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Graphic designer, educator, and writer Nika Simovich Fisher (@labud.nyc) is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Today, Nika writes about how to keep up with the fast-changing tools in design.
How do you keep up to date with all the software that exists out there? I feel that there's so much to learn about...and I want to learn about them all but it gets a bit overwhelming sometimes. I mean this both in the amount of content but also just the different types of jargon that exist for different apps.
Designers and engineers are continually inventing solutions and striving for improvement across all parts of the workflow.
Sometimes, tools that are already functional get remade, remixed, and iterated upon. I’m not surprised by your question – it can feel overwhelming when there are new programs and updates to existing software coming out daily.
So, how do you stay up-to-date, continue building your toolkit, and still keep your cool?
First of all, it’s important to remember that the tools don’t make the designer. Consider: how many creative professionals describe themselves as a “Photoshop Designer?” Not many. That’s because Photoshop is a tool, not a profession.
The distinction between software and profession is important because as new tools appear, your initial thought might be to worry that you’ll lose relevancy if you fail to keep up. While it’s true that maintaining a modern toolkit is an essential part of being a designer, there will always be multiple ways of achieving the same goal, and it’s up to the designer to know which tools are most appropriate for their workflow and project’s needs.
And rest assured, there are always multiple solutions.
Here are a few tips that will help you navigate the ever-changing design landscape and develop a custom philosophy that resonates with your work.
Being an expert at every software is both an unrealistic and unnecessary goal. There are simply too many choices, and your time will go further if you understand broader learning concepts and how to identify when specific tools are the best option for a task at hand.
To do this, you need to pay attention to what’s available. If you’re working as a designer for someone else, you’ll gain insight on that organization’s workflow. There are plenty of lessons available here. However, not all businesses adopt modern workflows because of the time it would take to update. It’s helpful to do your research, and the internet is a great place to start.
Keep your ears open: If you follow designers and software companies you like on Twitter, you’re likely to run into discussions on trending tools and new releases. You can also pay attention to websites like Designer News and Hacker News where participants are actively discussing tools of the trade.
Organize tools you come across: I’d suggest finding a way of organizing other resources you come across – you might try using are.na to build a collection that other users can contribute to, or a Notion board that you can continue adding to, or an evolving google doc. Even a low-fi text edit document could work. You could have a link to the tool you’re interested in with a few bullet points about what it’s for. For example: “Figma – collaborative digital design tool.”
Don't overlook logs: Most programs release updates or logs. When they do, your instinct might be to ignore them. Often, these logs provide helpful tips and tricks and new additions to the tools. This helps develop efficiency and know what is possible within a particular program and provides clues on how the industry is evolving.
Prioritize: When you have time, it’s a good idea to try out a few of the tools that seem either most discussed or most relevant to your interests.
Play around: You can do this in a low-commitment way. Open the software or tool (most programs are either free or include a free trial) and explore the interface. Watch some introductory YouTube videos, where you'll be able to discover how other people use this program.
Even with a basic skill set, you can learn what the tool is used for. If you know what you can do and what you’re trying to achieve with your project, it is a lot easier to figure out how to do it, rather than overwhelm yourself with the ins and outs of every minute detail of the interface.
This brings me to my next point – if you try out enough programs, you’ll begin to identify patterns between them and understand more significant foundations, which are more important than the actual tool itself. These patterns reflect broader learning concepts that appear across design and development, and understanding them as building blocks will help you build a technical vocabulary that is not tool-specific.
For example, keyframes appear in programming, motion graphics, and prototyping tools. The concept of setting a time to an action is more important than knowing how to do it in every new program. Understanding keyframes as an animation concept and that keyframes exist at all will help you break down what you’re trying to do and understand the right way to search for how to do it, even if you’re unfamiliar with the program.
Understanding these overarching concepts helps demystify the software and enables you to see it as a way to visualize an idea rather than a roadblock. This will give you confidence when you design and help you know what’s possible.
If you’re working in new software and want to have an image fade in and out of your page, you could see what image assets are available if you can target opacity, and if there is an animation or timeline to the program. You could also try googling this, and you’ll have a more focused search result than if you’re looking for tutorials on how to use the program overall. Focus on specific skills based on what you need to learn for the project you're working on, and through this practical approach, you'll learn the software more organically, one step and tutorial at a time - rather than spend your time trying to learn everything, most of it things that may not even apply to your day-to-day workflow.
Knowing what the professional grade tools are is helpful, but you’ll identify what tools and techniques resonate with your design values as you develop your process.
One way of understanding this is through personal preference. Many tools provide the same endpoint, but you might prefer details within it. For example, Sketch and Figma are both competitors in the digital design tool space. If you want to design a website, both tools would be modern tools to do so.
Some designers prefer Figma because of its collaborative component – you can look at in-process design and refine it in real-time with multiple people. For many teams, this is crucial because it allows the team to collaborate and make progress collectively.
Some independent designers prefer Sketch because they mostly work by themselves so the collaborative component isn’t a huge selling point.
Figma also comes with Google Fonts loaded by default but not websafe fonts, while Sketch loads your local fonts by default. Some designers might prefer their custom set of typefaces than to have Google Fonts loaded in. Additionally, one might argue that having Google Fonts loaded in, but not websafe defaults, is too much curation from the software.
Another way to build your toolkit is by connecting the philosophies of your tool to your design practice. For example, if you have concerns with design companies setting up monopolies over their service and setting steep prices, you might consider designing with free, open-source tools. Alternativeto is a website that provides options crowdsourced alternatives to many common programs.
It’s a good idea to experiment with tools that are not the professional standard to see how the design process differs.
Your way of working reflects a lot about your design. Sometimes, when you’re first learning an image-making tool, the software's threads are shown in the end result. Many designers' first explorations in Cinema 4D will look similar in both form and color because it takes a little while to refine this and customize it to project needs and design style.
The more you practice, the more you’ll find ways to customize the tools and add in personal details that make your projects feel more memorable and intentional.