Yesterday, I offered some suggestions on learning the tools of graphic design. But once you know how to draw a circle in Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign (and After Effects and Premiere Pro, if you’re inclined to learn animation and video production), where are you going to put it? What happens to the layout when it goes in the center of the page? What happens when it goes in the bottom corner? The top edge?

You can be good at execution, but not at ideation and strategy. (If this happens, your work will be best when you’re directed by others.) And you can be good at ideation and strategy but not good at execution. (If that happens, your work will be best when you have resources to hire others to make your ideas come true.)

But you, you rare and amphibious bird, want to be good at both. Today, I’ll make a few notes about just that.

Learning to create ideas

  • Consume a steady diet of things related to the media you love the most. Note that I didn’t say “consume a healthy diet”…look at everything in that area, the good and the bad, the classy and the trashy, the amateurish and the professional. If it’s social media GIFs, follow those who post GIFs. If it’s magazines, subscribe to an assortment, hang out at the newsstand, reach for that neon tabloid at the grocery check-out line, or go to the library and ask for to-be-discarded past issues. If it’s picture books, start a goal to read 20 books every week.
  • Pay attention to other stuff in the world that catches your eye. Take photos or make quick sketches. Think through how it was built and why. Go the extra mile by trying to recreate it…and then riffing on it.
  • Figure out the environmental context in which something was made. The environmental context works as a set of constraints. Understanding the constraints can help you understand why some decisions were made. Sometimes, this takes you back to learning the tools better. For example, I spent last week redesigning a website. I have minimal coding skills, so I wasn’t sure how to design for responsiveness (scaling windows across differently sized screens). Fortunately, the web builder explained to me the constraints of the platform, and that helped to guide my design decisions. But I wouldn’t have chosen to make those particular layouts if I hadn’t known about the constraints.
  • Figure out the social and business context in which something was made. Who was that thing created for, and why? What the designer want the viewer to do or think about? Then, notice ways that the design accomplishes these things (or doesn’t).
  • Understand how design thinking works, and how prolific creators come up with so many ideas. Tom and David Kelley’s The Art of Innovation is a good place to start, and there are many podcasts and videos online about this subject.
  • Question yourself. Put something on the page. Move it. Change the color. Move it again. Resize it. Save often, and make duplicate copies of things along the way to help you compare what works. Use the technology to help you do this well: hide layers and use multiple window viewing arrangements (so far only Photoshop has this function built in, but you can do similar things manually in InDesign and Illustrator).
  • Learn theory. There are a handful of classics in this area, and an expanding array of helpful new titles. Grids: Grid Systems Raster Systems (Müller-Brockmann). Color theory: Interaction of Color (Albers). Typography: The Elements of Typographic Style (Bringhurst), Thinking with Type (Lupton). Data visualization: Envisioning Information (Tufte), The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Tufte). Psychology: Visual Thinking (Arnheim).
  • At some point, especially after seeing a wall of titles, you might feel overwhelmed, like you cannot possibly learn it all fast enough. That’s true. You cannot possibly read every book ever written, see every video online, listen to every podcast. No one can, and no one has, not even the people who you think are the greatest designers. Don’t hide from your work by saying there’s more to learn first. Approach learning as a lifelong process and a vital supplement to the work you create.

Now, about those people you think are the greatest…Tomorrow I’ll offer some notes on developing the posture of a professional designer. You can’t be any of those design stars you admire, but with every new hour, you can be the best graphic designer you have ever been. And one day, that might make you a design star to someone else.