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The Designer’s Cross-Training Toolkit

I watched a TV documentary the other day about a professional soccer player. As well as his normal soccer training he mixed in training in other sports like boxing and yoga and I thought this sounded a bit odd. Why would somebody that earns his (considerable) daily bread playing soccer spend time learning and training in areas that are not directly related to his profession?

Well, it turns out that they are related in a round-about way. The athlete and his coaches went on to explain that training in other sports and physical activities, as well as regular soccer training keep certain parts of the brain active and stimulated, and this in turn improves soccer performance and prevents the brain and body slowing down.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

What Does This Have To Do With Design? Link

This soccer player got me thinking about my own profession in design and made me analyse the way I deal with life as a designer. I mostly design for web these days and that can mean anything from interface design, banner advertising, as well as branding and logo design. It’s easy to drift into the same old routine for each project especially when work is coming in thick and fast — and when projects tend to overlap.

It turned out I wasn’t spending enough time “designing” away from a computer screen and out of the office. When I use the word “designing”, I don’t just mean putting together wireframes and pushing pixels in Photoshop — I mean actually gathering creative thoughts, images, videos and other forms of inspiration whilst living life.

Collect, Gather and Cross-train Link

As designers, we have an instinctive desire to collect things, from action figures to postcards to t-shirts and posters — it’s just something we do, right? Taking photos, recording videos, bookmarking web pages, ‘like’-ing and ‘favorite’-ing are all forms of collecting and it’s these things that shape us as designers.

Looking for inspiration can also be treated as a form of cross-training. Taking yourself away from your normal (daily) routine is a useful technique. Since my kids arrived a couple of years ago, we’ve found ourselves watching kids TV and movies as well as reading children’s books. Being exposed to these new forms of entertainment meant seeing a whole new world of animation and illustration and it was fun. Treating yourself to a show or a trip to the cinema to see something you wouldn’t normally watch can also be fun.

Some useful items needed for the designers cross-training toolkit
Some useful items for a designer’s cross-training toolkit

My brother-in-law took me to a soccer match in Amsterdam recently and I have to admit that when he originally proposed the idea I wasn’t overly excited. I was interested in finding out what it would be like to attend a proper European soccer match and I was promised it would be quite exciting as the teams that were playing were old rivals. I’m glad I went as it was an incredible experience and I found myself getting completely wrapped up with the other fans and cheering on the home side. It’s these kinds of experiences that bring out ideas and inspiration from the best of us.

The point I’m making here is to break away from normal routine. Designers are expected to read particular books, magazines and websites and attend certain conferences. I’m not suggesting we stop doing these things but we should add other things to the recipe too and explore other opportunities.

The Designer’s Toolkit Link

Let’s think about that soccer player again. He plays soccer and trains mostly in that sport but also cross-trains in yoga and boxing as they help his brain and body stay focused and sharp and prevent him from getting injured. What can we as designers do to accomplish the same thing? Developing skills in other creative areas will help keep you motivated and fresh. Below, I’ve compiled what I think is a good designer’s toolkit for a well-designed cross-training lifestyle:

A DSLR and a Point-and-Shoot Link

Investing in a good digital SLR and a good point-and-shoot camera with plenty of manual settings can really get the creative juices flowing. Being able to compose a good photo and control the light is not easy but when you start to understand how the camera works you can have a lot of fun taking photos. I’ve included the point-and-shoot camera as it’s not always feasible to carry a DSLR around with you.

A DSLR type camera and a point and shoot type camera
A DSLR type camera and a point-and-shoot type camera with plenty of manual settings

Developing a photographer’s mind will condition you to be constantly looking for the perfect shot wherever you are and whatever you’re doing and it will also become your second nature to never leave the house without a camera.

Digital HD Camcorder Link

Having a camcorder is also a good option though some good DSLR cameras now shoot quite good cinema quality videos as well. You have the same rules about light and composition but have the added element of timing and movement. You will certainly want to start editing the videos you shoot, so learning new softwares such as Adobe Premiere or Final Cut will let you create a masterpiece — you might even want to get into something like Adobe After Effects and create something really special.

A selection of camcorders
From a simple pocket HD camcorder to a top-of-the-range ‘pro-sumer’ camcorder

Understanding more about cinematography allows you to appreciate the intricacies of those classic movies. It’s not just about the fonts used in the opening credits or the detail in the animation — it’s the timing of a scene, the expressions used and other details in the shots that make certain films memorable and great.

Smartphones Link

Having a smartphone such as an iPhone or an Android phone can be a really handy way of collecting visuals. I’m always snapping interesting signage, posters and graffiti, etc. Download an app like Evernote4 or Dropbox5 and you can sync with an online account to view stuff later on the big screen.

A selection of smartphones
Smartphones from Apple, HTC and Google

There are thousands of apps out there to help you organize your creative lifestyle, so ask around and see what other people are using.

Sketchbook, Pencils, Pens, Markers and an Eraser Link

Drawing and sketching is great fun. I’m not great at drawing but I have a real desire to get better. Whenever there is an opportunity to sketch, I’ll grab a pen or pencil and get going. Your sketching tools need to be handy all the time, so get yourself a good bag to keep all this stuff in. Investing in some good coloured marker pens will also add a bit life to your web mockups and drawings and will help get your ideas across much better.

Pens, pencils, markers, sketchpads, an eraser, sticky notes and a bag to keep it all in
Pens, pencils, marker pens, sketch pads, sticky notes, an eraser and a good bag to keep them all in

Using post-it notes and blutac can help with labelling. Why not sign up for an evening life drawing or comic book drawing course to really boost your skills? Sometimes it’s just nice to not use something digital to create and fall back to pencil and paper. I sat in a bar in New York with an artist just after the terrorist attacks in 2001 and he sketched on the back of a napkin what he saw on that day — it was one of the simplest yet most powerful sketches I’ve ever seen.

Google Maps Link

When I visit bookshops and news stands, I head for the design section or pick up a web design/creative magazine by default. This isn’t such a bad thing, but how about dropping into your nearest antique or second-hand bookstore and picking up a book or magazine — one you wouldn’t normally look at. I love looking at lifestyle magazines from the 80’s and 90’s and in particular the style of advertising used in them. We can learn a lot from looking back at old styles and techniques used decades before we were born.

It’s also fun to look at old packaging for kids toys and games or electrical items. The font usage, illustration and even printing techniques can offer ideas and inspiration. Open up Google Maps6 and find out where your nearest Antique or second-hand store is and drop in.

Graphics Tablet Link

With those re-discovered drawing skills, you’ll no doubt want to apply them to your designs on screen. Using a graphics tablet can add a whole new element to your working practice and making use of pressure and flow features in Photoshop will add detail and life to your designs. Though it’s down the individual, a graphics tablet can give you greater control of image manipulation — especially in Photoshop.

Scrapbook Link

A scrapbook is a must! Picking up leaflets, collecting magazine adverts and other printed material is a really useful way of gathering inspiration. It’s something you can look back to in years to come and you’ll be glad you kept them. Recognizing design patterns in print and advertising will certainly help you with your future projects.

Conclusion Link

So to conclude, taking photos, recording videos, drawing and collecting all manner of visual things are all things we can do everyday to keep us stimulated as designers. I’ve found that regularly attending Web and design related conferences help to keep my mind stimulated. Also, listening to people with ideas and thoughts and sharing them in an enthusiastic and passionate way will leave you feeling upbeat and excited about design even more.

We shouldn’t stop here though. Breaking the normal “design” routine can unlock new ideas and thoughts; so instead of dropping into the local for a pint, why not walk an extra block to the workers club and have a pint with the old guys over a game of dominoes.

Skip the freelancers weekly meetup this week and drop into an evening comedy workshop instead, switch radio stations, wear red instead of black, drink tea instead of coffee, buy a different newspaper… you get the idea! Drop in a bit of boxing and yoga and who knows what you could create — more often than not you will find yourself amazed by the innovative ideas you have come up with.

(ik) (vf)

Footnotes Link

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My name is Mark Cossey and I'm a Visual Designer in Brighton, UK. Read more from my blog here or follow me on twitter @burning_

  1. 1

    Andy Reid-McGlinn

    December 22, 2010 6:07 am

    Whilst I agree that having a lot of tools to record thoughts, visuals and ideas is a great idea, I’m not so sure that you need high end equipment to do it, certainly not right off the bat.

    There are plenty of fine digital cameras that aren’t SLR (same story with HD and video) which are much cheaper than investing in something you might not use or find that useful.

    • 2

      Yeah, i really agree with your point. Something have same features but they matter on its price, I just prefer what is useful for me.

    • 3

      Nitpick much? I think the point of the article wasn’t about the details of the equipment used but more about getting out and using the equipment period. Even a $10 thrift-store camera will serve the same purpose; to get you outside doing something else, stimulating your brain and forcing you to experience new things and solve new problems.

      • 4

        Andy Reid-McGlinn

        December 23, 2010 7:04 am

        Easy there thomas, I’m not nitpicking.

        I’m simply pointing out that you don’t have to dive in at the deep end of tech to record ideas.

        I liked the article, but I don’t see the need to say ‘Go and buy a DSLR camera and an HD video recorder’.

        For me, high end equipment is a luxury to aspire to, not something you take everywhere with you.

        I was a little surprised that the post didn’t mention any alternatives, that’s all.

    • 5

      Agreed. I think most of the HD video you need to do can be done via the DSLR.

  2. 6


    December 22, 2010 6:08 am

    And all this stuff has to fit into a small bag wich looks cool … or someone is inventing a really really “smart”phone wich can do all this stuff…. just dreaming ;-)

  3. 7


    December 22, 2010 6:16 am

    I strongly believe that in the future a cellphone will have a aazing camera built in, millions of apps, no more laptops because of flexible oled screens flipping out as one. Although that will be just a phone i really don’t think desktops will dies out, because they posses more power.

    • 8


      December 22, 2010 6:20 am

      I believe that everything goes back to the roots like “Terminals” … just a screen, a login and a few kinds of input methods. All the power is made by big Serverfarms … and we will call them google or facebook ;-)

  4. 9

    I think I have all of that in my iPhone, haha! I shot a BMX video HD with my iPhone.

    Sometimes limitations can pull out creativity. For example, having a prime lens rather than a zoom lens can inspire you to improvise how to make a shot creative rather than being handicapped by a zoom lens with multiple focal lengths.

    Shooting with an iPhone rather than a Panasonic HVX-200 1080p can inspire you to think more intuitively, creating ways of making the shot stable, making your own tripod, or jimmy, creating iPad lighting as one well known photographer did. Experiment with limitations. By the way, I do have most of these items, it’s just a good feeling to pull off a stunt that looks professional with everyday consumer stuff as Andy Reid-McGlinn said.

    • 10

      Totally agree with idea of using a prime lens. Design life can become quite automated so doing things like switching to a prime lens (i.e. a lens that has no zoom) will give you the opportunity to think more about your compositions. Nice tip!

  5. 11

    Pryor Design Co.

    December 22, 2010 7:11 am

    I think it’s interesting that you brought up attending a sporting event, something out of the ordinary, to stimulate creativity. Inspiration can be drawn from many places but sometimes you have to be open-minded to recognize it. Thanks for the good read.

  6. 12

    I loved this post! :)

  7. 13

    I agree, being a designer, we must keep our mind stimulate all the time and not just when we work. It must be a living style! I’m happy to read all your suggestions because I have so many hobbies and I started to think that maybe I should do less, but I guess not, I’m in the right path! I love to read novel, cook, draw, gardening and scrapbooking… I started to be more serious with photography since I bought a DSLR camera last summer. Now I can’t go back to point-and-shoot; the photos are just too great!! Thanks for the post.

  8. 14

    Rachel Rodenborg

    December 22, 2010 9:05 am

    What you propose is called an “artist’s date” in The Artist’s Way. If you ever find yourself stuck and in need of a jump start to get your creative juices flowing, I recommend this book. It’s designed as a program, but you can easily use individual activities to get you thinking and creating when the blank paper (or screen) is staring back at you.

    And I agree–technology is helpful, but not required. The point it to do it–and use whatever tools make it easier.

  9. 15

    maybe try some non digital photography too. in this instant age, being to be a bit more precious about what you shoot and having to wait for the results is pretty refreshing

    • 16

      And perhaps developing your own shots too? I’m sure there are plenty of places around where you can hire darkrooms and get tuition?

  10. 17

    I think this was a great article, and as designers I agree we definitely need to push the boundaries of our comfort zones in order to keep our creative edge. But I would take it even further than just sketching, taking photos and videos. Try looking into avenues that are not considered to be a typical creative outlet. Reading up on nature, biology, or even physics can surprisingly have a lot of inspiration. Personally I like astronomy and learning about the make up of the universe around us.

    • 18

      I’ve always wondered if reading up about electronics would tap into the logic/planning part of my brain and help me to understand things like the website users ‘journey’ better i.e. getting from point A to point B in the most logical and economical way.

  11. 19

    Great post, just don’t forget to invite us lot from marketing (for a start we have a fair chunk of the kit above) and we like to play too!

    My designers and I go to the Southampton Boat show every year (as one example) to pick up new ideas which we can communicate and implement into our deliverables – plus we get to get a couple of pints in too (for quality control obviously).

    • 20

      Now I’m thinking our company should probably attend the next CES in Vegas next year… for inspiration of course.

  12. 21

    Instead of DSLR, i’d encourage people to pick up their old film cameras(like 35mm/medium format SLR/TLR or rangefinder). they might not be as convenient as digital, but you will be amazed by the image quality and dynamic range that film could produced–they are quite cheap too(if you are not looking for a Rolleiflex 2.8F or Alpa). meanwhile you could also develop your photography skills.

    A digital P&S used to be a must have to record interesting things in daily life, but you can use any camera on our cell phone nowadays. :)

  13. 22

    One thing of note. You can now get duplicate functionality for video in most newer SLRs and point ‘n shoots that is equivalent to the first two classes of video cameras mentioned.

  14. 23

    Legal question here: I’m designing a print ad featuring the iPhone sitting next to a desktop computer. Apple’s rules say that the iPhone must not be placed next to a computing device ( So I stumbled across this Smashing Magazine article with this exact rule broken – we see the iPhone placed next to two other phones in this article. What loophole did you get to allow you to do this? I’m not asking in an accusatory tone. I just want to finish my own print ad without getting sued to the ground.

    • 24

      A simple answer, my guess, that smashing do not intend to create a printing ad here :)

    • 25

      SmashingMagazine is not a developer (person who wants to sell Iphone applications), no rule broken.

    • 26

      Jo Jo, it is designers blog. Go to law society to ask your legal question… end off…

    • 27

      Well, Legally the pictures provided in this article are not being used for marketing purposes, but are being used as a news resource or as complements to information. That might be the only loophole that might exempt the usage.

      If you are creating material for marketing an app or an iOS accessory, I would suggest using the screen shot of what you would have wanted to be displayed in either a browser or a desktop application window without using any hardware to emphasize the design.

      If it is a cross platform app, ie Android, Blackberry, Symbian etc, maybe creating a separate ad or placing the devices in separate regions. I hope this helps.

  15. 28

    i need money for buy that kind stuff! :P

  16. 29

    Nice examples, but where to get the time to do all this? I am already struggling a little bit to keep up to date at HTML5 and CSS3, so how should I learn all the things related to photgraphing, sketching and so on? I also have a family to take care of, so I am staying at webdesign for the moment.

    • 30

      Probably best to think over a period of a year rather than a day or a week if that makes sense. My family are by far my biggest inspiration. The way my two year old daughter’s mind works is just incredible so sitting down with her and reading a book, drawing with crayons or watching cartoons can fill me with enough inspiration to last a lifetime.

      Staying up really late helps too.

  17. 31

    Nice article. I found myself collecting similar stuff: sketchbooks, pencils, erasers etc.
    It’s the little things: always checking for a new graphics tablet, a brand new DSLR or a point-and-shoot camera.
    A designer has it in his blood, you can’t feel comfortable sitting on a chair and looking for inspiration. Freedom comes from sketching and prototyping on paper, taking pictures with nice textures that could be used in the future..
    I have a bit of hoarding instinct too, it’s hard to give away things.

  18. 32

    Great article. Some things that I do to break away from visual design is sound design and music writing. Also cooking cooking can be very creative and stimulating.

  19. 33

    Khamidulla Inoyatov

    December 23, 2010 6:46 am

    Thank you a lot. This article is the greatest article I have ever read. I am PhD student on Information and Communication Technologies in South Korea. I found design can help in my research work. :)

  20. 34

    refreshing idea!
    great read!
    Thank you @Mark.

  21. 35

    Gunisigi Balaban

    December 23, 2010 9:36 am

    Good point of view. Even a short nature walk might be quite inspiring.

  22. 36

    you forgot audio.

  23. 38

    Was the soccer match Ajax – Feyenoord? :P

  24. 40

    Mark, great post…

  25. 42

    Thank you for this great post, that boost me to do more stuff :)

  26. 43

    What a guy who calls it “soccer” knows about football ??

  27. 44

    Good post. I’ve always liked setting up new offices, houses, apartments and applying my design mindset to interior design and laying out new places for form as well as function.

  28. 45

    Really true! Especially the things said about breaking the daily routine – triying to live life this way…

  29. 46

    I appreciate this article…what a great reminder. Thanks!

  30. 47

    thanks for article..

  31. 48

    I’m all for using creativity to find ways to manipulate low megapixel phone cameras to create videos and whatnot, but high-end equipment certainly affords a more professional end result to almost anything you invest in.

    As a hobbyist videographer, I began with a small portable camcorder. I produced small-scope short films, but no matter how hard I tried, my video never came out how I wanted it. I envisioned studio-quality camera visuals, nice depth-of-fields and bokeh, but I could never hit my target.

    I finally invested in a Canon 5D Mark ii, and boy have things changed. I now do high-paid, professional quality filming for local companies — and my short films are truly cinematic. Trust me, you pay for quality, which pays for itself in enhanced creativity, or at least the ability to create.

    • 49

      I had the same issues when I started taking photos with my point-n-shoot. I would see amazing wide angle, long exposure shots and shots with bokeh but could never get the same results. My wife and I invested in a Nikon D70s (which we still use) and a couple of lenses and it made things much more fun. It was much easier to express our creativity.

      Saving for a DSLR that shoots video now though.

  32. 50

    Actually, my new laptop Fujitsu is my baby :”>.
    What’s next? An iphone which has a pc inside? Gosh, the tehnology is really fast D:

  33. 51

    Seems like a book on web standards is missing from the list.

  34. 52

    Very inspiring stuff, you’ve made me think… thanks!

  35. 53

    The tools do indeed make the plan. I really enjoyed this article. I believe that the ritual of building a toolkit is invaluable for building confidence, especially in new practioners.

  36. 54

    You should create a “For Dummies” section, and place this article in it.

  37. 55


    January 3, 2011 9:34 am

    Sketch book, moleskin, books, guitar

  38. 56

    Incredible thoughts and useful tips to live & design by…
    Thanks a ton,

  39. 57

    Article summary: Do anything as long as you can dodge having a real job…oh and don’t be scared to invest into your ‘inspirational toys’.

  40. 58

    “and I thought this sounded a bit odd. Why would somebody that earns his (considerable) daily bread playing soccer spend time learning and training in areas that are not directly related to his profession?”

    and, in a way, that’s what Jesus was doing :oD

    but seriously yeah.. learn as much as you can.

  41. 59

    Rick Henderson

    January 6, 2011 1:14 pm

    Cross-training is always a good idea. I totally get it from running, kungfu and yoga, but really I have such diverse interests (I’m a bit of a design-type geek) that I happen to love web page design, photography, type etc… and I just bought an Flip video camera. Love it :)

  42. 60

    Inspiring article. I have linked to it in my personal blog. Thanks

  43. 61

    Abdullah Bin Laique

    January 25, 2011 12:41 am

    Learnt a lot thanks for this nice post…!

  44. 62

    Brett Widmann

    April 10, 2011 9:11 am

    These are some great tools. I can’t wait until I get some more time to play around with my new SLR.

  45. 63

    guitar and song

    October 23, 2011 8:50 pm

    I really appreciate what you are doing and accomplishing. Looking for similar sites.


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