Mar 4 2013

Writing Makes Me A Better Designer

About a month ago, I decided to start a new discipline: write a short piece about design every day using Day One, which has a useful daily reminder. My goal was to become a better designer. It worked. I started to obsess more over my design process and made many fascinating case studies. I had no idea that by sharing my design decisions and techniques to the world, it would help thousands of designers improve their own. During that one month period, over 70 thousands unique visitors came to my blog seeking information about Sketch, Android design and Solving The Back Button. Many came back. Designers would ask me questions directly on Twitter, to which I happily replied. With this article, I’d like to share with you what I learned through this humbling journey.


Don’t Just Think, Write

I used to bottle all my thoughts inside my head and never write anything lengthy down on paper. Yes, it was expressed through my design, but is that enough? Can I become a better designer by writing? The answer is yes. The thousands of thoughts my in head were chaotic. Writing was a way to organize them and clarify them in the simplest form of expression: words. I know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but are those words cleanly organized? That’s what I wanted to improve. A designer should be able to concisely explain his product decisions. People can recognize good design if you’re able to tell them why and show them how.

“Good design makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.” – Dieter Rams

Iterate & Respond To Feedback

Feedback is gold. Your blog is essentially a topic open for discussion, whether the feedback exists on your site or on networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Designer News or Hacker News. I also iterated my blog based on some comments:

1) Added News Feed, so that people can subscribe on their RSS apps.

2) 18% of my readers are on mobile, so I made the blog friendly for iPhone, iPad and Android. I also added an icon for the home screen on iOS.

3) Added Markdown support for WordPress so that I can paste efficiently the posts that I wrote on Day One, which also uses Markdown.

4) Write follow-ups based on feedback: Photoshop Users: How To Switch To Sketch was written because I was asked to write a “Get Started” article for Sketch. Photoshop VS Fireworks was written because many felt that Fireworks was a good alternative to Photoshop. I had to compare it to Sketch.

Grasp The Moment, Don’t Let It Slip

I spend very little time writing blogs. English is not my first language and I’m just not very good at it, which is why I wanted to dedicate more hours to it. I write what goes through my mind. I learned throughout the years that the key to efficiency is to never wait for inspiration and always grasp it as it hits you, on the topics you’re most passionate about. Turn frustrations into actions. Inspiration comes when you set an environment and lifestyle fertile for it. When it strikes, don’t let it slip, it doesn’t matter if you’re brushing your teeth or in the middle of a conversation, jump to your phone and write your thought down. If it was good enough to completely eat your soul, then it’s worth writing about. That thought will stem into a more complex piece and from there, it will naturally blossom.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” — Bruce Lee

After reading that quote, chances are that you it will inspire you as it did to me. Well, grasp the moment.

Don’t Let It Sit

Waiting is the enemy of productivity. What I usually end up doing is set a condensed amount of time and just completely be absorbed by a task. Be your own researcher, tester, proof-reader, even if you suck at it. You’ll eventually get better. Never say no to something just because you think you’re not good at it. Try it first and if it stops you from waiting, then it’s all worthwhile. Learn through the experience.

Write About You & Make It Useful

Who are you? What’s your design process like? Who are your heroes? There is an overwhelming number of generic topics out there, of people jumping the bandwagon on topics like Skeuomorphism or Google Glass. While there’s nothing wrong with those topics per se, they’ve been so sucked dry that nothing really useful will likely come out of them. Skeuomorphism doesn’t matter in design (it’s not a foundation) and Google Glass, albeit an interesting idea, is not a real product yet. Almost no one has tried it. If design is problem solving, then you are not really solving anything with speaking about generic topics. Treat your readers like the student that you are and give them useful, thoughtful and new angles on what you’re passionate or frustrated about. Solve them. Share resources, give answers and teach your readers useful techniques to perfect their art.

Be An Original

Seek the original source. Don’t be a copy of a copy, you’ll end up being a bad copy. Dieter Rams is my hero because he’s the original source of inspiration for most of the Apple products. The minimalist design approach we see today are likely based on his 10 principles of good design. Steve Jobs is another hero of mine because he completely changed my career orientation by exposing good design to the mass market. Now, my skills and design thinking are actually wanted. Other heroes of mine? Tesla, Bruce Lee, Jiro.

Let me give you a task: find the heroes of your heroes and dig really deep by jumping through generations. Chances are that you will find a world of fascinating people who forever shaped the world of today. When you reach a true original, study all you can about him or her.

Put It Out There

Don’t hesitate now that it’s done. Get it out to a few key places and expect absolutely nothing. Tweet it, post it on Designer News and Hacker News. If your work is good, people will come to you. If it’s not, then keep working at it. Jiro required that all his apprentices go through 10 years of rigorous training perfecting the art of sushi. New apprentices would spend months just cooking a Tamago (Japanese egg omelet) to perfection. It’s not about the goal but the path. It’s not about perfection but the love for pixels. Quality over quantity. If a few readers like your stuff, thank them and ask them why. Welcome tips and meet with them. Build relationships and expand your ideas.

10,000 Hours Is Not Enough

I’ve been designing for 12 years and I’ve been committed to the 10,000 hours rule of practice ever since I finished the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. And so, I have applied that much practice to my design. But, when I look at Jiro, Dreams of Sushi, a man who has spent over 50 years perfecting the art of sushi, I ask myself, am I good enough?

“Originally, I was going to make a film with a lot of different sushi chefs who all had different styles, but when I got to Jiro’s restaurant, I was not only amazed by how good the sushi was and how much greater it was than any other sushi restaurant I had ever been to…”, the filmmaker says about Jiro.

“How much greater”. Going above and beyond the bare minimum is what makes the craft that much greater than anything anyone has ever experienced. If 10,000 hours is the bare minimum, then 50 years is my next goal.

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111 responses to “Writing Makes Me A Better Designer”

  1. @brian_lovin says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  2. @hamstu says:

    @MengTo explains his process/journey and offers some tips. He has a great design blog. Check it out!

  3. I love what you have written here, I’ve been following your writing from a few posts back. You are right, I just recently began documenting my thoughts on particular designs that I am working on and it has helped, like you said, to organize my thoughts.

  4. @jacob_weber says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo: worth a read

  5. @kamebkj says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  6. I fall very much into the just “put it out there” camp and have been blogging for about 7 years now. I need to do that more with my design and dev work but from at least the writing perspective it has already paid off in spades. My blog is now the center of my online identity more or less (well, Twitter too).

  7. If it was good enough to completely eat your soul, then it’s worth writing about. (via @Pocket)

  8. @mjamal says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  9. @AntoinePlu says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo: #wdfr

  10. Alex says:

    A real big thank you for sharing you Sketch designs with us (and your fabulous blog). This alone helps so many designers in understanding the App, improving their workflow and sense for design as a whole.

    I hope you will continue supporting the growing Sketch community by sharing some tips and designs in the future.

    Br, Alex

  11. First of all – I’d never say that English isn’t your first language, so I guess you’ve succeeded with practicing ;)

    Secondly – yes yes yes. It’s very easy to loose momentum if it comes to writing, I’ve been “storing” ideas for articles forever and never got to write anything. Sometimes I also felt that tight deadlines for articles (let’s say for magazines, not your blog) tend to be counterproductive. What I’ve also found is that it’s much easier to write when you’re not scattered all over the place (in terms of work). Writing becomes so much easier when there’s no pressure that you should be doing something else.

    What’s also important is being critical about things you’d like to write about but only to some extent. People tend to think that whatever they want to say might be irrelevant. But it becomes relevant because of one simple fact – these are your thoughts, not someone else’s. I’ve written my most interesting presentations having this awful feeling that it all has been said before.

  12. Writing makes me a Better Designer – via @MengTo

  13. Shireen Dew says:

    Well said. Writing helps to organise my thoughts – as you have found. It also reinforces what I have read and when I write, I speak to myself as well as my readers.

    I particularly like your line: “Treat your readers like the student that you are…”In writing about what interests me, I am not only sharing the enlightenment, but also conveying my own personality, my thinking and design process and fostering a two-way communication system with those whom I most want to make connection.

    I have found the written word is inseparable from the visual, since they both stem from the ‘idea’. I don’t see words as ‘text’ or ‘copy’, but as an intrinsic part of the whole message and my writing is a recognition of this. Verbal and non-verbal communication feed from each other.

    Enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks.

  14. Writing Makes Me A Better Designer (via Instapaper)

  15. @sican says:

    @MengTo Enjoyed your latest post: I had this dilemma and wrote about it exactly a year ago:

  16. This echo’s alot of my own thoughts around writing as a designer. I find the biggest challenge for myself is fear. Writing just doesn’t come naturally to me and never has, so there is the constant fear that what I write won’t be useful or just plain bad.

  17. Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  18. Very inspirational words from a kick-ass designer – “Writing Makes Me A Better Designer” by @MengTo:

  19. @cgilchrist says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  20. Shaimoom Newaz says:

    You are one of the most inspirational people that I follow. Thank you for combining the technical world with a bunch of heart and soul.

  21. @shaimoomn says:

    Gonna finally pick up that digital pen because of “Writing Makes Me A Better Designer” by @MengTo:

  22. @yanphun says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo

  23. verpixelt says:

    After I read your great post I had to watch “jiro dreams of sushi” and it was so god damn inspiring! Thanks a bunch!

  24. Shawn Hansen says:

    Wrt to the thought that 10k hours is not enough, a Hokusai quote comes to mind, something along the lines of;

    “From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”

    I think there is a lot of value in that outlook —An attitude of seeing limitless potential in yourself, and judging your current status with due humility against that potential.

  25. A great friend of mine who’s an amazing artist wrote an inspiring comment on my last blog post. Worth a read:

  26. Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  27. @Calebjessie says:

    This post by @MengTo is really inspiring to me. Thanks Meng!

  28. @BramVanhaeren we definitely agree! @MengTo:

  29. Writing Makes Me A Better Designer via @mengto

  30. fjpoblam says:

    I was inspired to pare down my designs and make them forceful in important ways, by Ernest Hemingway’s “Top Five Tips For Writing Well”. A good read:

  31. Ian P says:

    > Added Markdown support for WordPress so that I can paste efficiently the posts that I wrote on Day One, which also uses Markdown.

    I like reading about the problems you have and then address. I’d love to hear about this particular one.

  32. Ryan Boone says:

    Great post. I found it through Smashing Magazine’s Twitter feed. I appreciate your perspective on blogging about design. I’ve long held this particular belief, but have done nothing with it. I have planned a blog for quite some time with no follow through. I’ll have to try this Day One app. It sounds interesting.

    On a different note, that water quote from Bruce Lee is one of my favorites. Keep up the great work!

  33. […] Writing Makes Me A Better Designer 里面的观点和我的一些想法非常类似。 […]

  34. […] Writing makes me a better designer, Meng To goes into depth covering a  project to write a short piece each day covering […]

  35. Leban Hyde says:

    Thanks for writing this article. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Writing has helped me greatly in affirming my processes and making them better. I often use my writing to further grasp new concepts and express ideas about them. My confession is, more often than not, my writing is just as much about me as it is the reader.


  36. […] Writing Makes Me A Better Designer Article très intéressant explique comment et pourquoi l’auteur à commencé à écrire des articles quotidiennement sur le design. Il explique également l’impact que ces articles ont eu sur son blog. […]

  37. […] Makes Me A Better Designer - – What about you? […]

  38. Abhijeet says:

    Amazing articles + blog design. Easy to digest for a guy who doesn’t like to read much. Because of you I’ve started to read books slowly. One question though, how do you manage your work and personal life together?

  39. @kuanluo says:

    Good read: Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  40. @yurivictor says:

    Writing makes you a better designer

  41. @ninamehta says:

    Writing makes @MengTo a better designer, and me too. Diggin his post on it:

  42. Agreed: “Writing makes you a better designer” and love the design blog: — re: @yurivictor

  43. @kotki_says says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer

  44. @minimall says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  45. @thsbrk says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer #design

  46. Excellent tip to help designers grow

  47. Thies Brake says:

    I just want to say ‘thank you’! Thats a great article. I read this during the development of my own blog.

    I started my blog because I love writing and I was in need of a platform to do that. Maybe someone would like to read one of my articles, the first one is just published:

  48. […] recently read Meng To’s article ‘Writing makes me a better designer‘, and felt that he hit the nail on the head – and took the words right out of my mouth […]

  49. Writing Makes Me A Better Designer

  50. @lunchduty says:

    Good read: Writing Makes Me A Better Designer – – What about you? Agree? #adn

  51. @StuartLTait says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  52. Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  53. @mark_design says:

    Writing Makes Me A Better Designer by @MengTo:

  54. Writing Makes Me A Better Designer | Meng To|UI/UX Designer

  55. […] Writing makes me a better designer, Meng To goes into depth covering a  project to write a short piece each day covering […]

  56. designer says:

    A good article and blog design, i really agree with you and appreciate your perspective on blogging about the designer and design. It’s sure that writing makes you better in your job because you got a different point of view.

  57. […] So on my mission to find the blog that I once read (I still couldn’t), I found this one instead. Its pretty damn inspiring so I’ll probably read it a few more times to make sure I get it right. Here’s the blog. “Writing Makes Me A Better Designer” […]

  58. Nice one. Keep working in this. Thanks.

  59. […] English is not my first language but I want to try to share my experience on this Medium where possible. I inspired by Meng To’s blog,: […]

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  80. I write a lot about price action and this give me nice mood.

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