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How I Learned to Re-align Myself

Man walking into the distance looking for something

One thing I've obsessed with over the last few years is re-alignment.

Cameron Moll's Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign post has urged me to improve a design rather than throw it out. The more I practise this idea with my own sites, the more I'm convinced that re-alignment is not just the path to correcting things but also the path to self-improvement as a designer. This article is about taking the idea of design re-alignment and applying it internally. Reflecting on and improving my past work over the last couple of years has resulted in a deep satisfaction that's reinvigorated my approach to new work, and I wish you could feel this way too.

As a side note, I run a Discord group called Design Critique—please feel free to join and get free advice.

I Debug My Personal Sites

If you're looking to improve your design skills, I recommend starting with your own website. Designing for clients can undoubtedly help you improve, but it will never lead to significant development because you're restricted by the client's vision of what a website should be. I've lost count of how many times a client has referenced a boring site like BBC News as an “inspiration”. The truth is clients have no idea what's possible. Exploring without someone figuratively standing over your shoulder is both liberating and allows you to find your own style.

I became a better designer when I stopped hitting the reset button; I stopped redesigning my site. Instead, I started critiquing it; I dug into what was actually wrong with it. I threw my ego out and asked around, and when I saw Jack McDade offering 5-minute video critiques, I asked him to lay into my site too.

One of my favourite phrases ever is 'debugging design'. I first heard Laura Elizabeth mention it on Shop Talk Show Ep 317. Debugging design means trying to objectively understand why a design 'feels' good or bad.

I started looking at designs I liked—by my favourite designers—then I “debugged” them. I looked at individual components and tried to understand what made them effective objectively. I asked myself what made them effective on their own and then what made them more effective in the bigger picture.

The next bit was crucial—I decided that if I couldn't make any significant improvements to a component, I threw away that part of the design. “Part” is the significant word here. I became a better designer when I learned to throw things out. “In writing, you must kill all your darlings”, said William Faulkner. Well, the same applies to design.

You can see an earlier version of my own site from Jack's video critique. I'm not sure how well this post will age, but at the time of writing, you'll see some things from that video I've kept (colour scheme, intrigue section), some things I've since improved (typography, simplicity, scale), and other things I have thrown out completely (iconography, photo).

One of the reasons I love digital design so much is that you can revise it. Don't overthink things; instead, trust the process of experimenting, pausing, reflecting, and throwing away without consequence.

I Collect Things and Follow Weird People on Dribbble

Over the years, I've learnt to collect unexpected designs and things I like in a scrapbook. My scrapbook is simply a folder full of screenshots. Whenever I start a new project, I flip through these designs and find a design direction that might suit the new project.

At first, I worried this might result in copycat sites, but it never does in the end. Through rebuilding something similar with different goals in mind, there are inevitable deviations. Most often, large deviations. I'm going to be completely honest here and say that I absolutely loved the 10x18 site when it came out. I scrapbooked it in 2018 and found it again when I was redesigning the podcast site I co-host. I'm comfortable enough to share this inspiration because even though there are some similarities—the display typeface and graduated colours—I feel like the site I designed is significantly different. Everything's a remix, as Kirby Ferguson says.

The other thing I do is look through Dribbble. And let me quickly say the rubbish-ing of Dribbble annoys me. Things look good on Dribbble, and there is no shame in that. You should be aiming for things to look good.

People rubbish Dribbble because it tends to showcase pixel-perfect solutions—rather than problems and processes. Well, yes—this is what you'll see if you look through popular posts or conventional “inspiration”.

The fix? Follow weird people with different skills. If you're a web designer, don't follow people that make websites. I follow a craft beer maker and graphic designers that choose unusual typography, layout, and symbols, such as Bold Monkey or Bastien Allard.

Finding My Identity

As much as I admire particular designers, I realise it's essential to avoid becoming a carbon copy of them for my own self-validation. I've been trying to understand what sort of art direction produces the best results for me. What do I enjoy? What do I identify with?

Instead of seeing all these things as crutches, I am trying to embrace them as “my thing”.

Here's what I've written down…

  1. I'm drawn to neon hues with high-contrast colours and confined textures

  2. I like very stylised, abstract imagery

  3. I love striking, slightly left-field display typefaces

  4. I reach for “hairline” borders a lot. I think this is because they emphasise contrast.

Educating Myself on Design

With practice, I'm getting better at design debugging and realigning myself, but sometimes formal education and references also help.

Just leaving these here…three paradigm-shifting resources for me have been Typewolf's Flawless Typography Checklist, playing with type scales, and using HSL to design colour schemes. I leave these references cautiously because I dislike being confined to a scientific approach when it comes to design. For example, I like alignment, but I hate formal grids—they feel like spreadsheets to me. I find that great design tends to happen accidentally.

Despite this, design education has helped me. If I change something's defaults, I now understand the consequences—for example, I know opting for a higher line-height on my body text may “breathe” more but will result in poor readability.

Somewhat ironically, I've been sitting here for the last 15 minutes trying to find a way to wrap up this article elegantly. My list of references is a weak ending. But maybe that's OK. I'll step back, critique, and re-align this article at a later date.