They say that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But how can you keep the learning curve steep when it’s so easy to slip into the familiarity of your comfort zone? To significantly grow and evolve as creatives, we’re obliged to drastically and intentionally shake things up every once in a while. Last summer, 35 designers and creatives got together, putting aside their ongoing clients, projects and day jobs, in order to participate in the Wix Design Playground, a 3-month web design program in New York. The select group of talented creatives, from diverse backgrounds ranging from fashion design to video production, some still in school and others active professionals, were in for a very intensive agenda. With three hands-on projects, real clients, inspirational guest speakers, field trips and more, the group jumped head-first into everything design. We sat down for a talk with some of the program’s graduates and mentors to discuss their main lessons learned and how their new findings can be used to ultimately become better designers.
1. Surround yourself with a community of creatives
“The culture of the Wix Design Playground is super engaging and supportive, to a degree I’ve found rare outside of classroom settings,” writes illustrator and designer Ariel Sun in a blog post recounting her experience in the program. The Wix Design Playground’s unique mix of talented program participants, lecturers and mentors cultivated a stimulating, inspirational and overall positive work environment, that in turn fostered a small but active design community. Illustrator and designer Kristina Filler, who like Ariel is a recent graduate of the program, tells High on Design that she treasures this newly-formed design community. “As a freelance designer, I assumed I’m better off doing things by myself, but it turns out that that wasn’t really the case at all,” she says.
This sense of community was just as important on Wix’s side of things as it was for program participants. According to Hagit Kaufman, VP of Design and Brand at Wix, the aim was to mutually impart knowledge – both to teach and learn from the students at the same time. “Designers, I believe, are the ones shaping the way the web will look in the next decade,” Hagit elaborates. “They are the users that challenge our platform the most, and by challenging us they help keep us on our toes, constantly honing and perfecting our own understanding of web design.” For this very reason, Hagit explains, Wix sought to establish an educational relationship with designers. “By teaching the principles of web design, we end up forming a community of designers that can in turn take this knowledge and creatively spread it across the digital world,” says Hagit.
Now that the 2018 Wix Design Playground has come to an end, there’s every intention of keeping the small community going, and growing. Many design events are in store for the Wix Playground NYC, where the program took place. Keep your eyes open for the Wix Playground Presents series that hosts events for the general design public. “Communities base themselves around shared events,” explains Yotam Kellner, one of the program mentors. “And I believe designers should find their niche subculture within design, and attend those conferences or events. It can really pump you up with motivation. These situations give you the chance to make genuine connections with other designers, forming relationships that usually snowball from there and lead to new places. These same people are usually the ones who end up helping you find a job, land a design interview and so on,” Yotam says. “And you’ll be able to return them the favor, too.”
2. Strive to do better – while failing along the way
Designers and recent graduates of the Wix Design Playground 2018 program, Ariel and Kristina, agree that for them, above all, the program was a reminder to keep trying harder and challenge themselves more often. The two speak of how easy it was for them to let work become a routine like any other – and forget to enjoy it, or to strive to do better as a creative. In fact, Kristina admits that after ten years of freelancing, she was beginning to fall into what she refers to as the “laziness trap”. “There are so many talented people out there, and I can be one of those people if I put myself up for it,” Kristina shares with us. But in order to really outdo herself, Kristina realized, she had to step up her game and invest more into her work. “Here in the Wix Design Playground, we were pushed to the extreme every single day in so many ways. I’ve since been trying to keep that going for myself,” says Kristina.
Vuong Tong, head of the Wix Design Playground, and mentor Yotam Kellner, agree that they demanded a lot from the students (“We held them to the highest standards,” says Yotam), but are careful to note that when trying to do your absolute best, you must embrace the less-than-perfect parts of the process too. “There’s a lot of bad design that you need to go through before reaching a good end result, so take the pressure off yourself to make something perfect,” Vuong explains. “Generate as many ideas as you can, and keep putting them out there. Don’t let the bad design that comes up scare you off – it’s just part of the process and that’s okay.”
3. Pave your own career path
The 2018 Wix Design Playground hosted a variety of highly successful designers as guest speakers. Some of those speakers shared their personal background that was very different from the traditional route of climbing up the design studio ladder. Frankie Ratford, for example, spoke about combining her two loves – design and travel – in a six year road trip around the world, while running her own company on the go. Adam J. Kurtz conducted a zine making workshop, in which he shared a few insights on the role that his social presence plays in his professional life.
“Careers like Adam JK’s weren’t possible even just ten years ago,” Ariel points out, “There are so many new paths that are unique to our age, like amassing a huge following on Instagram which can in turn lead to selling your work. Hearing those talks was eye opening – it helped me realize that creative career paths take all shapes and forms.” It was the twinkle that they saw in the speakers’ eyes, say Kristina and Ariel, that helped them build up the confidence to make major shifts in their own career paths following the program. Kristina has let go of some of her past clients, and Ariel has quit her day job altogether. “Letting go of what wasn’t valuable for me, made me open up to new opportunities,” Kristina comments, “and I’ve already lucked out into meeting a new client, who I feel speaks the same language as me.” Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for designers to end up in jobs that they find frustrating and uninspiring. “It’s easy to give up and go along with it,” says Yotam, “But at the end of the day, you’re the one living a reality that you’re not excited about. It’s important to remember that the possibilities for designers really are endless. In the Wix Design Playground,” adds Yotam, “We wanted to reignite our students’ fires and remind them that they’re capable of anything.”
4. Find value in the critique you’re given
Design education usually comes hand in hand with critique, yet once graduating and embarking on their careers, not all designers continue to have their work reviewed by others. Kristina shares that as a long time freelancer, she didn’t realize how badly she missed group critiques until re-encountering them at the program. And once she did, it was important for her to open up to the feedback she was receiving, in order for it to be truly valuable. “Sometimes, especially if the criticism is bad, you wince just at the sound of it,” Kristina says, acknowledging how sensitive this topic can get. “As artists, we’re naturally emotional beings.” Kristina’s suggestion is to accept design criticism as free of bias as possible, without bickering back or shutting down to it. “Take a second to really hear the critique and see where it might be coming from. It will help you see the value in what’s being said,” she elaborates.
Vuong goes even further and stresses the importance of receiving honest feedback, which is necessary in order to test ideas out freely – even the bad ones. “For this to happen, you need to be a little fearless and enable a safe place for yourself and others. It’s a place that allows for new possibilities and collaborations to arise.”
5. It’s about play, so have fun with it
Vuong and Yotam believe that embracing varied sources of inspiration, including inspiration outside of the design world, ultimately leads back to being better designers. “Designers can – and should – be multifaceted,” says Vuong. “What we do isn’t limited to aesthetics. At its core, it has to do with problem solving, so our sources of inspiration can be multidisciplinary – whether it’s theater, music, art exhibits or anything else.” Yotam agrees and comments that for him, the Wix Design Playground was not about teaching one specific tool or lesson. “No single tool can boost your skills on its own,” he explains. “Rather, a good designer should be able to reach into this huge toolbox, grab the first thing that comes up, and dare to start creating from there. All design outlets ultimately share the same values and principles, so don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and experiment. Only through experimentation can you become versatile, so that no platform, medium, and technique will be out your of reach.”
Kristina is one of the students that stepped out of their personal comfort zones in the program. She mentions that while she was never a fan of web design in the past, “I now see it as a tool like any other that you can explore and have fun with. It’s an enlightening experience,” she says. Yotam mentions Ivy Chen and her portfolio website that she created during the program. As a fashion designer and illustrator, Ivy was initially uncomfortable with the digital medium, he says. “But I’m so proud of the website that she’s designed. It’s beautiful and poetic, and employs a deep understanding of graphic design principles.” With a unique use of scrolling effects, Ivy was able to combine her work in fashion design and illustration – two fields that are worlds apart – into one cohesive result. “When she put the two worlds together,” says Yotam, “she created a third one that’s just hers, and is an accurate representation of who Ivy is as a creative.” And braving new creative territories to find self expression on the other side? That’s what it was all for, to begin with.
Ivy Chen’s Wix portfolio website, created at the Wix Design Playground.
Looking for a creative learning experience of your own? Apply for the 2019 Wix Design Playground today!