Those Who Can, Should Teach
We freelancers often consider bringing on an inexperienced partner not for our own benefit, but because we love our work and are eager to show others how they can succeed as well.
This is in fact how I got my start in graphic design. My uncle is a print designer who works on a few huge store marketing accounts. One day as I stopped by after dropping off a few job applications at local burger joints, he offered to teach me basic page layout and even paid me far more than I was worth. Within ten minutes I was hooked and never had to look for a burger job again.
After nearly a decade as a professional graphic designer, Design Shack serves as a way for me to continue the favor that my uncle extended to me by acting as my outlet for providing free design lessons. I absolutely love to share what I’ve learned with other people in addition to encouraging them to make their dream job a reality.
Whether you’re looking to help out a design intern or want to teach a close friend how to replicate your success in making dang good money from their couch, it’s important to understand how to teach design. I lucked out that my teacher was an actual former graphic design professor and from his example I’ve learned a lot about how to approach teaching someone to be a designer. The following lessons are some of the most valuable that I’ve learned.
Lesson One: Photoshop ≠ Design
When I was in high school I watched a ton of Total Training video tutorials and quickly picked up an impressive knowledge of and competency with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator (then later, InDesign).
This solid understanding of some of the most important modern design tools was a critical step on my road to becoming a professional designer, but the first thing I learned when I started designing ads is that knowing how to use a few pieces of software and knowing how to really design something are two very different things.
Design isn’t about software or computers, it’s about visual communication. Every project has a set of goals that it seeks to accomplish. These goals might include anything from persuading someone to buy a candy bar to organizing a large amount of information in a meaningful way. We use design in conjunction with copywriting to accomplish these goals.
Being a professional designer is about making the boring interesting. You must possess a strong sense of aesthetics and be able to turn something ugly into something beautiful. Being a designer is also about learning to simplify. You must be able to clarify a complex message and break it down into manageable chunks while placing visual emphasis on the most important parts. Finally, being a designer is about understanding people (often very specific groups of them). You must intuitively or explicitly know a thing or two about human psychology. What motivates people to act? How will people respond to certain visual styles? How can you leverage design to help people understand whatever it is you want to tell them?
In a Nutshell
The gist of this lesson is that it’s easy to confuse teaching Photoshop with teaching design. In reality, they’re two distinct but potentially interwoven disciplines.
If you’re going to teach someone to be a designer, stopping at a few software lessons is like teaching someone to write letters and numbers but neglecting basic grammar. They wouldn’t make it far as a professional writer! Which brings me to my next lesson.
Lesson Two: Cover The Basics Thoroughly
Some people have this amazing innate sense of design and visual communication and take minutes to figure out what takes others years. Even if you’re working with one of these extremely gifted individuals, don’t be tempted to skip basic design principles.
I’m constantly preaching the benefits of explicit knowledge vs. implicit knowledge. Having “a feel” for something will earn you a few successes, really understanding that same thing will allow you to do it for 40+ hours per week and consistently repeat that success.
CRAP Filled Designs
No matter who your student is, he/she will benefit from a solid explanation of the most basic principles. A great place to start is the “Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams, which serves as a solid primer and teaches new designers how to properly wield Contrast, Repetition, Alignment and Proximity (CRAP) to create successful layouts. No matter which area of graphic design someone wants to get into, this knowledge will prove invaluable throughout the course of a career.
That same book serves as a basic introduction to typographic principles, which is another key area where building a strong foundation pays off. Learning how to properly mix typefaces and apply selective kerning are just a few of the skills that every design student should pick up. Designers who don’t understand terms like serif, baseline, ascender, x-height and tracking really lack a fundamental understanding of type and their designs likely suffer for it.
The Meaningful Rule-breaker
Design is a very subjective art and it’s often the case that something is interesting and effective because of how much it goes against traditional practices.
Understanding the basic rules and principles of design will empower new designers to create strong designs and help more experienced designers know when and how to break the rules to create something unconventional. There’s a big difference between sloppy design and a skillful departure from the norm.
Lesson Three: Fix The Broken
One of the best ways to learn how to design something is to learn how not to design something. Critiquing design work isn’t something reserved only for the experienced, it should be done frequently by design students as they learn.
Just about everyone has some basic design instincts and a big step in turning those into real knowledge is meaningful analysis. Show the person you’re teaching a bad page layout, headline arrangement, logo, color scheme or all of the above and ask them to explain what’s wrong with the design.
Fixing a poor design is an easier starting point than designing from scratch. It gives the student something to work with and really pushes them to think critically about what works and what doesn’t.
Self-Criticism is Difficult
It’s easier to critique the work of others than our own. If someone creates a poor design, their biases get in the way of a proper analysis. For this reason it’s much better to look elsewhere for examples of poor design practices.
Fortunately, both the web and the real world are overflowing with examples of truly horrid design! Find some and start discussions about them. You don’t have to pretend to be a professor in a classroom, there’s no reason you should have someone submit their answers in the form of an essay. Just talk with the person about why the design seems inadequate.
This exercise will bring to light loads of knowledge that the learner can then apply to his/her own work. Learning to spot faults elsewhere helps you then turn around and look for the same mistakes in your own work.
Lesson Four: Give Encouraging Feedback
Design can be a very technical process, but it’s ultimately a creative venture, which makes things difficult when it comes to feedback. For whatever reason, many people link creative skill very closely to self-esteem. We’re not embarrassed about not being able to work out complex astrophysics but when someone points out that we suck at Pictionary, it hits deep.
No one likes being told that they’re a bad designer, even if they’ve only just started. It’s really easy to get frustrated and intimidated while someone is trying to teach you a creative skill and the result of those feelings is often a full-on surrender. People tell me all the time that they could never do what I do, that they’re not creative enough, etc. In truth, being a graphic designer doesn’t mean that you have to be some uber-talented Michelangelo. Sure it helps to have advanced artistic skill, but it’s not requisite.
Always remember this when it comes time to tell someone what you think of their design. Creativity is so deeply personal that it’s almost as if you’re not simply critiquing their work, but are actually critiquing them personally!
Don’t mistake this direction as a suggestion to baby the person and not point out mistakes, criticism is critical to learning. However, any feedback should be given with an encouraging attitude, not a deprecating one.
Tell whoever it is that you’re teaching that they’re off to a great start and constantly remind them that you were horrible when you first began. This is all of course wrapped around suggestions for how to improve and clear analysis of what went wrong vs. what went right. An old teacher’s trick is to sandwich a criticism between two compliments to help lessen the blow.
The Keys to Becoming a Good Designer
Both you and your design pupil need to remember the two key ingredients in the recipe for creating a good designer: time and practice. Design principles take a few minutes to understand and years to master. No horrible designer is going to turn into a professional in an afternoon!
Each project is unique and therefore presents a unique set of challenges. The more projects you have under your belt, the more challenges you’ve successfully overcome and will be better prepared to face in the future.
I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still find things to struggle with on every single project.
I strongly encourage every successful graphic designer out there who loves what they do to help others learn to do the same. The experience is very fulfilling and I know from experience that it can literally change lives. Learning to make a living doing something fun is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
When teaching someone to be a graphic designer, remember that it goes far beyond showing them how to use a few pieces of software. Design is both a highly creative and technical skill and those who attempt to skip either of these steps really fall short. A solid foundation in basic design principles is an absolute must and will stay with a person for their entire career. A great way to teach good design practices is by showcasing bad ones and discussing why they’re bad.
Finally, the road from layman to designer is long and hard for both student and teacher, being overly strict or harsh in your feedback can scar a person for life. Instead of cold insults, try wrapping constructive feedback in encouragement.