Keeping the Digital Knives Sharp

It’s true that graphic design is, at heart, a creative art form, and that being good at it requires a trained critical eye and understanding of the principles of art and design, not to mention art and design history. However, it is also true that being a graphic designer in the modern era is a technical position that requires software expertise and a command of various digital technologies.

While most professional designers are highly skilled in the standard set of applications, and we can fly around the interfaces with mouse and keyboard as direct extensions of our brains, there often comes a time when we have to navigate a more foreign application to accomplish a specific task or meet a client need (or contend with the perpetual assumption that all graphic designers are also somehow web developers). I think that it’s important to embrace those situations where we have to step outside of our comfort zones and grapple with a new interface as a chance to hone the modern graphic designer’s most valuable (hidden) skill: learning new software.

I write this with personal bias from the point of view of a graphic designer, as the nature of my position demands that I bounce from one technical task to another in satisfaction of wide-ranging duties. But the truth is that really any professional position comes with its own battery of digital tools that one must be able to jump in and out of in the course of a day’s work; marketers, project managers, administrators, etc., all have various software applications that they are expected to use, and those no doubt differ from workplace to workplace. Approaching the learning of new software as a skill of its own that can be improved with practice will make the next time you have to change platforms a little less daunting. My advice is to practice this skill.

Of course, learning anything is always going to take time—there’s no way to bypass that—but in trusting your ability to find and employ the information you need, you can reduce wasted time and frustration from anxiously searching in vain. If you sharpen the knives, so to speak, on a semi-regular basis, in time you’ll find that you can actually become adept at finding out how to accomplish what you need when you’re forced to dive into a new application or task.

Here are a few of my tips for learning how to learn new software:

1. Update to the latest version.

This is a much easier prospect today in the era of subscription models and cloud-based services than it once was, but even if you’re using a desktop app, make sure to start by installing any available updates. By nature, applications are imperfect, evolving organisms, and developers are always working to improve them. Don’t do yourself a disservice by using a less-perfect version. Experiencing a bug or a glitch can majorly derail your progress when you don’t yet know what you’re doing, so avoid this as much as possible by updating and using the best version available.

2. Explore the menus.

Before you jump into the specifics of the task at hand or even seek out any instruction, take 20 to 30 minutes to click around the menus and dropdowns and familiarize yourself with the options at your disposal, totally free from the pressures of trying to accomplish something. Even if the majority of this information isn’t ultimately retained, it’s always useful to have a rough blueprint of what functions are even possible with the application. Chances are, if you already know how to use a similar or tangential program, the interface will have a familiar organization and you may find you already know more than you thought you did right off the bat.

3. Start with tutorials.

There’s lots of help available out there from in-application help menus to community forums, all of which are great for troubleshooting specific issues, but when you’re just getting started, try searching for a tutorial video on YouTube. I find that learning from a professional first is most helpful to establish best practices rather than hacking together your own solution to a particular problem that may not be the most technically correct or effective. If you’re going to be starting a large project or investing a lot of time in this software, try searching the name and “tutorial for beginners” first to get a good foundation. If you just need to execute one task, search for that by name (e.g., “color correcting video footage in After Effects”). In either case, sit back and watch a few with your hands off the mouse. Of course, like anything else on the internet, there’s a lot of crap out there, so try to be critical of what you chose to watch and skip past anything that seems less than professional.

4. Teach yourself to fish.

Heed the cliché about giving a man a fish and try to use these resources as a general guide rather than a step-by-step how-to. I’d actually recommend jumping out of the tutorials at the very first moment you feel you have enough information to try the task on your own, rather than taking detailed notes from start to finish. The later may preclude you from arriving at a better solution for your particular subject matter or project. Plus, learning how to independently figure out solutions is the whole point of this exercise, so take the time to poke around and see if you can connect the dots on your own.

5. Let the application help you.

Once you’ve had a few internet humans show you around and you’ve gotten some first-hand tinkering under your belt, check the help menu for the software’s officially sanctioned gospel if you still find yourself getting stuck. Beyond that, turn on any smart guides, tooltips, or other interface features that might give you the information you’re missing. Mouse over unfamiliar icons, and wait for the tooltip to display. Adobe programs all include really helpful, short, and easily digestible videos as well as links to web-based help texts.

6. Anticipate and Embrace Frustration.

Responding to frustration is really the crux of this challenge and much more of a psychological exercise than a technical step. Intimidation and anxiety can pile up as you attempt something you’ve never done before, and this can lead you down a mental spiral of anger and despair. Try to get ahead of this by accepting that you will almost definitely run into roadblocks as you work your way through the process and embrace them as a necessary step in learning.

7. Practice.

Of course, this all rests on the notion that learning new software is a skill unto itself and that by forcing yourself to flex this muscle more often, you can actually make it stronger. So look for opportunities in your work to: tackle things yourself that you would normally outsource to another team member, explore competing platforms by signing up for free trials, or enhance familiar tasks with added value. Not only will this make you a more valuable employee, it will also make things easier on you the next time the decision to tackle new software is not voluntary.

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