How an app designer stays sharp


20th January 2020


7 min


Luke Medlock

Working as a UI/UX designer 9-5‚ five days a week‚ you might assume I would have ample time in which to practice my craft. I’ve found‚ though‚ that all this does is keep me steady and complacent as an app designer.

As such‚ I’m not developing my skills so much as repeating that which I can already do. A project comes in‚ and in a short stretch of time‚ it needs to be designed and sent out for build. Because of this‚ I have little time in my working week to learn‚ get truly creative and improve my personal skill set.

I noticed this early on – thankfully – and decided complacency wasn’t for me; I am here to grow‚ push boundaries and press on. Finding your passion has nothing to do with anybody else; it’s about digging deep‚ finding what you enjoy and deciding what you want to do with the limited time you have. Design influences all aspects of my life. I therefore wanted to divulge the main ways through which I stay sharp in my craft.

Personal projects:

I always ensure I have a personal project on the go – constantly. These can be based on anything I’ve made – typefaces‚ brand identities‚ interactive installations with universities‚ upcycling‚ pallet furniture‚ arts & crafts sessions… The key thing they all have in common is that they involve creativity.

Taking up new crafts:

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I adore you people who share your crafts‚ taking an evening out each month to put on workshops and events for next to nothing – you people are wonderful! These sessions further my creative time and side projects‚ helping me learn new skills and techniques.

Last year they included pottery lessons‚ life drawing‚ letterpress workshops‚ screen print sessions‚ paper making… almost anything I could get to after work or on a weekend. It keeps my creativity going‚ allowing me to bring it into my design work‚ enhancing projects I’m working on with fresh ideas and skills.

Obviously‚ some crafts – pottery making for example – have little direct impact on my digital designs‚ but they still allow me to get creative in what I am making‚ see design in a different light and explore different techniques I had previously thought impossible.

Studying up:

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I love learning new things; knowledge is a blessing and with it so many doors can be opened in design and in life. I challenged myself at the start of 2016 to learn one new thing each day. It didn’t have to be paradigm altering – just something new no matter how small. Most of these came from sites such as Medium‚ whose morning emails offer insights from other designers and people in my craft.

Ted Talks each morning while I’m getting ready are another part of my daily routine. In the latter half of last year‚ I also took a free online 10-week course based around psychological theory within UX design. That‚ as you can imagine‚ was quite a reading spree – and an even bigger deal for me (you’ll understand if you know about dyslexia). Again‚ there were pages of knowledge just waiting to be read – so I took advantage.

A few recommendations: Know your onions: Graphic Design (Drew De Soto) – some of the insights from this have become part of our design team process. The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman) – everyone in UX needs to read this; he basically coined the term User Experience Design. Universal Principles of Design (William Lidwell‚ Kritina Holden‚ Jill Butler) – covers nearly all workable theories of design. Sketching User Experience ( Bill Buxton) – full of process-based insights on subjects including roles‚ tool sets and merging with other departments.

Talk to the cultural:

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Design and art galleries – or parts of them at least – are generally free to attend. I visited the Other Half in Leeds recently and while she was at a two-hour lecture‚ checked out the design and crafts centre. There‚ I saw a type of screen printing I was unfamiliar with being undertaken. I chatted to the woman behind it and she gave me some links to videos of her past lectures and workshops.

Trends and Insights:

This is the point most directly linked to my work. I consider keeping up with the latest news in my field important as it allows me to stay on top of practices and theory. Every day there is a new tool‚ a new approach‚ a new style‚ a new pattern‚ a new device‚ a new OS and so on. Hence‚ I stay informed to ensure the products I’m designing are current‚ using the most up-to-date technologies available.

I use sites such as TEDtalks‚ Medium‚ TechPost‚ Dezeen magazine‚ Design Week and Howdesign to get updates/news on trends and insights. (Disclaimer: not all trends represent a good way forward – see ‘To kill a mocking burger‘ for more on that – but being oblivious to their existence is even worse).

Once a week I also check out Gizmodo’s ‘apps of the week‘‚ downloading a few to see how they look and feel‚ analysing their UX flows/process and picking out points that could be improved. Some make the list due to high download counts‚ but that doesn’t mean they are actually good apps. And when they aren’t‚ we can gain real insight by asking: what is it that is drawing people towards this product?

Complete stuff:

I don’t know how you work‚ but quite often I start a drawing‚ icon set‚ blog post or whatever‚ then just stop half-way through as I’ve moved onto something else. I think this can be quite damaging; as I’ve failed to finish first time round‚ I can end up convincing myself the same would happen if I tried again. By contrast‚ when I finish something – even if it’s crap – I tend to get the drive to do it again‚ and to a higher standard. If it’s still crap after five attempts‚ I can chalk it down to experience and practice.

Help others:

At work‚ I now and then get asked to help on other people’s projects – which is perfect since nine times out of 10 this means I’ll be doing something I hadn’t been doing previously. Often this will be something creative‚ which will help me hone my skills. For instance‚ a pal was up against a deadline to create some web screens recently‚ and had to produce a demonstration on how the banner section would behave and animate. I therefore jumped into After Effects – something I hadn’t done since uni – and made a short animation video.

I’ll also quite often get asked for advice on finding a typeface or selecting a type – but again it takes my mind off my current project for five minutes‚ helping me strengthen my creative skills. 

My design role models: 

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 I follow a few designers quite closely‚ inspired either by their style or their knowledge – or because they simply make sense. My top three are:

Mike Monteiro ( Co-founder & design director of Mule Design) – the swearing knowledge pool. Check out ‘Fuck you‚ pay me‘‚ ‘let us now praise ordinary people‘ or ‘13 ways designers screw up client presentations‘ – real‚ powerful stuff.

Aaron Draplin (Founder of Draplin Design Co.) – Logo King. Side note: he created FIELD NOTES. Check out ‘the logo challenge‘ or ‘the art of the side hustle‘ 

Jared Spool ( Co-founder of Centre Centre) – UX mastermind. Check out ‘Anatomy of a Decision‘‚ ‘Is design metrically opposed?‘ or ‘How do we design designers?

To conclude‚ its natural to become complacent or get carried away by the work routine of a creative profession like UI/UX design. But one can get out of that phase by actively engaging at other activities and crafts. This not only gives some break from the routine but also recharges the creative side of the person.