Skills Over Tools: Focusing on What Matters

by Taylor Slattery | October 15, 2020


The creative journey is long. There is no clear roadmap because it’s different for everyone. It’s full of hurdles and detours, and we’re bound to lose our way at times. I’m a big advocate of having a destination in mind, which is easier said than done, but at the very least, having a sense of where you’d like to go will help you to decide which path to take when presented with a fork in the road. Even in times of uncertainty, when we wonder if we’ve made the right decisions or if we’re wasting our time, as long as we have that sense of direction, we can find comfort in the fact that we’re still headed in the right direction.

So what is this sense of direction I’m referring to? Fundamentals. The specifics of what exactly comprise the fundamentals will depend on your discipline, but even then there is likely to be some debate. For example, within design, there exists a set of principles. Unity, balance, hierarchy, scale, and contrast are the principles by which designs are organized and their success judged. In more simple terms, these are all aspects of composition. Regardless of discipline, if your goal were to improve on composition, focusing on these principles would give a standard by which to judge your success and growth.

It’s important we sharpen our skills. As we continue to grow and develop as artists and designers, tools play an important role in that process. Sometimes learning a new tool can take us to the next level, elevating our output across all mediums. Additionally, learning new tools and skills can increase our earning potential and lead to new opportunities, but it’s important to remember that regardless of the medium, we are still limited by our mastery of the fundamentals. It doesn’t really matter which path you take so long as you have clear goals. Whether you decide to learn a 3D software or take up photography, you can use the same set of principles to guide you and measure your progress.

So how do we decide what is “good?” By what standards do we choose to compare our success against? Finding the answer to this question is the process by which we develop our taste. Look at the work of those you aspire to be like and take detailed notes using the fundamentals as your guide.

Look for patterns in their decision making, and try to understand how they use the fundamentals in concert with one another. Then repeat the process with your own work. This should help to illuminate areas you can improve upon. Moving forward, focus your efforts on addressing these weaknesses through studies. Don’t try to do too much at once, though. This process of continual critique and targeted progress is how you continue to develop your mastery of fundamentals, skills that will be evident regardless of the tools you use to express them.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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