Designers, Do You Really Know Anything About Design?

by on 3rd August 2011 with 30 Comments

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


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?


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


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


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.


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!

Comments & Discussion


  • Santiago Castillo

    I absolutely agree with everything in this article. I majored in Art in college, then got a certificate in Digital Arts when I became more interested in design. Not only have I had to learn about other non-art related principles of design (and, though I’ve improved, I still feel I have more to go), but I’ve come across a lot of people who know the tools, but have no clue about designing.
    Great article!

  • Jacquilyn

    Well said. I majored in Computer Graphics and I took the web class (html and css) before the print class (aka the design class), and I still remember those first websites I made. I knew they were bad even back then. Since then I have been trying to learn design for the the web. Thank you for the links, I will have to check them out.

  • Julian

    Slightly off-topic: Do you know what happened to that Dell competition, was supposed to close yesterday already and there’s been nothing?

  • Alli

    I think the link for Before & After is wrong?

  • JB

    Hmm I agree – studied design and get really annoyed at a large majority of User Experience Design people who have little knowledge, training in design and have at most read a few blogs on UX and consider themselves experts in design. And think that visual designers (web interaction, branding etc ) do not know about UX

    Not sure about other people but my time studying covered UX and in my first few jobs about 10 years ago UX skills were just part of a designers role.

    Maybe there are just to many wannabe designers in the world

  • Anthony

    I like this article, but I think it gets a bit subjective from place to place. If you are speaking strictly about a “job title”, because that is how you happen to earn certain currency, than I do not think it matters what someone else who has hired you or your company, chooses to call you. If someone wants to pay me to help do minor repairs on their house, and afterwards they tell a third party that they hired a contractor/handyman to do some repairs around their house…then at that moment that is what I was to that person at that time. Would I necessarily tell people that ask, that I was a contractor? No probably not, but I think when we start trying to focus too much energy on labeling over actually performing, than what is the point? If I teach somebody how to play the guitar, or how to tie a bow tie, or how to do basic algebraic formulas, why shouldn’t I or anyone else be considered a teacher at that moment? Because I do not choose to make a full-time “living” off of teaching in a state regulated school for 40 years. I believe that as human beings we are capable of doing and operating under many umbrellas in life. I think if people in the web/graphics/art industries want to focus on labels, they have that right, but I won’t. I am a musician/sound tech/DJ…I have been paid many times to perform these tasks and other similar tasks. I just recently got into web/graphics over the past couple of years, because I enjoy it, and I want to challenge myself, and move in new directions from time to time. That is what excites me about life, not labeling, not putting a cap on who I am as a human being (not saying this article does that, just speaking in general). That is what also inspires me about life, and in turn that is what makes me a better__________________insert which label you want here. Best wishes. :-)

    PS. Love the site, love the articles, great job!

  • Kim Ruddock

    Great article on a very important subject. I studied ‘old school’ as it were and then turned my hand to web design. Understanding the principles of graphic design and typography can only improve a web designers end product. I recommend ‘The Art of Looking Sideways’ as a great book to look at for great examples of traditional graphic design.

  • Andrew

    There must be some good books.

    There are often great books on practically every subject, yes many are surprisingly hidden away, but a good author is often able to open up a subject like no one else. If anyone has a recommended reading list I would love to see it!

  • Give Graphics

    nice post! it is great pleasure to visit your site. thanks!!

  • Michael Gunner

    I studied Product Design at University, so I learned a lot of design principles. I apply these with my work and I don’t think other “designers” who did not study design as a subject do this.

  • bchild

    Very good article, and I must admit, I have been guilty of calling myself a ‘web designer’ when in reality, I was just a hobbyist graphic designer who knew how to write a few lines of HTML & CSS.

    I read an article a while ago entitled “If you can’t code, you’re not a web designer” – On reading the title, my first thoughts were ‘Here we go again, yet another ego-centric web designer thinking that he’s better than everyone else…’ – But when I actually read the article, the author made some excellent comparisons (if a little clichéd) with the architectural industry…

    Architects cannot design a building if they do not understand the limitations/capabilities of the materials that are going to be used. Likewise, Web Designer cannot design a good website, without any knowledge of the code/scripts/frameworks that are going to be used on the site. – This was the first time I realized that I wasn’t really a ‘web designer’.

    I do completely agree with Antony’s comments as well. My current job title is “Senior Graphic Designer” – I was given this title by my boss because, to him, I was the most experienced designer on the team. In actual fact, I have very little experience compared to many established designers and I know that I still have a lot to learn.

    But, If someone else sees you as the “expert” in a particular field and that is what you want to be, then you should be confident enough to show him/her that you will do the best job you possibly can for them. Even if you make mistakes a long the way, that is how we become real ‘experts’

  • Joe

    I have found that you can pick up skills with a good amount of dedication. My certification class moved very quick across several disciplines of design. My approach: learn the software as best I could so I could operate efficiently with that. I knew design principles would take time, projects, dedication, and experience. The logisitics alone of quick moving curriculum wouldn’t provide much of this. Fast forward a 1.5 years I am employed full time, my production skills are excellent, and I drill everything I possibly can in the way of design skills. Grids, Type, Color, and each project I see marked improvement. Being in the process of revamping the portfolio has been amazing as I am able to see the progress. (It’s not yet live btw.) Best to start with foundation I agree, but there are gaps with any industry. We just have to work hard to fill them.

  • Coryae

    I have worked for a web design firm for a couple years and started out with a solid understanding of print design. I worked for some time as an intern just learning the web side of design. Four years later, and quite a few successful go-lives I still hesitate calling myself a designer around our lead designer.

    The point of that story is I have met several people who I would call developers who call themselves designers. When I show them some of the work our lead designer has produced and ask them what they like about I often get “The colors are really nice” or “everything looks so clean.” I rarely get any response talking about how the line height compares to the width in a paragraph or how he took the Z pattern your eyes flow over a page and used it to naturally direct the end user to the most important feature of a page.

    The point is that I never hear about my peers picking apart a design. The overwhelming majority seem to use attributes of a successful design without really understanding why they work so well. It is really hard to write a book when you don’t even know the language your writing in.

  • Martin

    Best design book is called SUBWAY ART.

  • Brett Lutchman

    In order to understand design, one does not really have to take a look at art as a foundational basis for design foundation. Although I understand the relation you are trying to make and while there is definitely value in the analogy you portray, I tend to agree more with you’re comment about design being “math”. This is true.

    The very chairs we are sitting in were technically and hopefully ergonomically made to withhold pressure of a certain human being who desires to sit down. The chair was “designed” to hold a sitting human being. If this chair is designed correctly, then we can enter the esthetics of art and start making it look pretty.

    I believe strongly that “design” justifies the “art” rather then “art” justifying the “design”. Unfortunately, this is the very mistake which I believe this post is trying to address. Too many designers (especially young designers) look at design and assume that we are speaking about art.

    How many times have we bought into the visual eye candy of art when we purchased a product, but then realized the intended design does not operate of function as well as we’d like?

    Countless times I’ve bought new and improved so-called user friendly can openers that can either cut from the top or side, has excellent artistic expression with rubber or plastic handles, and simply don’t do the job well. I’m still using my regular $0.99 steel opener that kind of hurts my hand but easily gets the job done.

    When I look at Apple products, because they are so very well designed, the sleek, sexy artistic aluminum finishing and glossy glass covers are simply the icing on the cake. Apple deserves the artistic expression and brand reputation for their products because their designs “earned” it.

    Overall a very good post.

  • Sean

    Agree with the author. Hiring web designers, we very often come upon “designers” and “coders” described in this article. In fact, it is a real problem. We have tried to discuss it in our recent post “PSD to HTML Tutorials – What Is Wrong With Them?” ( ), sorry for self-promotion. Thanks the author for new weighty arguments.

  • Vlad Gidea

    Great article, very inspiring. These days I noticed I can’t find good articles on design so I went looking in a library for old books. I found some good titles, published years ago on topics such as Typography, Design Currents and more. Unfortunately you have better chances of finding articles with huge resource lists then an article about gestalt laws.

  • herman d maldonado

    this might sound a little, not sure…arrogant, egotistical or maybe some other adjective…but there is a structure you follow, an organizational chart if you will, in coming up the design rank structure. what the heck do i mean!? well…for starters today, a young twenty something with no experience (except that he impressed the eye of some buddy that is in the biz) gets himself a job as an “art director” or calls himself a “creative director” because he has been in the trade for a whopping 2 yrs and no one questions it or the lack of portfolio. i have been in design 27+ yrs, graduated high school of art & design (70s/nyc), degreed (if that is a word)in design at NOVA (80s/virginia) and have actively been in the business by coming up the ranks accordingly. what happened to that structure?? production artist (1-2yrs) > jr. designer (2-4yrs) > designer (5yrs) > art director (5-10yrs) > creative director (10-20yrs). it takes those YEARS TO BECOME that designer! it really does. not everyone is born a david carson or a matthew carter or a milton glaser (alot of you will not even know these names). they became designers through their years of experience, they learned it in school and applied it in the real world. and guess what…along with that knowledge come the feeling that “i am a designer”. you look at a font and immediately recognize it by name, you can tell if a grid was used in a design, you design white space, you do press check at printer, review chrome cmyk prints, assure screens are at correct angle (YES…even in digital printing) etc. the tools have gotten more sophisticated, but the knowledge is YOU and that takes years. cathedrals were built by masons (stone carvers), a dying breed…if not already. design is going the same way, we have millions of “web designers” that have never studied a thing about design or even art history, as you said in your article, and will hang their shingle, declare themselves designers and start building cathedrals. you are not a mason.

  • Tom, NewEvolution

    The first lesson for any new designer should be to follow the KISS (keep it simple stupid) method.

  • Ethan King

    Really great post here! Absolutely agree with the advice in this article.

  • Aljiro

    Hi Joshua. Interesting points. I am a self-taught freelancer and I do understand what your trying to say. I especially like this part “Knowing how to use Photoshop doesn’t make you a designer any more than knowing how to paint a house makes you an artist.”

    I know a few people back in college who proclaim themselves to be “designers” despite only knowing how to apply layer styles in Photoshop. It’s sad but its the truth. People think knowing photoshop equals knowing design which is just not true.

    You have created an engaging piece and I aspire to write articles of similar quality for my blog as well.

    Thanks you.

  • Ramon

    Great Article.

    I’m also a self-taught freelance designer, with the difference that I learn Graphic Design first, and worked designing for print for years before i turn myself to web design 9 years ago.

    There is another aspect of the subject that is making things worse, and that is the lack of willingness to pay for real graphic design.

    Many clients today ask for a “web designer” who know how to use the tools before somebody who know how to design, and I think that’s why many aspiring “web designers” tend to learn only the basics.

  • Peter Schreiner

    Thanks for the timely post. I, like many others, are self taught and appreciate good guidance.

  • Ade Budiman

    simple but meaningful, I like it a lot, good work comrade! :)

  • Manish

    you talked about design but you only talked about design in HTML5 and CSS. The fact of the matter is DESGIN is present everywhere. Literally everything is a design. Think of design in a broader perspective.

  • Irina

    Wow! I really enjoy all your articles, Joshua. Please keep writing, what you do is really useful!

    I tend to go on graphic design forums where you can post your work and ask for feedback. I feel the necessity of communicating with other designers, since I don’t have an art director etc. And it’s true – finding a good blog is not that easy. So thanks for sharing the links.

  • Sabrina

    Interesting article. I’m in total agreement. Just because you know how to use a program doesn’t necessarily make you a designer. I got my first degree in Art Education, then later in Graphic Design and Multimedia. From my first degree, I learned a lot about art, design, and had to take pretty much every type of art class you can imagine. Drawing was my thing.

    What I found interesting was when I started taking my graphic design classes, many of my classmates had no real understanding of art and design. Yes, they could use the programs, but their designs were not pretty. It was weird for me because I was used to being surrounded by amazing artists.

    Teaching design is hard. Some people will grasp it, and some wont. I think it takes time, a lot of practice, and some artistic talent to succeed. College taught me how to use the programs, but it wasn’t until I was working in the field that I really learned how to be a graphic designer. It helps that I have a talented Creative Director.

  • Benedict

    Thank you very much for the great article. Thanks

  • Adham Dannaway

    I definitely find the internet the best place to learn about the latest design ideas and innovations. Things change so quickly books simply can’t keep up. UX blogs are great as they explore solid theories and back them up with real life testing in many cases.

    (Leaning photoshop is definitely a good start for aspiring designers out there though! LOL!)

  • Fascal

    I have designed some graphics and some webpages and I am self-trained/self-taught.

    In many cases, I do not see a point of going through the formal university education in graphic design, because to put things blatantly, I am known in my circle for graphic designing. But, I do not label myself as a graphic designer. Essentially, graphic designing is my passion.

    However, this post has given me new light in seeing things. I think what you’re trying to say is ‘to be able to cut a paper with scissors with precision, you have to be THE scissors’ – if I’m making sense at all. To me, this post means I have to be more involved in the things that I like, not just in the tools that I use but also the history, the cultures, the stories that go behind the things that I like to do.

    In reality, customers just want their product good and well and that’s all it matters. But in the matter of expertise, as a person in practice, I would need to put in more effort to know more things about design – and that is not just about obvious Photoshop techniques.


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