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Why Is design so hard to teach? 30 Comments


graphicdesign2

Many of you have been asking for tutorials on how to learn design. I took a stab at a design tutorial called “The Art Of Making Things Look Less Crappy Over Time.” This went a part of the way to help explain my specific process, but something was still missing. I started wondering WHY design is so hard to teach and to learn. It comes down to two things…

1. Learning design takes a TON of time. Abandon all hope in learning design quickly. In fact, there is a reason that there are a ton more “How to learn Photoshop” videos than “How to learn Design” videos. It’s because teaching and learning design is a time consuming process and can’t usually fit in the span of a tutorial.

2. Design is subjective. Different people have differing opinions of what looks good. This makes learning design a very personal, solitary journey. Design processes are forged on a per person basis. What works for me probably won’t work for you. Sure, there are rules to follow, but when it comes down to it, everyone has to follow their own sense of what looks “right.”

So, how DO you learn design. It all comes down to making a ton of mistakes and figuring out what looks good to you. You will also find tricks along the way that will help get you to a good design quicker than you used to. Remember, there are no right ways, just your way!

Here are some sites to help you get started on your journey
Graphic Design – The New Basics
Graphic Design Week Wrap-up
The Grid System
50 Totally Free Lessons in Graphic Design Theory

Signal
Texture Kit Pro

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This is a friendly community. Please treat everyone with respect. We don't all have to agree, but we do have to be nice. Criticism is fine, but rude comments and name calling will be deleted. Use your real name and don't be spammy. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

30 Comments

  1. I just got out of a tech/art/design school and learned a lot about the programs, but not as much about design. They tried to teach us design in the short time we were there, but like you said it takes time for it to sink in.

    Now for a completely unrelated question. Is there any good sites like Moo.com where I can get just a few custom designed cd wallets for my reel. Seems like every where wants you to buy a 100 or more. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Wow, big subject.
    Learning an application/doing a tutorial is like following a recipe. That’s cool, you hopefully end up with something tasty. Design is more like ‘creating’ a recipe. Mmm, that’s a bit harder. Lots of ingredients on offer, but which ones fit together? Plus, you’re usually not cooking only for yourself. The diner/client has their own likes and dislikes, but you’re not quite sure what they are yet. Are you going to go with your signature dish yet again?
    If a design education taught me anything, it’s that designers are people with opinions (you know who I’m talking about, you’ve either met them or are them). Designers have opinions about everything. Too big/small, light/dark, safe/edgy, modern/retro, sans/serif, blah/blah… Design doesn’t happen onscreen, it happens in your head.
    It’s not easy and it’s often not fun, but when you find that ‘perfect’ solution to a problem, it’s magic.

    Reply
  3. Learn the established commonalities rules of “good design” first, then learn how to break them. A good designer can work with type fluently. (Otherwise, I believe you’re called an illustrator.)

    A “bible” of typography: The Elements of Typographic Style. Love it, learn it.

    http://amzn.com/0881791326

    Reply
  4. mauro

    That’s what I am looking for since few months. Recently I figured out how easy is to learn a software compared to make good design. And as at the moment I’m making a kind of homemade college :D these are some books which some friends and people over the internet suggested me on the topic which I’d like to share with you:

    Typography and Graphic Design: From Antiquity to the Present
    http://tinyurl.com/ylb8k8f

    Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, and Students Design Briefs
    http://tinyurl.com/yjhh8mw

    No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism
    http://tinyurl.com/yeyqw55

    How to be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul
    http://tinyurl.com/y8hxcpl

    The Complete Guide to Digital Graphic Design
    http://tinyurl.com/yeeyuxo

    Actually I’m reading Thinking with types and I’m finding it very interesting…did you read these other books? What can you tell me about them?

    Thank you Nick for re-opening this kind of discussion.

    cheers

    Reply
  5. Good point Nick. I’m struggling with some of the same concepts as I’m trying to build a design curriculum. I’ve come to the conclusion that we as an industry mislead potential designers by trying to teach design with the same mindset as art (subjective, opinion, taste, etc) when in reality its much closer to architecture. It still has to look good but if the beams can’t hold up the roof its failed no matter how beautiful the outcome.

    Reply
  6. I instruct a “motion graphics for compositors class” in the Visual Effects Department of a private art university. I have struggled with instructing design- my students can eat particle simulations for lunch but the subjective nature of design drives them crazy. Here are a few things I have found that work.

    1. Impose restrictions.

    Magazine designers are constricted intensely- for every one bit of decision they make regarding a layout design, another one is surely driven by the constrictive nature of the medium. Several restrictions impose the inherent system of visual structure and rule based design systems. Often times I will bring up a few layouts that are visually appealing and then pull down guides in the software to show the underlying grid. When one sees the visual structure in the piece, one is forced to admit the strengths comes from the design following a set of rules. Restrictions are not necessarily visually driven either (such as following a specific color palette), they can be conceptual (“I need 3 designs based on apples. Go.”) or physical (I consider time limits to be in this category, although I am curious if students would like to design with one hand tied behind their back.) Of course, outside of the school environment, budget is a huge restriction.

    2. Insist that designers print their work frequently.

    We are becoming a generation of screen designers, designed on the screen, for the screen, and of the screen. The funny thing is- every great web, interface, and styleframe designer I have ever met usually can’t wait to get home so they can start printing their T-Shirts, band posters, whatever. Printing your work forces you to spend time and money on your design. Things become finalized. You will not go through several revisions of a poster design when irritating amounts of time and printer ink is on the line. This forces the designer to be more careful. I’ve noticed that the thought process is something like- haphazard kerning in your type may be acceptable in a web banner (we’re used to changing and fixing and updating) but not when you are affixing ink to paper. Better yet, spend some time typesetting and get a real feel for laying real ink in paper.

    3. Know when to look at great work.

    I have my students constantly looking at great design, however, most new designers have trouble cleaving “Technique” and “Concept”. Really forcing the observation that they are separate but equal shows why a video tutorial in design is worthless- You can teach techniques and designers can ape them all day, however, unless they are in service of an overall idea, You are creating apples that are all skin and no fruit.

    4. Typography IS design.

    Visually, the more you look at the forms of glyphs in a typeface, the more you think about dividing up the space of a composition. However, a dance between the viewer’s left brain and right brain commences when observing type on the page- we react to it aesthetically but at the same time infer information through language- and we think in language. This is why most great designer can also usually write their own copy and typically have a lot to say (and drone on and on about it). How on earth can you visually communicate if you don’t have anything to say or haven’t research what does need to be messaged?

    Finally, design NEEDS to be subjective- only though debate and opinion forming will anyone’s work improve.

    Reply
    • Wow, well said Colin. There’s a lot to digest in that comment. Thanks for sharing…

      Reply
  7. Chris

    Quite the topic indeed. I’m at a spot where I’m beginning to learn my way around AE but it’s creating something from nothing that is hard. Even with a topic/theme in mind (a la 5 second Projects), it’s still hard for me to create something that looks good. I’m starting to think that I’m leaning more towards the visual effects side as opposed to the design side. Of course, the principles of design goes for anything artistic I believe.

    Reply
  8. You can know a program inside and out, but you won’t be successful unless you have an EYE for designing. Ive seen kids make stuff in photoshop that looks like something made in MS Paint.

    Its all about using the tools to blend, shape, etc. to make something come together, and of course having an eye for design!

    Reply
  9. Jimmy

    Good article.We need more articles on Design and less of the tutorials.:)

    Reply
  10. I don’t agree with the idea there’s no way to make a good design tutorial. A tutorial can help you SEE things around, it’s not all about making a new piece.

    Yesterday I stumbled upon a design tutorial which I found really interesting. It’s 12 mn long, and it’s an analysis of a specific website. That’s all. And it was very interesting ! :-)

    (it’s in french. For the ones interested : http://www.wisibility.com/index.php/post/2007/08/13/523-etude-du-design-graphique-du-site-sfr)

    Reply
  11. ofDust

    BRUVEC

    A great design should contain all of the following

    Balance
    Rhythm
    Unity
    Variety
    Emphasis
    Composition

    Reply
  12. Kai-ser

    hey nick,
    the last link (50..) is broken and leads to your wp-login page!

    Reply
  13. Although I didn’t go to an art school that taught After Effects or even Photoshop, I was a Fine Art major at a small University. I learned tons of lessons about design through those basic classes and I developed a huge respect for photography, sculpture, and painting and realized that while I’m not learning Photoshop and “Making Cool Shit” in After Effects or 3d programs, the fine art basic courses was a huge help for me in the design sense. It made me realize how ignorant I was about art going into college and at the beginning I really didn’t enjoy it at first,(I was discouraged at the start) but as I progressed in my college career, the more appreciation I had for all kinds of art. To give you an idea, before college I thought Picasso was a moron and I didn’t get his paintings…now he’s one of my favorite artists. So if I could give any advice to people thinking about design school and can’t afford it, don’t let it distract you, there is huge value in learning the basics in Fine Arts courses at a normal college and then teaching yourself Photoshop, After Effects, and C4D like I did. As long as you have the eye for design, you’ve got a leg up on those who don’t but are just technically savvy when it comes to software. Sometimes knowing the software can only take you so far if you’re not well versed in design. That is something that I’m always working on and I think everyone does and should try to strike that balance between design and keeping up with learning the software.

    Reply
  14. I recently recieved an email from a student asking for advice on a career in motion design. I answered her question and asked to see what she had done. She sent me a qt movie and said she was going try and get an internship. She goes to a non-art schoo and told me they only have one class in graphic design and after effects. After looking at the piece I was pretty shocked to see the difference in the design education you get at an art school vs a non art school university. I told he she would have a really hard time finding an internship with her work and she needed to an art school.

    Design is hard to learn, it take time and I am still learning.

    Reply
  15. I dont think this is not something that you can teach
    its about taste, style, trial and error
    etc and something called talent helps too

    Reply
  16. Design is definitely something that can be taught. It’s a system of rules, it’s about imposing order on things. Also (and just as importantly) it’s about how things work, too.

    Having said that the tutorial format on the web isn’t always the best medium because as you say, it’s something that takes time. And as we know our attention spans online are getting shorter and shorter.

    The awesome thing (IMO) about design though, is that it IS possible to teach yourself. There are so many awesome sites willing to recommend you great books, or exercises or host forums to talk and discuss design. it really is something you can do in your own time, and the important thing to know is that you’re always learning.

    Lastly I find that “creativity” is a bit of a dirty word when it comes to design. Creativity alone will not get you very far in DESIGN. It’s the catalyst, but without any basis to work from you’re just flapping around making a lot of noise and not much sense.

    Reply
  17. hi Nick,

    I am new to this motion graphics field.I feel your website is very informative.Keep up the good work.You are inspiring many like me to get in to this field.

    Reply
  18. Siena Esposito

    I teach typography, motion graphics, and compositing at several design schools in Chicago (Nick was one of my students!) and I will say it is a huge challenge to get students to understand that design is more important than pushing buttons. It really is a developed aesthetic. I can it learning to see. Because students can do anything technically they don’t understand that it might their freedom does not always translate into effective communicate. For instance, many students don’t understand that stretching type is not effective because the typeface is created with specific proportions, much like a human face. Using a grid is also a skill that I find the students resisting until they start to see how the structure can actually help their creativity.
    A book I highly recommend is Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type. I find her type crimes to be a terrific mantra!

    Reply
  19. Siena Esposito

    I teach typography, motion graphics, and compositing at several design schools in Chicago (Nick was one of my students!) and I will say it is a huge challenge to get students to understand that design is more important than pushing buttons. It really is a developed aesthetic. I call it learning to see. Because students can do anything technically they don’t understand that it might their freedom does not always translate into effective communicate. For instance, many students don’t understand that stretching type is not effective because the typeface is created with specific proportions, much like a human face. Using a grid is also a skill that I find the students resisting until they start to see how the structure can actually help their creativity.
    A book I highly recommend is Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type. I find her type crimes to be a terrific mantra!

    Reply
  20. Siena Esposito

    Another thing: Check out this motion graphics piece created by Imaginary Forces that highlights interviews with designer Paul Rand. Mr. Rand breaks down the language of aesthetics (order, variety, contrast, symmetry, tension, balance, scale, space, shape, shade, light, color)and Imaginary Forces brings it to life with motion graphcis. I use this in my motion graphics classes in reference to layout skills.
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3gs54_paul-rand-by-imaginary-forces_creation

    Reply
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Comment Rules

This is a friendly community. Please treat everyone with respect. We don't all have to agree, but we do have to be nice. Criticism is fine, but rude comments and name calling will be deleted. Use your real name and don't be spammy. Thanks for adding to the conversation.