UXcellence Exploring excellent user experience

The Broken Comb: Learning To Be a Multi-Skilled Designer

December is often a slow time of year at work. Between the holidays and the coming new year, new work often dries up and we attempt to tie up the loose ends of the past year. One of my favorite things to do in the lull is to start learning something new. By starting when I have extra time, I get a running start into the new year.

What should I learn?

There’s a regular debate in design communities about whether designers should learn to code. As someone who came to design from development, I do find code to be a handy skill in my quiver. But coding is just one of many potential skills that can expand your design repertoire. If not coding, how do you know what to learn next? There’s no simple answer.

Learn what makes you happy. Learn something different. Learn something that challenges you. Learn something related to what you’re already good at. Learn to code. Learn to draw. Learn to write. Learn how to run a business. Here’s the amazing thing about learning: as long as you’re learning something, you’re growing. If you’re not learning, you’re stagnating.

A former boss liked to encourage our team to be “broken” comb designers rather than “T-shaped” designers. T-shaped designers have deep proficiency in one area but relatively little experience in many others, while broken comb designers have a broad range of experience across multiple disciplines. Because of their range of skills, they can cross projects and roles more easily, have more tools to solve problems, and can better communicate with different team members.

The more broadly you learn, the more diverse your experience and the more you can tie together unrelated concepts to form completely new ideas. Learning new skills unlocks new lenses with which to see and process problems. So pick something that sounds interesting to you and just learn.

How do YOU learn best?

Once you have an idea of what to learn next, consider how you want to learn it. This may take some introspection. How do you learn best? Different styles of learning work for different people. Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you prefer reading, hearing, or watching something when you learn? Which medium helps you retain ideas best? Which do you find most challenging to focus on?
  • Do you thrive when learning by yourself or do you flourish in group settings?
  • Do you lean toward applying what you learn to practical projects or love to explore theoretical applications?

Knowing how you learn will help you uncover the best strategy for success. Keep that in mind as you explore some of the different tools for learning below.

Where do you turn to learn?

When I was a kid and people talked about Heaven, I always visualized a giant library filled with all the knowledge of the world and an endless amount of time to soak it all in. The Internet has fulfilled the first half of that vision. Even better, all that learning is available in just about any method you might prefer:

  • Online courses: There are tons of free and inexpensive courses available, from college-level courses on Coursera or edX to tool-focused courses on Udemy, Skillshare, or Lynda. If you want a course-driven approach and a community to learn with, these can be great tools.
  • Conferences and workshops: Learning from an expert in person can be an inspiring and pivotal event. Some workplaces offer training compensation to attend conferences, and others may invite experts to give workshops in-house. Even if your job won’t cover the costs, it’s worth saving up to attend a conference in a field you are interested in from time to time.
  • Books (and ebooks): Unlike other methods, you can read a book almost anywhere and turn unused time into learning time. The biggest downside is that books on some topics can get dated very quickly. I made a list of my favorite recommendations across a wide range of subjects, or you can dig into specific topics in the UX Library.
  • Blogs: While books often dive deep into specific topics, blogs touch very quickly on a variety of current topics. With the proliferation of Medium and other blogging platforms, almost anyone can share their experience and knowledge without needing to set up their own site. Look for trusted sources, check the date on posts (especially about tools and technical skills), and subscribe to the blogs you find yourself revisiting.
  • Newsletters: Speaking of subscriptions, newsletters are a convenient way to keep up to date on a specific topic. Odds are the niche you want to study has one or more newsletters dedicated to it that come out on a regular basis. As you explore a topic and find helpful sites, take the time to subscribe to their newsletters. If you like this site, for instance, you might enjoy my monthly newsletter.
  • Videos: Maybe you’re not a prolific reader, but you learn best when you watch videos. There are millions of great videos available on a variety of topics. Dig in and you can find recorded conference sessions, design and development screencasts, Twitch streams for illustrators, and so much more.
  • Podcasts and audio books: Podcasts are another easy way to fill that unused space in your day, giving you a way to learn while you’re commuting, doing dishes, or otherwise occupying your hands but not your brain. Need a recommendation? I made a pretty comprehensive list of design-related podcasts a few months ago.
  • Communities: Sometimes you need to ask questions or get feedback on your curiosity journey. In those cases, it’s better to have a more active community to participate in. No matter what you’re learning, there’s probably a community out there, from Dribbble or Reddit to Stack Overflow or Slack.

Strategies for learning

Now that you have a good idea how you learn and some solid resources to get started, how do you keep yourself accountable and actually do the work? Here are some helpful strategies that will make learning easier and more rewarding:

  • Remake or remix the greats: One of the most tried and true methods of learning is to study others you consider experts in the field you want to learn. Mimic their work and try to remake it for yourself. (Important side note: there is nothing inherently wrong in remaking work for your own education. Attempting to resell or claim it as your own work is what you need to avoid.) When I wanted to learn HTML, I started by looking at how my favorite sites were built then reproduced the results and played with them.
  • Take a studycation: I first saw the term “studycation” from Rachel Nabors a week or so ago, but I was immediately smitten with the concept. Taking time off to buckle down and focus on learning a new technique seems like a perfect way to get fully immersed in it.
  • Practice regularly: Whether you’re setting up a regular time to practice a new skill or a recurring cadence of creation, the simple act of repetitive practice will build your creative muscles (just like exercise builds your physical muscles). Want to be a better artist? Draw something every day. Want to be a better developer? Code something every day. Want to be a better writer? Write something every day. It’s that simple.
  • Pick a passion project: Want to make something easier to learn? Pair it with another passion. Illustrate a scene from your favorite book. Write fan fiction about your favorite show. Code a site to showcase your collection of baseball cards or recipes.
  • Create a playground: Maybe what you want to learn is still nascent, and there’s not a lot of resources. Sometimes you just need to play, to experiment, to explore the edges and see what happens. In exploring how CSS Grid works and helping to shape its future, Jen Simmons built a playground for playing with CSS Grid. She’s used it to explore new layout concepts, teach the basics of CSS Grid, and test what works and what doesn’t.
  • Share it with others: Having a friend learn with you or committing to be accountable to someone for your learning will give you an extra ounce of motivation when you’re tempted to slack off. Sharing your progress with your friends can also give you a huge boost as they cheer you on.
  • Sketchnoting: Writing notes by hand has been proven to be more effective at helping people retain and process learning. Sketchnoting is a more visually focused version of the proven pen and paper method. Once you have the basics down, you can hone your technique while at conferences, in meetings at work, or just watching videos on YouTube.

Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t trash old work. As you learn and grow, your old work may start to look shoddy in comparison. This is a Good Thing! Keep your old work so you can track your improvements. You can also revisit and improve it or take it in a new direction.
  • Do evaluate what could be better. It’s easy to get disheartened as you begin to learn something new. Compared to the skills you already have, your new skill will feel quite elementary. As you learn, examine where you are doing well and where you need to grow then make the changes to get closer to where you want to be.
  • Don’t give up. We all struggle with this, especially learning something new. But stick with it (try some of the strategies above) and share your successes. Your new skill may not become a core part of your work, but everything you learn can expand your capacity for interesting connections.
  • Do celebrate small victories. Reward yourself for big and small moments along the way. Even small celebrations will help you stay motivated and excited for what comes next.
  • Don’t claim other’s work as your own. As I said above, learning by copying others is a fantastic way to learn from more experienced people. But keep the copied work to yourself.
  • Do share your inspiration. On the flip side of that, if someone’s work inspires you, give them props for it! It doesn’t cost you anything, and it can mean the world to someone else.
  • Don’t slog through stuff you don’t enjoy. This might read as an antithesis to “Don’t give up” above, but it’s not. If you’re struggling through something and not feeling it, do something different: try a different approach to the same thing, take a break and learn something new, or seek help from others in the field.
  • Do look for challenges. If something you’re learning seems easy, find ways to make it more challenging. Try learning something else alongside it. Try experimenting and doing new things that others haven’t explored. Don’t settle for the easy route if you can take a more interesting one.
  • Don’t try to be an expert at everything. Expertise requires mastery and diving deep on a specific topic. Nobody has the time or energy to be an expert at everything.
  • Do seek mastery of a few core skills. Pick the skills you enjoy most. Hone them and dig into them. There’s nothing wrong with specializing in something as long as you’re still learning.

So what are you learning next?

You’re ready! What are you going to tackle first? Me? At the top of my list are CSS Grid and Vue.js - hopefully you’ll see the fruits of my learning on this site (or another) soon!

Like this? Please share:

Explore more like this