What follows are some thoughts about learning and tools.
Practicing photography as a hobby helped me become a better designer. When I get an incorrectly exposed photograph to work with I know how to fix it. I have developed a better eye for stock photography, and if necessary I’ll make a few shots myself.
I know how to speak the photographer’s language so whenever I hire a photographer I know what to ask for and how they work.
Digging into typography helped me become a better designer. Reading and studying some books about type (Bringhurst!), know which typefaces evoke which emotions, what separates a good typeface from a bad one, and which type is appropriate where.
Playing with video and Final Cut made me appreciate correct rhythm, timing and storytelling. I wish to explore this field a bit more. The same counts for 3D and animation.
Last year I made an icon set — which I never released — and learned to work with Illustrator in an efficient manner. This might sound odd coming from a designer with some years under his belt but I’ve never really used Illustrator the way I have recently. This paved the way for making interface wireframes and designs in Illustrator, which I’m a huge fan of these days. It allows me to be creative in a way I couldn’t be in Photoshop.
(This last one is material for a blog post or presentation on its own!)
They say the tools you use are merely tools and we should focus on the thinking and the results.
If I read a resume and it says someone is 90% proficient in Photoshop I can’t help but laugh. Mastering a tool doesn’t say anything about your skill or results. It’s often the people who put their skills in percentages that know the least.
However, a tool shapes the way you design. A thick marker is going to yield a low fidelity mockup. Having eight hours and Illustrator is going to yield a high fidelity one with lots of details. Sometimes the former is better, sometimes the latter.
Some people claim you can design in the browser and that this is more efficient. With the advent of responsive designs there’s certainly an argument to be made for designing in the browser.
But I’m also pretty certain you’re going to shy away from doing something complex because the path to seeing it involves writing code. Even something as simple as a tooltip requires research to find the best jQuery plugin, implement it, see if it works correctly.
If your medium is a piece of paper, you have a pencil in your hand, the tooltip is already there.
Bret Victor recently gave a fantastic talk: inventing on principle. His principle:
in order to be creative, an [artist] needs to be able to directly manipulate the medium they are working in. This talk rightfully resonated with a lot of people: we’ll always be looking for better tools.
For me, designing in the browser will never work because I can’t directly manipulate my medium. I have all kinds of tricks to work faster, but I’ll never be able to put my thoughts on the canvas in a way that beats pen and paper. That is, until we have better tools?