Are You a Right-Brained or Left-Brained Designer?

by on 17th May 2013 with 29 Comments

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Colors, pictures, creativity; designers are quite obviously a group of people that tend to gravitate towards using the right sides of their brains… right? Or is this simply a stereotype that doesn’t necessarily ring true?

Is design exclusively artistic talent put to productive use or is it possible that the industry is equally full of analytical problem solvers? Let’s take a look at how designers think, whether you’re a right brainer or a left brainer, and how I’ve struggled through being a left brainer in an industry of right brainers.

Fact or Fiction?

As you no doubt have heard countless times, there’s an old half myth, half truth theory that a person can either be left or right brain dominant based on the characteristics of their personality.

Left brain dominant individuals, it is said, prefer analytical thought, logic and reasoning while the right brain folks are creative and focus on the finer things in life such as art and music.

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source: jvleis

Often, the importance and literal nature of this theory is taken much too far by wannabe psychologists, which I am not. However, this concept of a person possessing a tendency to lean towards one of these two modes rings true for a great number of people, including myself, so we’ll run with it for this article.

Just know that the whole right/left brain thing is a useful construct for discussion, and is not necessarily backed scientifically (cognitive scientists say it’s bunk). So if you’re into neuroscience, forgive my indiscretions.

I’m Right-Brained, Right?

You don’t know me, so I’ll tell you about myself. I’m a designer, musician and photographer. A strong sense of aesthetics is one of the things that I consider a core element of my personality and character. It’s who I am.

“A strong sense of aesthetics is one of the things that I consider a core element of my personality and character. It’s who I am.”

Now, I ask you, am I a left brainer or right brainer? The answer here is an obvious one. We look up at the chart in the previous section and immediately assume that I’m a right-brained individual. All of the things that I love and pursue in my professional life are seated neatly into that category.

Left of Creative

You would think that, you lucky right-brained bastard. Unfortunately, and trust because me because I’ve struggled with this identity crisis for the better part of my life, it’s not true.

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source: Richard Eriksson

To be honest, I’d love to be a right brainer. I’d kill for the chance to be one of those individuals who secrete artistic talent from some special, hidden Van Gogh gland. The truth is though, I’m simply not.

Designing With the Left Side of My Brain

So why in the world would I claim to be a left brainer when I’ve structured my life around right brain activities? Maybe I’m a poser, or maybe designers don’t fit into the little box that you try to keep them in.

I ❤ Problem Solving

At heart, I’m an analytical thinker. Problem solving, language, puzzles, logic; these are the things that really interest me. Beyond that, they’re the things that I’m actually good at.

“Every design is a problem to be worked out, a puzzle to solve.”

Interestingly enough, these are the skills that I bring to a design project. Every design is a problem to be worked out, a puzzle to solve. Just read through my articles on this site and you can clearly see that this is how I think.

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An analytical look at how to solve some common design problems.

I talk about design theory, I communicate simple and practical principles that you can use to improve your work, I analytically critique designs and suggest how to make them better. What I rarely or never do is start with a blank piece of paper and let you watch me create some amazing work of art right out of my head.

As much as I love it when people call me “creative” and as wrapped up I am in that as a part of what makes me who I am, I’m not sure that’s it’s an entirely true statement.

Layout, CSS, & Sass

This idea makes more and more sense when I think about the specific areas of design that tend to interest me. I love discussing page layout, mathematical grids and common design patterns. Sounds pretty left-brained doesn’t it?

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One of my many, many articles focusing on layout and/or CSS.

Further, my favorite part of web design is CSS. I love the ridiculous nature of making pretty pictures through writing code. True right-brainers might shutter at the thought. Even better, I love using tools like Sass to turn CSS into a sort of faux programming language that’s even more mathematical and logical.

Photography Too

This same argument can be applied to all of my creative ventures. Take photography for example. For me, photography is all about tinkering with my camera. I love the challenge of juggling shutter speed, aperture and ISO to create the perfect exposure and using ideas like the rule of thirds to crop an image in a well-balanced manner.

Dirty, Ugly Jealousy

I’ve come to realize that this is the true nature of my love for creative ventures. Do I find identity and comfort in this realization? Sure. Now, do I envy and hate all you truly creative people? Absolutely.

“I often feel like I’m a left-brained spy, hidden in an industry full of right brainers…”

I often feel like I’m a left-brained spy, hidden in an industry full of right brainers, hoping he doesn’t get found out. Some of you crack open Photoshop or pick up a pencil and absolutely amazing things fall out.

Guys like Fabio Sasso from Abduzeedo piss me off to no end with all of their talent and creativity. I see all you jerks on Dribbble who can sketch the craziest things and I curse your names, coveting your skills and shunning my own.

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In reality, this is a classic “grass is always greener on the other side” scenario. I think (hope) my situation of being constantly jealous of the talent of my peers is pretty typical for all types of designers.

Which is Better?

So when it comes down to it, which mode of thinking is better for designers? If could choose to be left or right-brained, which would you be?

Here’s the catch: This is the wrong question. What you should be asking is, which are you? The truth is that the design industry needs both.

“Creativity can be chaos, analytical problem solving can be boring, it’s when they come together that great design truly takes place.”

Some clients want you to think outside of the box. They want a truly creative, original product that catapults them to fame and fortune. Others, are simply looking for an attractive way to display some information. They don’t want or need someone who’s going to reinvent the wheel and attempt to launch some major paradigm shift. They just want a dang website.

Creativity can be chaos, analytical problem solving can be boring, it’s when they come together that great design truly takes place. The mixture of how these forces work together is different of each individual.

Your challenge then isn’t to attempt to be something that you’re not, but to identify how you work best and leverage those skills to be a successful designer.

So What?

Is this all a pointless intellectual exercise or is there a point here? Don’t worry, here’s where it gets practical and applicable.

Given the knowledge that I’m primarily a left-brained designer in my thoughts, actions and interests, I can construct a basic pattern or process that tends to lead to success (in itself a very left-brained thing to do). Here’s what I came up with:

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Observe, Absorb, Remix. We left-brained designers constantly observe everything around us from a design perspective. What works, what doesn’t and why. We notice trends, follow what’s popular and think about how things are built (fonts, CSS effects, etc.).

All of this takes place, nearly without our intention. It just happens. We take it all in, absorb it and file it away deep in our brains under the “design inspiration” category. Then, when it comes time to design something, we pull from that file, remixing and reworking all of those ideas we’ve been absorbing to create something that’s original and useful.

The Other Side

Compare this with how right-brainers work. Right-brainers require less input per output (or perhaps their input is just more varied, it can be anything). They have this natural, innate ability to create something amazing and truly unique using only the tools available to them and the head on their shoulders.

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source: Ian Norman

A sample right brainer process might be to shut out all distractions, silence their web connection, crank up some music and crack open an empty sketchbook. That’s not as concise as “Observe, Absorb and Remix” but by this point in an article my cleverness is waning, so cut me a break.

How Do You Work Best?

Right brainer, left brainer, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a designer, odds are you’ve struggled a time or two with the creative process. You get stuck, used up, the Van Gogh gland has shut down and you’re not sure how to get it working again.

In those instances, think about how it is that you work best. To do this, consider whether you’re the fantastically creative type of designer or the analytical problem solver, then approach your project with this information in mind, constructing a workflow that caters to your specific needs.

Now that I’ve got you thinking, leave a comment below and let us know which description fits you best. Are you a gifted problem solver or a creative genius? I want to know!

Awesome cover photo provided by Bigstock.

Comments & Discussion

29 Comments

Comments & Discussion

29 Comments

  1. Todd K says:

    Thanks for so succinctly summing up what I’ve felt for a long time too. I’ve always thought of my talent as synthesis … taking a whole bunch of what appear to be unrelated bits of information and using them to generate something useful and usable. All the while, I’ve envied the raw generative talent of my fellow (more right-brained) designers.

    Nicely put and much appreciated insight!

    • Joshua Johnson says:

      Thanks Todd!

    • Gab says:

      >> I’ve always thought of my talent as synthesis

      …and that’s the truth for _literally_ everybody.

      As Joshua points out at the beginning, the whole idea that a person can be predominantly right or left brained is preposterous. No such thing exists.

      Take Joshua, for example. He declares to consider himself a scientific and analytic minded person, and immediately proceeds to discuss a completely un-scientific idea, making once more the point that we are all an inextricable mix of L and R brain functions, regardless of how we *like* to look at ourselves… :))

  2. Matt C. says:

    Good article, I’m left-brained as well and have always struggled with design. It’s just one of those things that doesn’t click. I’m a die hard developer who pretends to do design. Always so envious of those who can design full sites in a matter of a week and it look fantastic.

  3. nomi says:

    I believe I’m a left brained designer/problem solver too. I’ve always wished to be like those creatives with strong aesthetic sense. But you made me realize that it could be nothing more than “grass is always greener on the other side” case. Thank you!

    • Tara says:

      I am in the same boat….but I feel like being left-brained has some specific advantages when it comes to being creative in a business. We can be creative but also practical.

  4. Andy D says:

    I’m very left-brained. My first degree is in accounting and finance, and I was a tax accountant for 4 years prior to my web design career. I also majored in computer science prior to that. I think the analytical side helps tremendously in the web world, but I feel the same thing as you. Why the hell can’t I think of things that other people do? And sometimes I think of things no one else around me had. My strength definitely lies in using grids.

  5. Cat says:

    OMG, this was THE perfect article! I had been wondering for a while if I should even continue being a designer because I am SUPER analytical. I enjoy coding and have become a little obsessed with learning as many programming languages as I can. I love the thrill of developing the process and procedures of workflows, making my own grids, searching, gathering and implementing solutions for problems…I’m not a sketch something and make a really cool Photoshop/Illustrator masterpiece type of designer and that was BUGGING the hell out of me. Reading this has kind of helped me solve a question: should I develop this programmer side of me who can design or work on becoming a better designer that can program a bit? Thanks so much for posting this!! (=^_^=)

  6. Ruari Douglas says:

    This article should be a compulsory read to every designer out there, I mean that with no exaggeration. You have just summed up what me and so many other designers feel. I am so grateful for this, by the far the most invaluable article I’ve read.

    This may seem ridiculous but for the past few months I’ve been exploring spirituality and meditation to engage my pineal gland (google it if unsure), It’s been giving me answers and solutions and has helped my creative process to no end, thinking of things I never would have dreamed of. Check it out.

    Thanks again!!!

  7. Brian says:

    I use both sides of my dome.

    I am passionate about music and art, yet also program tedious web related things. For me, this is because I truly care, it engulfs me and I reflect!

    I like understanding foundations, then building … for instance, one of those people who prefer grid systems to build a website.

    Recently, I coined the term “web devigner”, which is a hybrid of web designer and developer.

    Good article, I know how you feel.

    If only I could find that perfect blend of Spanish guitar, folk and electronic. Whatever, I will keep at it!

  8. matoweb says:

    another great article… when I read it, I saw a description of myself… i’m not a creative genius, as you would say, i’m the analytical type of designer, like you… the Observe – absorb – remix concept really describes how I work. And I’m very jelous of guys who can design something from nothing and finish with a great product… but that’s how they work and I assume that they aren’t very good at coding where we, analytical designers, probably do better and find it easier…

  9. I’ve often wondered about this. When I was a freelancer I sometimes had a hard time switching from “designing” a clients site to taking care of the “business” side of my business. It’s like I had to take a break before switching.

  10. Andy Booth says:

    Fantastic article, I always thought the whole left right brain idea was a lazy view, and there are cross overs. I agree the true wonders are either extremely right or left brained and I hate them for that.

  11. You just described me perfectly. Thank you.

  12. Web Mentor says:

    Think the left-right brain stuff is BS. For more information, just watch this KICK ASS video about the divided brain:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI

  13. egiova says:

    I think it depends on situations. Most of time you can be righty, and other situations lead you to your left. No absolute truths in all this.
    Introspection is a need we all feel, I guess. Creation is a solitary activity that involves all your resources.
    Right AND left.

  14. Mustafa says:

    Hey man cool article. One small edit thou >

    “Unfortunately, and trust because me because “

  15. chris says:

    Great read, i’m a definite right-brainer

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  19. Katie says:

    Thanks for showing me that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  20. Richie says:

    ..Both? I don’t subscribe to this notion of a black and white split at all. I’m a php developer AND a web designer – with a love for logic and problem solving as well as good design, art and photography.

  21. Mayan says:

    “Creativity can be chaos, analytical problem solving can be boring, it’s when they come together that great design truly takes place.” I’ll quote Joshua for that. :D

    I am left-brained inside the office, and right-brained inside the coffee shop. Good balance is really the key.

  22. wmholt says:

    Since I loved the arts, photography, design, and music, I thought I was right-brained, and took pride in that. I took at personality profile at work and found out that I was a “left-brained” person instead. Then, much like in Joshua’s case, I realized that whether playing the trumpet or taking photographs, I was doing something very technical.

    I’m still jealous of those that sit down with a blank piece of paper and create art from their right brain seemingly out of thin air.

  23. LETTiER says:

    Creativity is just the scripting interface to the low level analytically mind.

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