When you’re new to design, it’s a challenge to know what to learn first, and how much reading up to do on each topic. In this article, we explain the thinking behind the format of our course curriculums, and then offer some specific tips on how to make the most of the 1-on-1 mentoring and project work, each of which is a core part of our learning model.
What are Designlab courses?
We have two course formats: short courses, each of which lasts for 1 month, and are completed in 10-15 hours per week; and UX Academy, which is an intensive, 3-month (full-time) or 6-month (part-time) program for people who want to change their careers and become a UX designer.
Our most popular short course, Design 101, covers the basics of visual design, and uses examples and projects from web design in particular. Other short courses include Branding, Typography, Interaction Design, UX Research & Strategy, and UI Design.
[You can get a deep dive into our platform and the Design 101 curriculum in this post.]
All our courses share a common structure and educational approach. Each one includes a guided, week-by-week curriculum, which is a mixture of materials created in-house, and other lessons and materials curated from important design books and respected online sources. However, we believe that only about 10% of the value of our courses comes from the curriculum.
The other 90% of course value comes from completing a series of hands-on projects, and from being paired up with a professional designer, who provides mentoring through 1-on-1 video calls, as well as written feedback on all project submissions. By completing a range of projects, and iterating on those projects in response to expert feedback, you can gain new skills quickly and learn what it means to apply them to realistic design briefs.
Read on to find out 8 ways you can maximize your learning and personal growth on Designlab course, by making the most of not only the curriculum, but also your personal design mentor and hands-on projects!
1. Get the right tools for the course
Before the course begins, get your hands on your choice of design software. We recommend using Figma or Sketch. You could use Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, but it’s a bit slower to pick these up if you’re a beginner, and we no longer recommend them for working on screen designs.
As well as these computer-based tools, you’ll also need a physical notepad for drawing sketches and taking notes. We recommend a notepad with a dotted grid—the dots are enough to guide your sketching when desired, but also less intrusive than a grid formed of full lines.
Finally, plan your work ahead. Each short course requires around 10-15 hours of work a week, so plan when you’ll be able to devote time to the coursework. And don’t forget to put the mentor sessions in your calendar once you’ve agreed a time!
Bonus tip! We offer free tutorials in Figma, Sketch and Photoshop to help you master the basics. Complete the free tutorial for your tool of choice before the start of your course, and you’ll be able to hit the ground running.
2. Turn the curriculum to your advantage
Whether it’s in high school, at an Ivy League college, or online, all course-based education involves reading and studying material that you could in principle find yourself on the web or in a library. However, part of the value that these educators offer is to have curated that content for you, into a format that facilitates your learning, within a given timeframe, and at an appropriate level of difficulty.
Our short courses include both in-house materials and high-quality curriculum that has been selected, adapted, and sequenced by our team of expert educators, mentors, and designers. Our aim is that these resources will allow you to get to the heart of what you need to learn and quickly and efficiently as possible.
Each of our short courses comes with a curriculum that puts you on a logical and manageable trajectory through design fundamentals. You can turn this to your advantage by engaging thoroughly with these materials, writing down a few bullet points on each topic, and noting any questions or areas of difficulty for discussion with your mentor later.
3. Make the most of the time with your mentor
The core of our educational model at Designlab is pairing each student 1-on-1 with a professional designer, who works with the students as their mentor for the duration of the course. When you sign up for one of our short courses, you are buying 4 hours of your mentor’s time for 1-on-1 video calls, as well as their written feedback on all your project submissions.
To get the most out of the time you have with your mentor, it’s important to fully prepare for each call. Think in advance about questions you’d like to ask about the curriculum, make sure you have project work submitted and ready to discuss, and note down any broader queries you have about working in the design industry, or what your options are to continue your design learning after the end of the course. Our mentors are there to help you, but you also need to put in the effort to get the best results.
We have rigorous processes for assessing new mentors and monitoring mentor performance. However, if for any reason you feel like your mentor experience isn’t working out—like a clash of personalities or difficulty scheduling sessions—head to our Help Center and we can switch you to another mentor if necessary. Please reach out early in the course if you can, so that we can help you promptly and keep your course progress on track.
Bonus tip! Tell your mentor if you’re planning to take UX Academy. If you’re taking Design 101 or another short course, and are planning to take UX Academy or another intensive design course, please tell your mentor. They will be able to help you focus your work in a way that will help you develop the skills you need to be competitive for UX Academy.
4. Get involved in the community
Each short course has its own discussion board, where you can ask questions of mentors and fellow students. This can be especially helpful on UX-related short courses, in order to share ideas and recruit participants for testing.
The platform also has an “Explore” feature, which allows you to get inspiration by browsing other student submissions, and even dive into the mentor comments to get ideas on how to develop and iterate your own work.
5. Iterate on projects in response to feedback
Applying your new learning in a project is one thing. But getting feedback from your mentor and fellow students on that work, then going through 2 or 3 cycles of iteration to develop and improve each project, will significantly add to what you learn. Doing so will also consolidate your new knowledge, and help you to convert it into practical skills that you can continue to use and develop once the course is over.
By iterating on each project, you will improve more quickly—and you might even be able to include the end product in a design portfolio. Because the Designlab platform saves all your previous versions, you can also look back through all of your uploads and see how your work has developed, not just through a single project, but from the beginning to the end of the course. You might be surprised at how far you’ve come!
[Check out this article to read more about why we believe projects help you to learn design.]
6. Don’t be afraid to copy
From the earliest days of our education, we’re taught that it’s wrong to copy—especially when it comes to creative work! It’s time to disregard this lesson, and here’s why: “copywork” is a powerful learning tool.
Not only that, but most great “innovations” and “inventions” can actually be understood as the result of people copying, and then improving upon, earlier ideas. Without copying, we wouldn’t have most art, design, or even language itself. To learn more about this, check out Steven Johnson’s amazing book Where Do Good Ideas Come From, or Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist!
Particularly when you’re first trying to understand a topic or principle in design, embrace copywork. For example, taking a screenshot of a website, and then trying to copy that design exactly, is a great way to get a deeper understanding of size, scale, and layout in web design.
Of course, not all forms of copying are okay. For example, you shouldn’t copy the work of other students in order to avoid doing it yourself—this amounts to plagiarism, which is very different from copying out existing designs in order to learn.
And finally, make sure that no copywork ever ends up in your design portfolio. A portfolio is the place to show off your originality and ability to solve design problems using an independent design process.
7. Stay on track
Short courses are designed to be completed in 4 weeks. At the beginning of our 4 week courses, the first step you’ll take is to schedule the weekly calls with your mentor. These calls provide important structure, and you should be prepared to show and discuss new project work on each call. However, if for any reason you don’t have new work to show in any given week, you might prefer to reschedule the session for when you have work to review.
Bonus tip! If you’re planning to move forward to UX Academy, it’s critical to stay on schedule in Design 101. In our experience, students who don’t stay on track tend not to be accepted to UX Academy. This is for a number of reasons: running out of mentor sessions, failing to submit the final project, and last-minute cramming leading to lower quality work.
8. Stick to project time limits
Each lesson and project on our platform has suggested time limits. Often, these are intentionally quite short, so that you can “timebox” your work and keep making progress. Resist perfectionism!
When it comes to note-taking, although writing down key points is valuable, don’t give in to the temptation to take detailed notes on everything. It will really slow you down, which can be demotivating. Remember, you’ll always have access to the materials in the course platform—so you don’t need to take comprehensive notes.
And for the hands-on design projects, aim to balance attention to detail with getting stuff done. On the one hand, of course, don’t rush and submit poor quality work when you know you could do better. But equally, don’t go way over the suggested time for projects out of pure perfectionism. Learning this balance is an important professional skill for designers: working to a high standard, while being able to submit imperfect work to get regular feedback and make progress.
If you’re taking one of our courses soon, we hope this short guide has offered some insight into how you can stay on track, and get the most value from the investment you’ve made in your skills. If you’ve not yet signed up, why not check out what’s on offer?