Designers, Do You Really Know Anything About Design?

by on 3rd August 2011

Does learning the requisite software make you a designer? Just because you know CSS and HTML, can you really call yourself a web designer?

Today we’re going to explore the idea that, while you may be a Photoshop wizard, you might lack in fundamental design training that could drastically help you in your every day career.

These Kids Today…

In a recent article on how to teach someone to be a graphic designer, I touched on the idea that design is much more than Photoshop. This theme resonated with a lot of readers and I thought it would be with exploring further.

There’s an interesting problem in the field of design right now. We have a million home-grown designers who are largely self-taught, which in and of itself is fantastic. However, I think there’s a significant amount of confusion when it comes to what you should be learning as you get your career started in graphic design. The next section illustrates what I mean.

A Trip To the Bookstore

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This idea really hit home when I went to the bookstore last week. It’s been ages since I’ve read a good design book and I wanted to end that streak. Naturally, I wound up in the section of the store labeled “Graphic Design.”

“The section was almost entirely composed of books on Photoshop and those on web development.”

Surely here, standing in the Graphic Design section of a very large major bookstore, I would find some solid materials. Interestingly enough, after digging around for a good ten to fifteen minutes, I only found one or two books that even briefly covered the topic of design! Instead, the section was almost entirely composed of books on Photoshop and those on web development (coding, Dreamweaver, etc.).

I’m definitely not making the argument that these topics aren’t extremely important, they are, but they’re sections of a larger area of discipline, the entire core of which is seemingly ignored these days.

So What Is Design?

In order to understand what I mean by “design,” we can look to the study of art, which is conceptually very similar.

I took an art history class or two in college. In these classes, you learn to appreciate and understand art. We learned how Renaissance artists almost always created very balanced and structured compositions and strived for realism and how modern artists sought to strip out the clutter and realism of previous generations and focus on much more basic expressions. We learned about different methods of applying perspective, how to use the rule of thirds and how to spot hidden messages that the artists were trying to communicate.

Just as important is what we didn’t learn. We didn’t learn to paint, draw, sculpt or use any of the other tools of artistic expression. Those topics merited their own class.

In this metaphor, Photoshop is painting. It is a tool by which the larger discipline is accomplished, but knowing how to use it doesn’t make you a designer any more than knowing how to paint a house makes you an artist.

“Knowing how to use Photoshop doesn’t make you a designer any more than knowing how to paint a house makes you an artist.”

You know the keyboard shortcut for kerning type, but do you know how to kern type? You know how to create guides, but do you understand the fundamentals of grid-based layout? You know how to apply a background fill color, but do you understand which colors will complement each other well and why?

What is design? Design is math, do you understand the golden ratio? Design is psychology, will a red or green button earn more clicks? Design is art, which color scheme is has greater visual appeal? Design is marketing, how do I sell this idea, service or product?

Like Pornography, You Know It When You See It

“Why don’t we talk about design more?”

The point that I’m trying to drive home is that design is a “huge” topic with many facets. Unfortunately, I think most of our thought into this area is subconscious as we build a design. We intuitively use design principles without really thinking them through.

Hundreds of websites showcase good design, but the discussions following revolve almost exclusively around how a texture was achieved or what method was used to bend the drop shadow in that way while the excellent structuring of whitespace is ignored. So if we’re all designers, why don’t we talk about design more? Many of us know when we see good design, but don’t have a fundamental understanding of what sets the good apart from the bad.

Do You Need to Learn to Be a Designer?

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The question that you now need to ask yourself is obvious: Do I understand design? Think back to how you learned to be a graphic designer, what knowledge did you gain? Did you simply learn HTML and CSS and then proceed to charging people for web design? If the answer is “yes,” then it may be time to reevaluate your current educational goals.

Another great question: is it worth it? You already make a living as a designer so you’re obviously doing something right, why waste your time with all this nonsense about proper design? The answer: it’s absolutely worth it.

For starters, you’ll likely absolutely love it. Gaining explicit knowledge about how to be a better designer is a thoroughly enjoyable task for anyone that’s remotely interested in design. The concepts are basic enough that anyone can grasp them and deep enough that they can take a lifetime to master. Further, learning about design at its core will help you reach a “good” design faster and more often than before.

Where Do I Learn Design?

Since the bookstore is a bust when it comes to learning design, where do you turn? A classroom is obviously your best bet, many graphic design courses in universities and community colleges are taught by old school designers who can genuinely teach you the trade.

However, school is definitely not going to be a desirable option for most of you. In this case, we turn to the web. “Design blogs” are a dime a dozen, there are a million of us, but very few really discuss design on a fundamental level as opposed to teaching Photoshop or web development. At Design Shack, we attempt to cover everything related to web design, so you’re likely to see an article about center-alignments followed up by a basic PHP tutorial. Where else can you turn?

UX Blogs

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Interestingly enough, I’ve found that, in the area of web design, UX blogs are the ones that really dig into design concepts rather than simple product tutorials. These guys spend their time thinking about and solving design-related problems and really push the concept of creating a solid experience through goal-focused design.

In reality, UX is yet another niche of design, but it’s one of the few popular areas today that will teach you to design something as opposed to merely how to build something. Check out these sites to start:

Before & After Magazine

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I’ve mentioned this resource once or twice in the past, but I really can’t recommend it enough. Before & After is the single best true design publication that I can name.

Every single PDF issue and online video is filled with awesome and incredibly practical knowledge that you can apply to your work immediately. Sample topics include “How to Design Motion,” “How to Find the Perfect Color” and “Extreme Photo Cropping,” all solid resources on real design information.

Conclusion

This has been a rant from a fairly young designer with old school training. I believe firmly that designers often over-educate themselves in every skill related to their jobs at the expense of the most important concepts of how to be a designer. I think every designer, young and old, can benefit from a daily, weekly or monthly dose of good old design discussions that step away from software and towards visual and mental constructs and problem solving.

If you agree, leave a comment. As much as possible I’d like to continue steering Design Shack in a direction that really hits on the core concepts of design and I’d love to hear your feedback on that goal. As always, thanks for reading!

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