Here is a synopsis of my design philosophy after years working in the field.
WHAT MAKES SOMEONE A GOOD DESIGNER?
1) Understanding of hierarchies. Where is the user looking first, and for how long? What are the most important elements of your design, and how are you ensuring that the person interacting with it is looking there.
2) Ability to understand past and current trends and why they work -- History is important! Everyone has assumptions ingrained through culture and context. Understanding those assumptions and how to use them as abbreviated little moments of communication is an excellent way to design.
3) Able to communicate to non-designers and designers alike. If it's readable to only a few people, it's likely not useable for your audience. Readability is always the first priority.
IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU IMPROVE YOURSELF AS A DESIGNER?
1) I study all aspects of visual communication so that I may be fluent in the different languages of design-- this includes color, hierarchy, type, and the current and past trends.
2) Part of my practice is understanding why people are drawn to some designs and illustrations rather than others-- so I enjoy replicating them to understand how they are put together.
3) I read articles, books, and various points of view on design. I also talk to people, which sounds hilariously basic but it is very important in understanding your audience.
4) I keep a steady art practice-- through graphic design, painting, illustration, and other mediums.
NAME ONE DESIGN TOOL YOU USE OFTEN AND EXPLAIN WHY?
Right now my favorite tool is actually pretty new -- Adobe Experience Design! As someone who has used Adobe Creative Suite for 15 years now in some capacity or another, I find the interface very intuitive and satisfying for a visually-motivated person like myself. Sketch has a layering system that can be a bit odd for someone who uses Adobe first, and while it is quick to learn, I think Experience Design is a little bit cleaner-- and faster. Their mockup tools are also very quick to use.
WHAT IS ONE DESIGN PRINCIPLE YOU TRY TO KEEP IN MIND WITH YOUR WORK, AND WHY?
This is hopefully self-explanatory, but since most people who interact with a product are not designers, there needs to be a balance between beauty and functionality. If something that the designer/team thinks "looks cool" is interfering with readability, it needs to be implemented differently. One of the reasons that design has become so simplified in the past 2-3 years is that people are bombarded with more information than they can handle on a daily basis.
Ideally, your design has two phases:
1) Communicates what needs to be said so cleanly that the user doesn't have to think about it.
2) Adds delight around the "edges" of the user's consciousness that compels them to stay and keep looking without making them feel forced into it.
HOW DO YOU IMPROVE AND ITERATE ON A DESIGN?
1) Assumption - I do my initial sketches (often on pen-and-paper first and then in Adobe Experience Design) of what I THINK the product or design should look like. This includes wireframes, errant ideas, inspirations that I already have floating around in my head, and the like. I'll put down my initial color scheme assumptions, type associations, and branding first-impressions here. If I am working with a team, here is where I might check in and see what folks think for their input as well.
2) Research - Next, I do research into the brand/design and how I might enrich my assumptions with more data. This is where mood boards come in! I compare my assumptions with what is current and what has passed.
3) Execution - Bringing it all together! Checking with the research about which assumptions work and which might not, iterating on my assumptions so that they work more with the brand identity. Experimenting with color schemes, hierarchies, and type families. Trying certain typefaces and seeing if we need licenses. Mockups of a few screens to see if they work!
From there, it's the back-and-forth of iteration. I'll bring my designs to the team/client, I'll present them, and we have a conversation about how best to direct the design together. I'll take notes on what people feel works well and why, and mark off things that folks find bothersome. If they like it, we move to final. If not, we move forward while changing what is necessary.
Even though my design and illustration work may seem disparate at first, the principles remain the same: If you know your hierarchy and what you're trying to say, your design will follow.
I hope this is helpful in explaining what I do, how I do it, and why I love it! Every new challenge is at once a simplification and beautification process, and there's always something new to learn.