Over the last several weeks, I've seen my blog readership increase signficantly.  I am extremely grateful for the kind words that people have shared with me, and of course, for everyone who follows my ramblings about web design.  

During this time, I've had several readers contact me, seeking advice about how to get more into web design, how to improve their skills, etc.  I am extremely humbled that anyone would seek my advice on this, and I have done my best to provide the best suggestions I can.  So now, let me distill down some of the things I've said.

I don't want to get overly Dr. Phil-ish on this, but I think the psychology of the web designer is a crucial component to be becoming better.  What does this mean?  Well, I continually advocate that one of the best ways to become a better designer is to live in the billion-and-three design galleries that are out there.  Let me diverge for a second and shamelessly plug my own — css-imagine.com.  There, I'm done :).

In all seriousness, I believe that examining and learning from the design of others is a great way to improve.  First, by doing this, you begin to see patterns emerge from successful designs.  These often subtle practices can serve to fill in the gaps in a design and take it from so-so to totally awesome.  Second, staying up on these galleries helps you keep in touch with trends in web design.  The benefit of this, of course, is that if you are charged with designing towards a particular "feel," you have a great stockpile of resources from which to derive great inspiration.  And third–and most importantly–living in these galleries helps you keep perspective.  You are not the only web designer out there, and there are a ton of talented designers that can be great motivators for improving your own skills.

This is all fine and good, but this kind of approach also carries with it a dark side.  While it is great to learn from others and to draw inspiration from their awesome work, it can also be discouraging.  After all, let's be serious: most of us real-world web designers are torn between a billion responsibilities.  We've got full-time day jobs, families, mortgages, etc. that we have to manage in addition to scraping out the few precious hours we are able to devote to improving our skills.  In the midst of these myriad pressures, it's easy to feel inferior to the great work being produced by others.  

To be perfectly honest, I struggle with this daily.  I see great design all around me, and hopefully contribute to it occassionally, but often feel like I don't measure up.  There's always someone out there who I think does better work and whose design work tempts me to treat my own with contempt.  At first, I thought I was unique in these feelings, but as recent emails to me have indicated, there are plenty of designers who struggle with the same feelings.

So how do we cope with these feelings psychologically?  Unfortunately, I don't have perfect answers.  However, here's some tips that have helped me.  

First, understand that you're not the best designer in the world and will never be.  This sounds harsh, but it underlines an important truth:  if the measure of yourself as a designer is based upon how you compare yourself to others, you'll never measure up and will perpetually spiral through cycles of self-deprecation.  Look, there's always going to be great designers out there, and the measure of success and popularity that they enjoy will vary depending on natural talent, life circumstances, connections, technology….on and on and on.  But is being the "best" designer, or being "better" than Jim, Jennifer and Joe the measure of a successful designer?  NO!  If web design is something you love to do, then the amount of enjoyment you receive from doing it is the measure.  And if it's your source of income, paying the bills and earning a comfortable living are the criteria.  To base your self-worth as a designer on your own subjective evaluation of yourself next to others is a sure-fire recipe for failure and a miserable life a life a designer.

The next way to cope psychologically as a designer is to get to a place where you can be proud of and confident in your abilities.  Not having confidence in your abilities is not only psychologically damaging, but it will also negatively influence how you engage with your clients.  If you cannot approach your work confidently, your clients will also begin doubting your abilities (whether or not this is actually warrented) and may seek out others who will make them feel more comfortable with the money they are spending on web design.  Therefore, you must avoid allowing your evaluation of your abilities as a designer to be constantly suppressed by feelings of inadequacy–if you do, you'll never find pride in your work and will perpetually loathe everything you do because it does not measure up to the false standard to which you are holding it.

And this plays directly into the final point, that you have to realize that design ability is not something turned on or off…it's something developed slowly and patiently over time through hard work, learning from other designers, and the natural talent that you bring to it.  The great designers that we all idolize, with very few exceptions, did not produce masterpieces on their first attempt.  Rather, like all of us, the started with less-than-amazing designs and grew into the skills that they now wield masterfully.  

In the same way, we each start where we are and with what we have–where we go from there is our decision.  If you decide to hold yourself to unrealistic standards, you'll find that design is frustrating and unenjoyable as you try to live up to measures that are not attainable from where you currently are as a designer.  Everything you do will be repulsive to you, and more than likely you'll either give up or resort to flat-out plagarism to accomodate your dysfunctional self-criticism.  However, if you choose to take a long view and be realistic about where you are currently as a designer, you'll be able to take great pride in your work and enjoy the process of developing as a designer.  Instead of loathing your previous design work, you'll be able to look back proudly, seeing how your hard work over the months and years has paid off as you see clear and tangible progress from point to point along the way.