Option Paralysis And The Art Of Learning New Software

Something that I’m sometimes asked is how to find a way into a new piece of software when it can seem so daunting when you first decide to take the plunge and buy it. A friend sent me a mail recently asking me exactly this so I figured I would write a post about my own approaches to learning new stuff. He wrote:

I am new to the field of motion graphics and frankly I do not know where to start. I’ve got a copy of Photoshop, After Effects and Cinema 4D loaded on my computer and I just do not know what I should be tackling first. I am a bit like that donkey between two haystacks (in my case three) and I am splitting myself between them and becoming a jack of all trades rather than a master of any of them. I hope you don’t mind me asking. I promise, that is the end of the questions.

Of course I didn’t mind him asking me at all and it got me thinking about my own career path and choices and decisions I have made regarding this type of conundrum.

I suppose there are many approaches to this but this was my response which I have edited a little to make it (hopefully) more informative.

Horses for courses

One way is to look at it from a purely process-based point of view. For example, 3D software can be used just to create raw stuff and Photoshop and After Effects can be used to polish existing stuff. Obviously I am taking the simplistic approach here – 3D apps are capable of so much more and Photoshop and AE are also capable of creating amazing designs from scratch but at a basic level, and in this instance, I am suggesting that a 3D app can be used as a ‘raw materials/image creator’ as a way into it.

So pick one (say Cinema 4D) and then when you can create stuff you like (like a few spheres with a nice shiny rendered texture or material), work out how to render it out and then open it up in another app and learn to use that app with your own assets from 4D. I’ve made this bit sound easy – it might take ages to work out how to create a few spheres but pretty much everyone starts here.

Maybe the 4D render you did was too dark – why not try to lighten it in Photoshop? It’s a great way into another app because you have a good reason to fire it up – it’s also much more fun to use your own assets because you get a sense of ownership and progress. You could of course do it the other way around.
Pick Photoshop and work out how to make some textures you like. There are millions of tutorials online that cover all levels of software user. Google ‘make Photoshop texture’.

Then open up 4D and try to apply them to a cube. This approach will also help you to get a grip on a relationship and workflow between these apps that works for you and one that you can build on.

Learning interesting stuff is, well, interesting.

Another way to look at it, and I think my own experience tells me this and not just in my job, is simply to learn the things you are most interested in or that you have seen somewhere else – it will make learning far easier and more fun and we all need to have fun, right? You will inevitably end up having to use the other software apps anyway to tweak what you’ve done so, again, one app leads to another with good reasons and context.
One of the things I hated at school was being taught something that was never given any context; does anyone remember the ticker tape experiments you did in physics? You know, the ones with all the dots that get spaced out the faster the tape got pulled through? Only years later in my career did I contextualise that with animation speed and motion/bezier curves – part of my everyday life now! So simple now but without the context back then I found those classes to be utterly unintelligible. The context, for me at least, when I’m learning new stuff is simply that ‘I enjoy it so therefore it’s easier to learn’. And a natural progression for the inquisitive mind is to want to improve what you’ve done (maybe in another app?). And you’re off…

One method I use to start climbing what can often seem like a massive learning curve when learning new software is to set myself a single task and stick to it like ‘Today I want to create a light bulb in 3D – nothing more – just a light bulb’. You have your goal, you have the software, now go and try to create it! It may not be the prettiest light bulb in the world, it’ll probably take you bloody ages and you probably won’t have the foggiest idea how to make it produce any light but you’ll be learning tons of stuff on the way. Hey, why not make the light appear using After Effects or Photoshop instead with a simple glow filter? There’s definitely a pattern forming here!

Be a Dare-devil

There is another way which is the scary, seat-of-your-pants way and it’s not for the feint-hearted and that is: if you are offered a job that you think requires Cinema 4D or AE or whatever, take it (within reason). Ok, you don’t know how to use it AND it will take you much longer than you can charge for but it offers several advantages:

1. It gives you a real-life project with a real focus to succeed (if you fail on the deadline or on quality, you’re screwed and the client won’t come back – what better focus is there!).
2. Hopefully, if you nail it, it will provide you with the start of some new material for your portfolio; material that you can then show off and that will hopefully bring in more work that you enjoy.
3. You get paid for it.
3. It forces you to answer your initial question, which app should I start with?

Ok so the ‘dare-devil’ strategy is a big risk strategy and not one to be taken lightly (and some might even say that it’s career suicide) but then, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have taken this approach on several occasions and, for me at least, it has always worked out well and allowed me to get my foot in the door to a whole host of other types of motion graphics and design work. Work that I had previously passed up on but work that I love and now do all the time.

I even took on a copywriting job (I’m no copywriter and admittedly it was for a non-English speaking client although his English is fantastic). This project then went on to win (and is still winning) awards. Obviously I don’t take any credit for the win as my part was very small in the scheme of it but it gave me more confidence to be bold and brave (and it plugged a hole in a fairly quiet period in my freelance schedule at the time). My client was and is very happy and I have since worked for them on several more occasions doing copywriting, Flash and motion design work.

So that’s it. Remember this was a reply to a friend that reflects my own approach to learning new stuff – you might well disagree with some (or all) of it so feel free to leave a comment and tell me I’m mental or stupid or brave – (personally I prefer the ‘brave’ comments) 🙂

What are your approaches to learning new stuff? Do you freeze up when the software opens up?

Are you a dare-devil or would you rather get to a certain level before taking on a project.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


About the author: Chris is a freelance Flash and motion graphics designer and developer with over 13 years of commercial digital experience with some of the world’s largest and smallest brands and agencies. He is also a music producer, is addicted to tea and is stupidly tall. You can follow him on Twitter and check out his Flash portfolio which is currently in beta. He is also the author of ‘everythingisinteresting‘, a photography book dedicated to everything he finds interesting.

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