Taste is a learned attribute, it is initially defined by factors such as location, upbringing, wealth, culture, friendship groups etc. It might not seem apparent but all these experiences — things like who your friends are, what music you listen to — have an impact on how you see the world and your taste as a designer.
I believe that taste is what makes you the designer you are now. With every project you work on your taste should be constantly improving. If you hate your portfolio, it’s probably because your taste is different now. What was once beautiful and perfectly executed now seems to be the work of an amateur, at least this is what I feel about my own work. If this is the case, that we’re continually improving with each new project, then how can we be more proactive in refining our taste?
Blindly copying gets you nowhere
It seems to me that there is a right and a wrong way to make better work, only the right way leads to an improved taste. The wrong way to create seemingly better work is to blindly copy another’s work that you admire. The conscientious designer will know that this act of copying mostly results in derivative work. This wrong way may teach you a few things, you might learn new tools, you might stumble upon a new typeface that you like but what it does not teach you is why — Why was that typeface used? Why did those colours work? To go about this in the right way would be to draw inspiration from work that you like and question it before taking action.
Questioning leads to understanding, leads to an improved taste
Let’s say you’re working on a printed newspaper design. You see a newspaper you like and copy it. It works, it looks good, the client seemed to like it, but it feels like it missed the mark somewhat. That is because it’s derivative of the original source material, you blindly copied the design without any consideration as to why it was good and now you’re no better than before you started. Let’s repaint this picture in a way that leads to an improved taste. You see a newspaper you like and rather than blindly copy you question what makes it good. You take an interest in the type, and so, you begin to learn about the design of the typeface, you read that its tall x-height lends itself for use in smaller settings, and that it was designed primarily for use in print, perhaps it’s large counters open up the characters to make room for the ink on paper. With an understanding of the qualities that make this typeface a good choice for a newspaper you can start to search for fonts that have similar attributes, thus using this knowledge to make an informed decision like a pro.
Questioning work in this manner is really all it takes to improve your taste, every new thing you learn from reading books and blogs, and constantly asking ‘why?’ leads to a greater understanding of the various ingredients of design. It may take more time and effort but eventually you’ll be able to rely more on your experience and knowledge and less on inspiration from other’s work, and maybe one day your work will inspire the next generation of designers who are beginning to ask ‘why?’ in the hope of improving their taste.