by Piotr Bakker

Just because you’re self-taught doesn’t mean you have to learn alone.

Even geniuses need company.

I am a self-taught designer with no formal training. No art school, no private courses, not even MOOCs. Nada. But not everything I know about design today I owe to myself. To the contrary—collaborating and learning from others has been key to my progress.

Get out of the building

When I first started out, I went to all sorts of industry events, conferences, and seminars. In the beginning, I just wanted to hang out and get free pizza. Not necessarily learn anything.

As I made the rounds to different events, though, I began bumping into more experienced designers. They told me about structural grids, vertical rhythm and negative space — concepts I hadn’t even heard of. They showed me D3.js, Sketch and The Noun Project — tools I had no idea even existed.

That’s also how I stumbled upon hackathons: open-plan workspaces packed with smart people, coffee, and… more pizza! I loved it. That setup was perfect for getting quality, real-time feedback. Whatever I designed, I could get feedback on the spot from experienced designers to find out whether it was any good.

Most importantly, though, I made friends. We talked, we collaborated, we brainstormed—long past the events where we met. Crucially, we gave each other moral support. It helped us all overcome the moments of self-doubt that inevitably crept in. And there were many.

Travel to learn

About a year in, I decided to make my first trip to Silicon Valley. I was running out of cash, and starting to doubt whether my transatlantic voyage had been a good idea. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried — in the next month, I ended up learning more than I’d learned in the previous year.

It wasn’t just the quality of events that made a difference. Maybe it was because I didn’t know anyone, but I really went that extra mile to say hello to strangers.

After that initial experience, I resolved to keep traveling. Wherever I went — from London to Bangkok — I joined co-working spaces and signed up for events. Predictably, not all cities offered as much expertise as Silicon Valley. But I learnt something new everywhere.

Travel also gave me the first taste of working remotely. As I was Skyping with clients one thing became clear: to design well I needed to communicate even better. I learnt to ask more precise questions, get to the point faster and call out BS without missing a beat. Given the circumstances, I had no choice. But that’s not something you typically learn by reading a book.

Get help, give help

Even as I was working from home, I couldn’t escape the influence of others. For example, early on, when I wasn’t able to tell if my designs would function as intended, I would borrow ideas from Dribbble or Behance.

It didn’t help my designs stand out. But over time I internalized hundreds of different solutions, patterns, and other neat tricks.

Eventually, I started creating original designs and sharing them as well. Soon enough, young designers and entrepreneurs started asking me to audit their work.

The conversations we had further organized my knowledge, and would often lead to new, unexpected ideas.

I improved my own skills by helping others improve theirs.

Learn with others

If you are considering learning a new profession or teaching yourself a new skill, try doing so with other people. The satisfaction of learning will be just as great — if not greater — and you will probably discover ideas you wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

Who knows, you might even land a gig or two.

I certainly did.