When I decided to get serious about learning design a couple of years ago, one problem I definitely didn’t have was a lack of information.
Stores were full of amazing books about all aspects of design. The internet was a treasure trove of handy tutorials. And with the arrival of new software packages like Sketch, the tools of the trade felt more accessible and affordable than ever.
But there was a drawback to having all these resources at my fingertips: information overload. Faced with all these possibilities, where should I begin?
Why not just read a book?
Although I’d bookmarked the best online design tutorials I could find, I soon lost interest in staring at YouTube videos. I still felt intimidated by my student copy of Adobe CS5. And to this day, the stack of highly-rated textbooks I bought are still mostly unopened.
However, my experience of learning design changed when I started working on projects—small-scale design briefs that allowed me to learn new skills incrementally by challenging me to solve specific problems.
The projects I worked on ranged in size and purpose. In smaller projects, the focus is on applying a specific new skill for the first time—for example, creating a wireframe, logo, or wordmark.
Larger projects tend to involve the consolidation of skills that have already been practised, by applying them in combination to a larger brief. For example, when I was taking Designlab’s Branding course, the final project was to put together design assets for a whole brand system, including logos, wordmarks, letterheads, business cards, website mockups, app designs, and a brand manual.
The value of projects
When you’re completely new to learning design, it’s natural to focus on what you need to learn to become a designer. But no course provider, online or offline, has information that you couldn’t find yourself in a book or by using Google. There isn’t a secret stash of proprietary design knowledge that educators are keeping behind their paywalls.
Course providers often seek to curate the best, most concise, and most useful materials and package them up into neat little lectures and lessons. But that’s not where most educational value is to be found. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say 10% of the value of my Designlab courses came from the materials.
Which means that 90% of the value came from working on projects and then improving them with feedback from mentors and fellow students. By working through lots of project briefs, I was able to apply theoretical learning from online lectures and lessons, and transform it into hands-on design skills and real technical proficiency.
In short, through project work, my focus was no longer just on the what (10%) of textbooks and tutorials. My horizons had broadened to the how (90%) of project work.
Read on to find out 9 ways that project work can help you learn design.
1. Projects force you to learn new skills.
One of the difficulties of self-teaching any skill, design included, is that you tend to repeat the things you already know how to do.
When I was learning the piano, for a while I played the first page of a piece of music over and over again, because that was the bit I could play. It felt good to play the right notes.
I became pretty solid at playing that first page, but my time would have been much better spent learning the pages I didn’t know at all. A musician who only practices what they can already play is not going to improve any time soon.
The key to improvement is, of course, to practice the things you don’t know how to do.
Design projects are valuable learning tools because they are defined by constraints that you haven’t set yourself. Where a project demands skills that you don’t yet have, you are forced to seek out extra knowledge and cultivate those abilities.
By forcing you to learn new skills, you’re made to move past the initial discomfort of being bad at something, expand your range, and grow in confidence.
2. Projects encourage you to iterate on your work.
Just as musicians add detail and finesse to their performance once they’ve learned the notes, so design projects allow you to produce extra versions of your work (“iterations”) to achieve a more refined, detailed, and polished result.
When you have completed a project, this iterative process also enables you to look back how you got from A to Z and reflect on the steps you took along the way. This part—reflection—is itself a crucial skill that maximizes your learning from each project, heightens your self-awareness as a designer, and sharpens your critical thinking.
Reflecting at the end of a project puts you at a remove from your own work, able to see from a third person perspective what was good about how you tackled the problem and what you want to do differently next time. By noticing how you solved particular issues or why you took particular decisions, you can consolidate your new knowledge.
3. Projects teach you to seek, accept, and value critique.
One of the big challenges for new design students is learning the value of critical insights from others.
There are plenty of completely valid reasons why you might find it difficult to seek and accept critique. When you work hard on something, you rightly feel proud of our efforts, and having work critiqued can feel like an attack. In an online setting, at first it might also be difficult to hear relative strangers question your decisions or poke holes in your project.
Yet what I discovered after the first couple of weeks of Design 101 was that critique proved hugely beneficial, both in terms of the speed at which I could learn, and in terms of the improvements I saw in the quality of my work.
I found that feedback from my mentor and fellow students generated unexpected observations, stimulated new ideas, and generally helped my projects to progress. Your work can move forward so much more quickly when you have critical insights to get you “un-stuck”.
To learn more about how to give and receive design critique well, check out our in-depth article (with free downloadable design critique checklist).
4. Projects enhance your own critical skills.
As well as teaching me the value of others’ critical insights, learning design through projects also helped me to sharpen my own critical skills.
When starting out on any learning journey, it is hard to be self-critical about your work. This is because, by definition, you don’t yet have the personal knowledge that helps you to distinguish good from bad, and you haven’t yet built up the bank of experience that enables you to evaluate your own design decisions in an informed way.
However, offering comments and critique in response to fellow students’ project work will allow you to see a range of different solutions to the same design project brief. This will make your eye keener, as you start to identify the relative strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
What’s more, by repeatedly listening to the questions and critiques of others, you will learn to ask those questions of your own work.
5. Projects help you to engage with your fellow students, mentors, and the wider design community.
When learning design online, there is a risk that you will be isolated at your computer without professional or moral support as you learn.
Learning design through project briefs can connect you meaningfully with fellow students, mentors, and even the wider design community. As well as engaging with peers who are at a similar stage of their learning, you can also post finished projects to sites like Designer News or Dribbble.
When studying is tough, having a network of support from students who are working at a similar level to you, and tackling the same project briefs, can be reassuring and help you to stay motivated.
Another great way of staying engaged with others while you’re learning is to look out for opportunities to do small-scale design projects in the wild. After I finished the Branding short course, I consolidated my learning by completing brand design projects for a local food bank and a music society.
I was surprised at how encouraging these “real world” projects were—and completing them made me feel confident that I could apply my new knowledge in practice. Pro bono work like this also forces you to start bridging the gap between being a design student to being a design practitioner.
This is an important shift, because you have to start leading the conversation with a client, select appropriate ideas to show them, and explain your work without resorting to jargon.
6. Projects impose the discipline of planning around a deadline.
When working on projects, deadlines are your friend.
Early on in the journey of learning design, it can be difficult to break a project down and prioritise tasks. For example, you might find yourself weighing up whether to start by choosing the right font, sketching a layout, or selecting a color palette.
Working to a deadline makes you assess what a project brief is really asking, and enables you to distinguish between the tasks that are necessary for the completion of a project brief, and those that are optional, “nice-to-have” details. The value of deadlines is to keep you focused on the big picture and on meeting the brief.
Deadlines for projects—whether self-imposed, set automatically by the online system, or agreed with your mentor—are a valuable constraint which drives decision-making and forces you to wrap up work for presentation and discussion even when it’s not “finished” or “perfect”.
7. Project constraints require you to decide on a design direction.
One of the great things about design projects is that they impose non-negotiable constraints on your work.
Professional designers often find it excruciatingly difficult and time-consuming to design their own portfolios. Usually, that is because the normal constraints of a project are either not there at all, or are highly negotiable because they have been set by the designer themselves (deadline included!).
An ordinary project brief makes you call time on the ideation stage, then select a few ideas to develop, and finally decide on a design direction to follow.
8. Projects help you to build a portfolio.
One of the happy side-effects of learning design through projects is that you can quickly produce a body of work to include in your design portfolio.
Many employers are happy to see student work in a portfolio as long as it is relevant to their industry and demonstrates appropriate discipline and quality.
9. It feels great to complete stuff.
Last but definitely not least, perhaps the most enjoyable part of learning design through projects is that you are constantly completing work.
We’re all familiar with the dopamine buzz when we complete a project, take a step back, and feel pride in what we’ve achieved. During my time studying on Design 101 I got hooked on completing projects, which ultimately led me to keep learning, continue designing, and switch careers—even though I initially enrolled just to test the water.
Here at Designlab, we believe that working on project briefs is a deeply valuable way of learning design. Project work enables you to seek feedback from mentors and fellow students, which means you’ll progress much more quickly than if you were studying alone.
To learn more about how we got the idea for our model of mentor- and project-led design education, check out this recent interview with our CEO and founder on Designlab’s mission and values.
We offer a range of short courses, including Design 101, Branding, Typography, UX Research, and Interaction Design, as well as an intensive UX Academy program. All of our courses are structured around a sequence of curriculum units, each of which has a number of project briefs to work on, submit, and iterate on. Click here to find out more about our courses.