Deliberate Practice in Design

A few years ago I was looking for a new job.

Design Skills

While I had almost a decade of experience and lots of good examples in my portfolio, I was struggling to get job offers. When I did get feedback about my interviews, I generally got the same comment: “We are looking for someone with better visual design skills.”

I never claimed to be a visual designer and wasn’t looking for a visual design position, but companies at the time were looking for something more akin to a UX unicorn, and my visual design skills clearly couldn’t compare. I figured that if I wanted a new job, I would have to find a way to increase my visual design skills.

But how should I go about this? I certainly consumed whatever resources I could find to help me, but reading about visual design and understanding it is completely different than actually implementing the lessons learned. I didn’t get to do a lot of visual design work in the job I had and was working on deadlines, so it was hard to come by it naturally at work. And with a wife and a small child at home, the thought of taking classes at night was not appealing.

Since none of these answers were suitable for me, I had to take a different approach. I found my answer, instead, in deliberate practice.

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What is Deliberate Practice

From his decades of research, and captured in his book ‘Peak’, Anders Ericsson describes deliberate practice as a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. It is not simply performing the same activities over and over again, but takes the person out of their comfort zone to make them develop techniques to solve their problems. It is aimed at learning, where the outcome is less important than developing good habits and processes. And a key is getting immediate, informative feedback based on what you have done. You can then keep trying and adjusting.

In deliberate practice, the outcome is less important than developing good habits and processes.

In the book, Ericsson describes several examples of successful deliberate practice. Some skills are straightforward (though still difficult to master), like learning an instrument or perfecting a swimming stroke. But he also recognizes that some domains lend themselves to this direct implementation better than others.

For example, he describes the method in which Ben Franklin improved his writing ability. Franklin would find examples of articles that he thought were well-written, remember the general focus of the article, and then set it aside. After a few weeks, he would come back to it and try to recreate the writing as best he could. Since he wouldn’t be able to remember everything word for word, he would have to do his best to write in a style that was similar. He could compare his writing to the original article to get feedback and identify where he needed to improve.

He noticed that one of the keys for good writing is a large vocabulary, so he worked to expand his vocabulary. This gave him another area of focus for his deliberate practice. He would then wait a few weeks and try again. Over time, he became a very good writer this way.