The problem with professional development.
As we take on young passionate talent, we’re always most excited to see them light up with the biggest of ideas. Unfortunately, we often see the execution, or even the ability to simply express those ideas, limited by gaps in foundational skills. Most candidates transitioning from university have baseline capabilities to execute on a design, but their lack of fluency in key or emerging programs become an obvious barrier to creative expression. And that’s ok.
In fact, it’s pretty expected. It’s no secret that the jump between university education and real world experience is not a smooth process. Most companies will rely on regular exposure to low-risk work so that the gap narrows on its own over time. That approach does have benefits, like the opportunity to learn something tangentially-related by happenstance. Oftentimes while researching the answer to a specific question, we find ourselves stumbling upon unexpected resources, terminology, or other useful knowledge that we may not have thought to seek out otherwise. But it’s a slow and imperfect process. Those experience and skills gaps keep them from being trusted to own bigger, more impactful work, which slows personal growth overall. And what happens when the right work isn’t coming their way to exercise the right skills? We can’t expect incoming talent to bloom into empowered professionals if they aren’t given the right opportunities for professional development, at the right time, in the right way.
Expediting professionalism without sacrificing self-discovery.
So, how can one reap the benefits of both worlds? How can we help close the knowledge gap without cheating individuals out of the opportunity to learn from mistakes or having their own learning journey? How can we boost their workflow so they can focus on creative thinking instead of trying to wrestle with programs?
I found myself leveling up many newcomers of varying experience levels with the same design workflows over and over again, but it wasn’t untilI I became a full-time remote employee that I evolved those teachings into more efficient daily challenges. They’re not your typical daily challenge – those serve a very different purpose. These are very prescriptive high-impact, short-term training sessions that are meant to be one and done so you can go from beginner / amateur to pro status. The goal of these challenges is to build muscle memory for a single concise workflow. This type of focused approach allows for people to really break down the minutiae of their ways of working to optimize every click, swipe, and tap of a button.
Facilitating freedom through capability.
These challenges are fantastic for individuals of any skill level because we’re all on the perpetual path of learning. And although I’ve customized the workflow challenges for designers, I’d recommend them for anyone in any field. The baseline framework can be applied for any type of flow :).
Here’s how I set up these daily workflow challenges for some of the lovely individuals that I’ve worked with:
How I Set Up Workflow Challenges
We started by identifying pain points, passion points, and things that just take them too long to do and formulated that into a list of workflows to refine.
Each workflow challenge has a mini brief to kick it off so the ask and application of that skill is spelled out and they can clearly see the value of what they’re about to learn. I find that this is incredibly important when it comes to professional development. If you don’t believe in what you’re learning, learning starts to feel like work.
Along with the brief, I also provide a series of resources:
- A Baseline File that they can just open up and experiment in.
- A Reference File that they can compare against so that they have a clear understanding of what the final output should look like and how the file should be structured.
- A Resources List that I share out halfway through the challenge process to make sure they feel armed to learn what is most relevant to the challenge in case they don’t come across the information themselves.
Each step in the workflow challenge is screen recorded so that the individual and I can each review opportunities for expediting the workflow. Screen recording is excellent for two reasons. First off, this gives them the freedom to do the challenges at any time, at their own pace. Second, it’s a great way to get to see how each of you works without having to be physically present. Total game-changer.
Generally, these challenges work best during weeks when they can block off 20 minutes of dedicated time each day for a week. Here are how the days of a typical challenge week break down:
Day 1: Getting Started.
- Read the brief. Download the working file and reference file.
- Start screen recording. Take your time to figure out how to get here on your own. You don’t know what you don’t know, so this exercise is meant to help you uncover questions you may not realize you had.
- Check out the Reference PSD to see if your end result is different.
This day is intended to set a baseline. It helps the individual establish what they may not have realized that they didn’t know. The beauty of this first day is that it usually sparks a desire to research and learn on their own. This is where a lot of happenstance and rabbit-hole type of discovery happens, which makes this step arguably one of the most valuable. I will note that screen recording may be intimidating (or even feel invasive) for them at first, but this quickly and organically goes away as they see the value of the challenge emerge.
Day 2: Self-Correcting.
- Watch your screen recording to figure out what caused hangups. Take notes so you can track your learnings!
- Start screen recording & try again.
- Send the most recent screen recording to me so we can help you improve together! Since you probably already got a few of the initial questions out of the way after Day 1, I can help you refine further and maybe teach you a few tricks 🙂
Day 2 is where they get to immediately take their learnings and apply them. In typical learning settings, we hastily research a quick workaround, use it, and then forget about it– or worse, we rely on it. This allows them to figure out their own process and refine on their own–a valuable step that helps them build confidence and pride in their learning journey.
Day 3: Incorporating Feedback
- Review screen recording and suggestions from me
- Start new screen recording & try again
- Send screen recording to me so we can perfect your process! This is where you start your journey to pro status. Focus will be on getting you to exclusively use shortcuts and the layer palette to complete this task 😀
After I review their screen recording, I help identify any additional opportunities for efficiency. A lot of it focuses on things like shortcuts, using the right tool for the job, and answering any questions that may have come up for them along the way. Depending on the individual, I’ll either share my feedback through a live demo while screen sharing, or I’ll record the process on my screen and shoot that back to them. I’ve found that no one way is best for all personalities. Some like to have the ability to ask questions on the spot while others ask that they have something that they can come back to and replay. Do what works best for the both of you.
Day 4: Focusing on Speed.
- Start new screen recording & try once more. Goal this time is to cut as much time down as possible.
- Rejoice! You’re a pro and efficient as hell.
The final day of the challenge is made for mileage. It’s about taking everything they’ve learned and applying it repeatedly to establish muscle memory. This is where the screen recordings come in handy–they become personal scorecards for themselves so they can have an artifact that clearly shows their growth.
Whether they’re entry or amateur designers, some of the most used challenges I’ve made teach isolating shadows on product photography, batch exporting files from a single PSD, and adding convincing product shadows. I love workflows like these because they carry over to so many different use cases and unlock new ways of working.
How workflow can unlock career opportunities.
Ok, I’ll admit, this approach to professional development may sound incredibly boring when you read about it, but the personal satisfaction after the challenges are completed and the freedom they afford individuals is amazing. There are many seemingly unrelated benefits that stem from good workflows.
- Boost Exposure: More creative output for fast content like social media posts and blog image designs. This is fantastic because being a prolific designer who can deliver quality work is the fastest way to get noticed by the whole company, not just direct team members. I can’t tell you how many times someone at the company would see a piece of content and ask, who made that?” Next thing you know, that designer is getting on-boarded to a fresh new project that they may not have otherwise gotten access to.
- Pitch Better: Better ability to get buy-in on ideas during brainstorming sessions or campaign concept ideations because they have strong visuals to accompany write-ups. This is invaluable because it immediately opens up the door to taking on real client work that can have real-world impact. Projects like these usually provide huge boosts in experience and professional growth.
- Evolve Style: Many may not immediately realize this, but design style often emerges in part based on what comes easily or naturally. So, the more barriers they can overcome, the more complex and unique their design style can become, giving way to stronger forms of creative expression and storytelling.
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