How to hack your design learning


I’m the best at psyching myself out when starting new projects.

Before I even sketch out a simple plan of the project, my mind enters ultra-irrational mode:

Well first, don’t I need to finish that Photoshop tutorial to learn how to make a better UI? Shouldn’t I also get a better grasp on typography, color and layout before I start designing this app?

I’ve literally put roadblocks in front of myself.

If you find yourself doing this too, I think you’ll find this post very helpful, and a bit different from other design articles floating around on the interwebs.

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The last several months I’ve been getting more in tune with The Minimalist philosophy. It all started when my friend invited me to The Last Bookstore, where Joshua Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus were promoting their new book on minimalism. In their Q&A with the audience, two concepts stuck out to me:

Just In Case: 

“‘Just in Case’ are the 3 most dangerous words to living a minimalist life.” Just in case means acquiring things “just in case” you need them. A pantry full of restaurant condiments. Pairs and pairs of old socks and t-shirts you’ll never wear. So how does this relate to design?

You see, I still experience “just in case” syndrome when it comes to new projects. I start downloading tons of design templates, save links to tutorials, and generally waste time surfing the web.

In my head, I came up with all these nonsensical excuses to “feel ready” for a project, thinking I need to do XYZ before getting started.

So I hoard information and resources, and overload myself with unnecessary things that don’t help me with my project. This is the equivalent of packing 2 full suitcases for a weekend trip.

In essence, I was doing work around the project, instead of working on the project itself. 

(Sidenote: hoarding information is one of the worst forms of procrastination)

Just in Time:

“Just in time” is the antithesis of “just in case.” Instead of packing a bunch of useless items on your travels, bring the most important essentials and just buy whatever you need.

Instead of thinking you have to learn XYZ skill before starting a personal project, just learn whatever skills are necessary along the way.

Example: let’s say you want to work on a dating app as a personal project. Here’s some steps that fall in line with the just in time philosophy:

  1. Brainstorm and dump all your ideas into a Word document
  2. Research and/or survey a few people regarding your project. “Can you tell me about which dating apps you use and why?”
  3. Sketch out some initial ideas and key screens.
  4. Prototype a few screens in wireframing/UI tool. Google things you don’t know along the way, e.g. “How to draw wireframes in Illustrator.”
  5. Repeat

When I was gunning for a position at one of the Big 4 Accounting firms, recruiters stressed that school or “book” knowledge is important, but most people learn 80% of what they need on the job. Accounting or not (yeah, I dodged that bullet), picking up new knowledge while doing the job is the best way to learn. More on that in a few paragraphs.

Striking a Balance

There’s definitely a balance to all this. I’m not advocating that you not learn. It’s not a crime to learn Photoshop before you start your project.

For those completely new to standard tools like Axure or Photoshop, it may be worth investing in a beginner’s course just to get familiar with a program and do basic things.

However, there is a point of diminishing returns when you fall down the rabbit hole of trying to learn every new program / skill on the block (a futile feat). That’s why learning becomes much more manageable when I started to think of projects as learning frameworks.

Projects make good anchors for learning skills (like Photoshop) much faster and better. They provide direction to learn something, rather than wandering aimlessly through an endless tutorial hell.

Over time, here’s what I hope my time and effort expenditures look like:


Why is this important? 

Personally, my biggest mental block is the idea that I need to feel 100% prepared and ready before starting something. Talking to other budding designers, I spot the same theme that holds them back from making faster progress.

The truth is, we’ll never be fully ready and preparing forever is a big lie. So learn it as you go, and enjoy the ride.

About the Author


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Oz first started UX Beginner was a way to document his own journey to become a UX designer. Now the site helps thousands of professionals transition into the user experience field with UX career resources, articles and courses.

One Comment on “How to hack your design learning”

  1. But if I don’t know what to learn? How could I know it, if I don’t have a pool of experience, of things things that I like, design patterns, elements and so on? While I like your approach, I think before you can start to design something, you need something to refer to, to generate ideas – at least if you are a beginner. Because if nothing’s in your head, it’s hard to get something out of it.

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