For the next few weeks, Words for Winners will cover five important strategies that will make you a more successful designer on 99designs. Part one focuses on the understanding of where inspiration comes from, how to get it when you’re stuck and how to brainstorm strategically so you can compete with the best.

So sit back, relax, read and win!

From Mona Lisa to map making and machine design, he did it all – in great detail, precision and beauty. Most people will agree that Leonardo Da Vinci was a talented individual but few of them can explain what talent actually is.

Is it about knowing how to draw? It is, to a degree.

Is it about having great ideas? Certainly but you need more than ideas.

Is it about working hard? Yes, but it’s also about working smart.

Talent is comprised of many different properties, each influencing creative capabilities of an individual. Although it’s hard to give a foolproof “talent recipe,” there are some core ingredients which cannot be removed or replaced if you want to become a highly valued and productive designer.

Let’s see what they are.

1. Focus on brilliant executions

Photo: Jeff Sheldon (via unsplash)

As creative people, we are very fond of ideas, both of our own and of other individuals. But there is one harsh fact of life: great execution beats great ideas.

It’s simple when you think about it – the key difference between a great and average designer is not in their ability to come up with good ideas, but in their ability to execute them. Professional designers are skilled craftsmen – they know how to combine the colors, pick and tweak the typography, achieve a particular effect and set a specific mood so they can bring any idea to life in a convincing way.

Similarly, you can spot amateurs a mile away – their ideas will always have some merit, but their designs simply don’t look polished and professional.

Therefore, to compete with the best, you need to put 80% of your efforts on building your design skill set.

The best way to do this is to regularly follow high quality graphic design tutorials on sites like Abduzeedo and Tutsplus, and stay on top of latest design thinking blogs such as Smashing Magazine.

What about your ideas? Don’t worry, you’ll never run out of those.

2. Design something every day

Photo: Jeff Sheldon (via unsplash)

Great talent comes only when you combine creativity and productivity. In other words, the only way to increase the amount of great work is to increase the amount of work itself because nobody ever managed to get every project right.

Just consider these historical facts:

  • Einstein is well-known for his theory of relativity but he published 248 other papers
  • Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he felt ill
  • Mozart produced more than 600 musical pieces but only a dozen are world famous

Design something every day. Period.

3. Think in an organized way

Photo: Ed Gregory (via Stokpic)

Most design projects are actually problem solving tasks – great designers are great visual problem solvers.

However, solving problems isn’t that easy. You will often get stuck, feeling helpless and without ideas.

Fortunately, there are simple, proven and effective techniques of creative thinking which can be used to assist you in this process. Use them as tools to get inspiration, ideas and avenues to explore in your designs.

Think inside the box. Set two to three design limitations you have to work with, then try to come up with a design solution. For example: “Design a logo without rounded edges, swooshes and gradient effects.” This technique works because we are problem solvers by nature – our creative juices start flowing as soon as we spot a challenge to be solved.

Think outside the box. Go beyond obvious and expected and come up with an unique solution. For example, if you’re designing a website ask yourself: “How would this website look if I wanted to surprise people?” Another useful approach is to borrow a mindset: “What would Lady Gaga do?”

Compare. Compare your project to a person, object or brand you know well. Ask yourself, “What is this product or company like, unlike?” Questions like these help you form analogies and similes which, more often than not, give you a clear idea of the design direction to follow.

Random word. Pick a random word and list all your associations on a piece of paper. Think how to apply some of these associations to your project. Because your brain is a self-organizing system, it’s very good at making connections – you’ll be surprised how helpful this is.

Improve. When you’re totally stuck, leave your work for a while then come back and calmly build a list of things you could do to improve the design. Try to look at it from a neutral point of view – be your own mentor and guide. More often than not you’ll come up with an entirely different solution just by going through this process.

Adapt. Browse your project archive and see how you can put your previous ideas to new uses. If you’re an active designer, you’ll often spot real design gems you entirely forgot about. Note that you should never submit old designs to new contests without making necessary changes first.

Import. All designers “import” work from each other – that’s how you get design trends. Feel free to find inspiration from specific details such as buttons, shapes and textures but never directly copy others designs – that’s called plagiarism and it’s bad for you.

Merge. Find two different designs you like, then think how to marry them successfully. This works best when you combine different design epochs, such as 19th century illustration with modern typography. Explore freely.

Anchor. Pick a random visual idea which is suitable for your design, then think how to build a whole design solution around it. For example, if you’re designing a brochure for a pet products company, you might start with a photo of a dog you like then find a way to build a design around it

The techniques listed above are great for graphic design, but you can find many more in Thinkertoys book or by Googling creative techniques.

4. Be open minded and curious

Photo: Sunset Girl (via Unsplash)

Creativity cannot survive without variety. Your mind uses your experiences to create new connections and new ideas – the more repetitive and monotonous your daily routine is, the less creative you’ll be.

For example, Da Vinci explored painting, sculpting, architecture, music, science, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, cartography and botany.

Over the top, we agree but you don’t have to go this far – just try some new things every day: meet new people, read magazines you normally don’t, try some exotic food… the list could go on and on.

You will become a better, more creative and more motivated designer.

Next up: How to select the right contest

Cover image: Kelley Bozarth (via Unsplash)