The average bloke learns from his mistakes, but a wise man learns from other people’s mistakes too. In design, as in life, you can learn from watching others. See what they do wrong and what they do right. Break down the successful design to see why they are successful and do the same for those that you deem bad or just imperfect.
I have found that spending a little time regularly analyzing and exploring the work of other designers has really helped me improve my designs. This doesn’t mean that I stopped experimenting or exploring on my own. But seeing where other designers fall on their faces or where they have really nailed a technique or style helps me to understand what good design is.
Sometimes I learn by seeing someone take what I thought was always bad and doing it in an elegant and beautiful way. Cameron Moll has a weblog that uses subtle background textures in a way I hadn’t thought possible. I’ve always looked at background patterns on web sites as tacky and distracting. Cameron opened my eyes.
This is just one example of how my exploration has opened my eyes to new possibilities. The goal is not to copy the styles of great designers, but to start to understand what makes things great or horrible by seeing real examples. I know I’m not the first person to espouse this idea, but I think it is worth repeating. I’ll try to post links to sites that are sources of inspiration for me in the hope that it may inspire more good design in the world.