It is no secret that to get better at something, you have to practice. A lot. It, among other things, applies to iconography and design in general. Have you ever heard of the 10.000 hours rule? According to it, if you want to become an expert at anything, be ready to practice it for at least 10.000 hours.
A cognitive psychology professor John Hayes wanted to examine successful composers, so he listen to thousands of musical pieces and eventually came up with a list of 500 most popular creations that were frequently played in symphonies all around the world. What he discovered was that virtually every single “masterwork” was written after the ten-year mark of the composer’s career. (Out of all 500 compositions, there were only three exceptions that had been written on years eight and nine.) This research definitely shows that in order to be great, you need to practice.
I personally am a huge believer that the best way to learn something is to practice, and do it a lot.
You can read thousands of articles, watch hundreds of guides, attend dozens of conferences, but never ever will you actually learn it, if you don’t practice this thing daily. You have to put a lot of hard work in it!
But does that mean that if you want to become an expert in iconography or any other field, you have to put at least 10.000 hours into it? Is this some kind of a magic number after reaching which you become great in the field?
10.000 hours is a long time even if you’re working every single day including weekends. Let alone if you have a day job and can only spend a couple hours to work on your hobby? It will take you forever! Good thing is you can cheat a little bit and speed it up by practicing deliberately.
It’s not just the quantity that counts, the practicing should be qualitative too. That’s why you want to be as thoughtful as possible to get better sooner.
What is the deliberate practice?
Let’s start with the story of how I was introduced to the deliberate practice.
Couple years ago, I was really into the game of 8-ball. I had my own cue and considered myself a pretty solid player. I would come to the local 8-ball bar to play pool with my buddies at least a couple of times every week. It was my hobby and I was putting hours and hours into playing.
Since I was visiting this bar more than often, I inevitably started seeing the same faces. Some of the people were playing 8-ball with their friends just like I did, but there were also those who came by themselves just to practice various combinations and strikes. These people would spend at the bar as much time as we did, but I rarely saw them playing with anyone else. It always seemed a bit strange to me, but after a while I understood the importance of their practicing method.
The more time passed, the better I got at the game. So I decided to test my skills at the weekly 8-ball tournament organised by the same bar. When I came to the tournament I spotted the same people I would see in the club daily. I was confident in my skills and ready to face the opponents. But when I faced the first of them, I was crushed! I barely got a chance to do anything, because the other guy was too good! The same guy who, I believe, spent approximately the same amount of time playing as me smashed me. And it wasn’t just him. I managed to win just a couple of matches in the tournament.
After the event I approached my first opponent and asked about his secret. I was really curious if he had a coach or maybe was attending other billiard club. His answer was short — Deliberate Practice. We got into talking and he elaborated on his training techniques and how he deliberately practiced. He also told me that you could never become a pro at something by playing with your buddies. You shouldn’t simply play the game, but rather focus on improving one aspect at a time. Set a goal. And only once you reach it, you will know that you have improved.
After that evening I started applying these principles to everything I was doing. Icon design was no exception.
How to practice deliberately
Let’s look into how you could learn icon design or basically anything faster and more efficient by using deliberate practice.
Know your weaknesses
First and foremost, you shouldn’t be repeatedly doing what you already know how to do. Determine your weaknesses and focus on a specific goal that will help you to overcome these weaknesses.
Try deconstructing the topic to its bare essentials and start off with working on one small part of it that you feel is the most troublesome for you. When you achieve your goal of improving it, see how it has impacted your skills regarding the whole topic. Repeat it indefinitely.
Focus on one thing at a time
Remember that by simply working in one field without any challenges, you will get little to no improvement. Vague overall improvement is really bad because you don’t know what adjustments you should do to get better. If you intentionally focus on just one thing, you quickly start noticing how it could be improved.
Go outside your comfort zone
Always go outside your comfort zone and constantly try things that seem beyond your current abilities. This means that most of the times you won’t feel great practicing something because you will need to put a lot of effort into it and it’s generally not enjoyable. But if you only do things that are comfortable, you will never improve. You should never go into autopilot. In every field, after you reach a certain skill level you risk slipping into doing things automatically without even thinking about it. But the moment when you stop thinking and challenging yourself, you stop progressing.
There is another great thing about stepping out of your comfort zone. And it is making mistakes. Here’s what I mean: when you do the uncomfortable, you are entitled to make a lot of mistakes. Of course failing isn’t the greatest feeling, I know that. But after you make a mistake you will later be able to find the way to fix it. It’s just how people are. If you never make mistakes, you can’t improve.
Find a mentor
Another fundamental part of the deliberate practice is that you should always have someone who is more experienced by your side to teach you or point out what you could improve upon. I know that it may be difficult to find a mentor, but when you have access to the internet, you can connect to a lot of people to advise you. You can join and share your works on various social networks to get such needed feedback. It can be niche communities and groups where people discuss and exchange ideas, and get knowledge and feedback this way. Also, courses, blogs and books come in handy when it comes to getting advice from the more experienced people.
So to sum up everything. Practice is what makes you better. You can be wildly talented, but without practice you would achieve nothing. And every person that isn’t as talented, but works harder — will outwork you. Also, remember that not only quantity, but the quality of the practice is important! Always try to deconstruct the topic and work on your weaknesses. Come out of your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and always look for ways to improve.
Start using deliberate practice to work on your abilities in all fields, no matter if it’s your day job or a hobby. Use it to improve your morning joggings, your design skills or anything else you do.
P.S. In the beginning of this article I mentioned that it wasn’t enough to read some content to become better… For everyone who still avoids practicing and feels paralysed by reading and consuming content, I recommend watching this rant by Gary Vee: