posted by Matt Ward on Jun 8, 2010.
Who is a designer? What is the makeup of a designer? In this article, I will tackle these interesting questions and work toward building a thoughtful portrait of who and what I think a designer really is. This discussion will include concepts of knowledge, talent, skill, practice and critical thinking.
Recently, and thanks to a Smashing Magazine tweet, I stumbled across an interesting article over on FINCH. The title of the article is “You Suck at Design (Here’s Why)“, and the piece itself explains an interesting phenomenon by which those who truly understand a particular subject area – like design – are actually those best equipped to judge the quality of their own work, and thus tend to undervalue themselves. On the other hand, those who know nothing about that same subject area tend to overvalue their own abilities, simply because they are unable to actually see the mistakes they’re making.
The article raises all sorts of really interesting points – about the community, about the psychology of design (the action of, not the interaction with) and even about why so much poor design is produced by the now-proverbial nephew – and is even sometimes celebrated, making those of us who actually know what we’re doing cringe.
It also raises some interesting questions – at least in my mind – one of which I would like to address here. The FINCH article ultimately polarizes the population into two distinct categories: the knowledgeable and the unknowledgeable. Or, to put it another way, the true designers and everyone else. The question that I have to ask, however, is what actually makes someone a designer? The FINCH article talks a great deal about knowledge, and I think that’s a key element, but what about things like talent, skill and critical thinking?
In this article, I would like to look at these different elements and how they apply to the makeup of the designer.
Talent vs Skill
Any discussion of this sort needs to take into consideration both the concepts of talent and skill. Often, these two ideas are understood to be very similar, but there is a fundamental difference that actually makes them very distinct. To illustrate this difference, let’s turn (somewhat typically) to definitions from Dictionary.com. The definition for talent is as follows:
a special natural ability or aptitude: a talent for drawing (source).
Conversely, skill is defined as:
the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well: Carpentry was one of his many skills (source).
By contrasting these definitions, we can see that talent is something that is naturally born in an individual, while a skill is something that is acquired over time. With the FIFA World Cup coming up very soon, let’s look at a soccer player (or football, if you prefer), as an example.
I would hazard a guess and suggest that probably every single player that you will see run out onto the field during the upcoming tournament possess an in-born athletic ability. They may have a natural speed or strength or agility that they have likely displayed all their life. As kids, they probably did pretty well at whatever sport they tried their hand at, and were likely the envy of others (like me), who were not quite so athletically gifted.
That’s a talent.
But if talent was all that was required to be a great player, then I don’t think professional sport would be nearly as special as it is. There are millions of incredibly athletic people in this world, but only a very few of them ever rise up to become stars in their particular discipline. The difference maker is skill. The World Cup soccer player spends years and years practicing, learning to move the ball with his feet, and accustoming himself to the flow and pace of the game. The player learns everything he can about the sport, and as he develops these skills, is able to couple them with his natural talent to become a world class soccer player.
I think that the same thing applies to designers, though obviously with a different set of talents and skills. On one side, I think that most designers have some level of natural born talent (though, perhaps, to varying degrees). This talent may encompass a tendency towards visual composition, a natural ability to draw, an inborn sense of colour and usually just a general creative spirit.
However, natural talent is simply not enough. I don’t even think that it is the most important element in the makeup of any designer. That distinction belongs to skill. Just like the soccer player, the designer needs to learn the ins and outs of the design game. There are principles to learn (and to learn to apply), the need to distinguish beauty from function, and the ability solve problems visually and an understanding of typography to be grasped. There are also practical skills involved in the actual creation of a design, much of which focuses on computers and software these days, but which once involved paste-up and typesetting.
These are the real hallmarks of a designer. Without them, even them most naturally talented creative individual cannot hope to truly excel at design, any more than that the most naturally athletic individual can hope to just step onto a world class soccer field without years of preparation and training.
However, unlike the soccer player, who is equally unlikely to succeed without some natural talent, I do believe that someone who has a firm grasp of the principles of design is in a far more likely to be able to create a good, solid design than a much more creative person with no understanding of these same principles. In other words, while I believe that most of the people who find themselves getting into design are there because of a natural talent, I also believe just about anyone can develop the necessary skills to become a successful designer (though perhaps not one of the world’s great designers).
This emphasis on learning and skill may seem to be putting a strong push on the importance of education. In many ways, I suppose it is, since the knowledge and learning that a designer accumulates is probably one of their greatest assets. However, I want to stress that this education does not necessarily need to happen between the four walls of a formal school.
Yes, the most important part of developing your design skills is gaining the necessary knowledge, but how you acquire that knowledge is really up to you.
Personally, I don’t have any official schooling in design. I took art classes all the way through high school and one basic drawing class as an elective in university, but while none of this probably hurt my skills as a designer, they certainly don’t constitute anything remotely close to a formal education in design.
Instead, I have developed my skills and education through a number of different means, such as:
Reading – If you were to go to school for design, one of your principal resources would be surely be books. Teachers and professors would assign required reading, and you would be expected to learn a great deal from these pages. Well, it just so happens that you don’t actually need to be enrolled in a class to read a book. You can pick them up at your local bookstore or library and learn all kinds of wonderful, design related thoughts, ideas and principles.
There is also the internet, filled with tons of blogs and other websites dedicated to the subject of design. These are a rich and valuable resource for you to tap into, and I will openly admit that a lot of what I have learned about design over the years has actually come from reading the material on these sites.
Feedback and Critiques – Another really educational experience is always receiving constructive criticism and critiques on your work, especially if these are coming from other skilled designers. I have had experiences where I received criticism that made me sit back and look at a design from a different perspective, allowing me to see something that I hadn’t before. When this happens, I try to file away that perspective, to help broaden the way I look at my own work and hopefully improve my overall skill as a designer.
Dribbble is a great resource for getting this kind of feedback. If you haven’t been invited to that site yet, there are all kinds of other communities that you can look at too. The trick is to find a place where you will be offered more than just a proverbial pat on the back. Praise is all very well and good, but solid advice and constructive criticism that will help you hone your skills is far more valuable.
Practice – I’ve written before about the importance of practice for becoming a better designer, and it has honestly been one of the more valuable educational experiences. Though somewhat organic and perhaps unfocused, I believe that by simply practicing the act of design, many of the underlying principles will being to manifest themselves to you. You will likely start to learn that things generally look better when aligned with each other, or with a larger pattern (such as a grid), or that visual hierarchy can help establish a logical organization for a design.
Just as an aside, there may be some who would argue that this just doesn’t happen – that people don’t just naturally pick up on the principles of design through practice, and that they must be taught. If this is true, where did the principles come form in the first place? There were no ten commandments of design, delivered from on high. There was no miraculous revelation.
No, like most human knowledge, the principles were discovered over time. Through practice and analysis, we gradually began to understand why certain compositions worked better than others. As we learned, we translated this new knowledge into working principles, which remain with us and guide much of what is designed today!
I think that another thing that is part of the makeup of a great designer is the ability to think critically. This can mean taking stock of a particular design project (usually through a brief of some sort) and undertaking an intentional and careful analysis of the requirements in order to come up with the best possible solution.
It can also mean being able to step back from your own work, examine it from a somewhat objective perspective and ultimately assess whether anything needs to be tweaked or changed.
In many ways, I think that critical thinking generally emerges as a by product of extensive knowledge, and here I find myself coming back to the FITCH article, and the suggestion that only those who really know what they’re doing in design are actually equipped to assess the quality of their (or any other) design.
This of course, brings us full circle in our discussion, and offers a perfect segue to wrapping things up. As already stated, the purpose of this article has been to take a look at the makeup of the designer. So far, we’ve looked at some of the various parts that I believe to be key elements to this makeup. To pull it all together, I would like to offer a more complete picture, based on what we have already talked about.
In essence, I believe that a true designer is an individual who has amassed a certain degree of knowledge, allowed that knowledge to develop into critical thinking, and applied themselves to a significant amount of practice to help develop and refine their skills. Ultimately, all of this may (or may not) serve to emphasize or complement a natural-born talent.
And that’s it. For me, that’s the makeup of a true designer. Of course, it’s going to vary from designer to designer in terms of degree and/or proportion, but generally speaking, I think this pretty much describes every designer I have ever known.
What about you? Would you agree with this, or do you think that designers are made up of different elements altogether? Share your thoughts and help be refine this definition!Post A Comment
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