How to be an amazing designer: the excellence bar

4 min read
Clair Byrd
  •  Feb 4, 2015
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Your excellence bar is the standard you hold yourself to—both creatively and professionally. It takes a ton of self-discipline, especially at today’s breakneck pace, to do your best work, and get the best work out of your team. And even more to not suck as a human while doing that.

Often, people consider the “excellence bar” an intangible ideal—something to aspire to, rather than to measure oneself by. I don’t buy it. I think I’ve made my excellence bar “work” in my everyday workflow by breaking it into the following components: design quality, perspective, and honest feedback.

Design quality

Of course, there are a few things you should always consider to keep your quality high—the details that color others’ reactions to your design. Don’t skip these, especially when you’re gearing up to present:

  • Typography (hierarchy, kerning, leading, etc.)
  • Quality of photography
  • Spelling and grammar
  • Alignment
  • Spacing
  • Consistency between pages
  • Consistency of content and copy
  • Asset quality (blurring, etc.)


Of course, your excellence bar should be more than a checklist.Twitter Logo It should also ask you to step outside of your own perspective and view your design work without bias. Here are a few things to consider beyond the concrete details above:

  • Does your design fulfill all business requirements?
  • Does it clearly communicate your ideas?
  • Is your design over-thought—would a user without context easily understand it?
  • Does your design represent your talent/agency well?
  • If you saw your design in the wild, would it compel you?

Honest feedback

Gathering feedback from your peers and potential users is an incredibly important component of the excellence bar. Without knowing how others view, interpret, and interact with your design, you simply can’t provide the best possible solution. No one’s assumptions are right 100% of the time! When gathering feedback from your users and peers, consider asking the following questions:

  • What was your knee-jerk reaction to this design?
  • What assumptions do you think I made while designing this?
  • How would you improve this design, and why?
  • Does this design clearly illustrate the goal I’m intending for you? What is the goal?

Giving yourself honest feedback is just as important.Twitter Logo It can definitely be challenging to critique yourself, especially when you’ve invested time, fought battles, and sunk your heart into the design. But being your own worst critic can only help. Here are a few things to consider to keep yourself honest:

  • What assumptions did I make during this design? Will others make the same assumptions?
  • If this were another designer’s work, would I be impressed?
  • Did I feel rushed or overwhelmed? Does that show in my design?
  • Did I stick to my guns? Is my vision well-represented, or did I let myself be pushed around too much?

Giving yourself honest feedback is just as important.

How to keep your excellence bar high

Actively using your excellence bar in your day-to-day workflow can, honestly, get a little tiring. It’s easy to let things slip, simply because to do your best work is—you guessed it—a lot of work! However, there are ways to make it easier.

Don’t go it alone

Your community is, most likely, an untapped font of inspiration. Use your people to help generate new ideas, gather unbiased feedback, and also, get your due props for really great work. Get active on Dribbble! Start tweeting your prototypes!

Avoid competitive feelings

Feeling competitive is the death of good design. Anytime ego enters into the equation, good sense goes straight out the door. Try to reframe a competitive mindset to a supportive one, where you’re truly excited about another designer’s progress, as opposed to how that designer stacks up to you.

CTRL+R often

Creative work uses parts of your brain that work … differently … from the logical parts. As a product designer, you build creative solutions to very practical problems—which means you’re flexing both sets of mental muscles. Take a break! Step outside, chat someone up, or cook yourself dinner. Find and participate in any task or activity that forces you to focus specifically on the here and now. The concreteness of these activities will help ground you when you go back to abstract work.

Find the right solution, not the popular one

Keep up with trends, but remember that your design is ultimately about moving the needle for your company or clients. Seek inspiration, but avoid answering the pull of the mob.

Never stop improving

If you settle for being satisfied with a design, then you’ll see little reason to improve it. But stay in the mindset that everything can be improved, and you’ll always see opportunities to do so!

Socialize the design process

Get other people involved. If you’re sitting at a coffee shop, ask your neighbor what they think of your design and what they think it’s supposed to do. Going “social” on your design helps with the perspective component of your excellence bar, and can often inspire creative thinking that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.

Never stop learning

Someone smart once said “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” The design world is constantly changing. If you stop actively seeking knowledge and learning new stuff about your chosen industry, your work will suffer. Seek out new lessons every day by reading professional news, checking out a new app, or trying a new tool.

Above all things, a working excellence bar requires integrity. Don’t schill out whatever you can just to get the job done and your boss off your back—stand up for your design and the process required to design excellently.

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