even though he was making good progress on his own, investing in a course with the community aspect was a good move for him.

“Even though it’s good to learn from your own mistakes, it’s more efficient to learn from others mistakes. You can learn from reading articles and practicing but if you can find a good course it will speed up your development by learning from people who have already been where you are now” Marcus said.

But you don’t necessarily need to fork out for a course to get quality feedback. You can start a mastermind with others who want to learn a specific skill that you’re an expert in. You can exchange your feedback on say, learning Javascript, with someone who’s an expert in design who is trying to learn Javascript.

Or you could post your designs on websites like Dribbble or the Design Critique Subreddit and specifically ask for the areas which they think you need to work on. Chances are, the designers who respond will have been where you are now and will be able to instantly identify the areas you should research to improve.

Learning design is the same as learning anything. If you put in the time and tweak your practice sessions to focus on the parts you’re struggling with, you will improve at a faster rate than someone who simply goes through the motions.

Marcus is a great example of someone who has used the method of deliberate practice to drastically improve his design skills. You can see the progress he’s made in just a few short years here.



As he states, “Don’t worry about not having any talent or not being a natural. I was as bad as they come. But if you have a love for the craft and a willingness to learn you can improve massively as time progresses. Some people have said to me that I’m very talented but it’s not really talent, it’s just hard work and perseverance.”

About Marcus Handa

Marcus is a designer who creates development-ready interfaces for mobiles apps and the web. He’s also a student of Design Fundamentals. You can check out his portfolio website, and see his latest designs on his popular Dribbble page

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