Learning Design: The Art Of Making Things Look Less Crappy Over Time

June 26, 2009

UPDATE: Looks like there may be some Video Issues for some of you. I will update the video with a new version as soon as It’s re-uploaded to Vimeo. Sorry for any problems.

In this video, I answer two questions that I get all the time. The first is “What is that font that you use all the time?” The answer to that one is simple… GOTHAM. I love it! Go buy it already!

The second question is “How Do I Learn How To Design?” The answer to that one isn’t so easy. Design is a hard thing to teach. It’s tedious, subjective, and is only done when you say it’s done. There is no “finished” with design. There is just “That looks good, I’ll stop now.” If I had to sum up the process of design in one sentance, It would be…

Move stuff around until it doesn’t look like shit anymore.

At least, that was the conclusion after making this video. πŸ™‚

I figured, the best way to learn about how to design was to watch me struggle though the process and try out different things until it looked right. It’s a half an hour of me moving type, trying out colors, playing with composition, with the only goal being to just make something that looks cool. Did I succeed? Eh…. It’s not my favorite thing I ever made, but its good for thirty minutes of work. I guess thats the point anyway. Great Design isn’t made by following directions, it’s made by trying a million solutions until you run out of time and picking the best looking one.

I will definitely get more into specific design concepts and techniques later. But, for now, just get in there and start making mistakes.

What is your design process?

Tutorial Focus:  

  • i think the video have some problem, i cant see more then 5 min of the video πŸ™

  • Hey Nick…i totally agree with you…and good that you mentioned the inspiration stuff you collect…i do the same…i usually try to find inspiration in some other area of design – packages, wayfinding, infographics…but of course i look at editorial, web and motion stuff too πŸ™‚ my harddrive is gonna be one big storage of all that cool designed shit πŸ™‚

  • Hey Nick…i totally agree with you…and good that you mentioned the inspiration stuff you collect…i do the same…i usually try to find inspiration in some other area of design – packages, wayfinding, infographics…but of course i look at editorial, web and motion stuff too πŸ™‚ my harddrive is gonna be one big storage of all that cool designed shit πŸ™‚

  • I was wondering if there were any good books/resources you (or anyone) recommends, motion graphics or otherwise, that would be useful to freelance designers. Thanks.

    • I was asking myself the same question and I have ran across a great book, a motion design bible I call it now coz it is simply great….the title is MOTION GRAPHIC DESIGN applied history and aestethics by JON KRASNER…it is a must…for anyone who is interested in motion graphic design

      • I find Tufte’s books, particularly Envisioning Information to be an excellent information to thinking differently. I am a non-visual artist who can make words sing but not type yet.

        • Also Chris and Trish Meyer’s After Effects books and Chad Perkins just released a book on After Effects Filters and Geduld After Affects Expressions, both of which have live design examples embedded throughout.

        • I am very interested in how you design motion and why. What do you use for transitions, is there a language of motion design?

          That part in your reel where you have widening and spinning circles, or the target pills are their patterns to that kind of design that can be extracted? How to you get from point A to point B in an animation like that? How do you even think to do it and once you do do you map it out on paper first and then try to do it in after effects?

          Do you use replication in an intentional way (I can copy this x amount of times and use it in any one of these patterns, for example)

          Are their tricks for things to move with music? That music on your reel was so cool it was in my head for days, by the way…

          Love this stuff, new favorite…

  • i really enjoyed this video! its so useful to see your workflow.. its encouraging to know that even for you guys that there is no sort of special formula to it, and its not weird to just play around forever till it looks a bit better!! thanks nick.

    ps any word on whether there will be some sort of 5 second project alternative for us photographers??

  • MM, I can’t see more of 1 minute of the video…it stop when you gone to talk about the second question.

  • Yeah, Im also only able to see about a minute of the video also. I was pumped for it too!

  • At 38:13
    Your wife/girlfriend?
    Noticed first πŸ˜€

  • Definitely there are a few design components that if you choose a couple to focus on within a piece will help make the final design look better. You basically described some of them while working through, but this is the list I pick from when I design.


  • Gestalt is pain in the ass some times

  • just her way of saying , Hurry up and get in here……..

  • Nick, Do you edit you blogs in video editor? What capture software do you use? Just wondering

  • Inspirational… thanks GSG.

  • thanks nick, that was great. its good to know i am not the only one who feels stuck sometime. btw i really love the piece you make.

  • Nice tutorial navigation bar on top!

  • Superman In Training June 26, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Great tutorial Nick! I love this kind of live on the fly video tutorials! Thanks so much for you commitment and willingness to help spead knowledge.
    I usually do the same thing… just keep messing with things until it “looks good or good enough”
    Another book that helped me out is: “The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice” by Robin Williams
    It is an easy read and though not very in-depth it is a very good start to graphic design.

  • This is what I’d like to see more people do. Unstructured TRUE learning. This is how most designers have learned the craft.
    What you said about a design never truly being done is so true. I get to a point where it’s like “okay, if I keep messing with it I’ll just make it worse, and this is good enough.”

  • Excellent down to earth tutorial. I’m gonna try this workflow. I normally go with the first idea, but I think with some extra effort I could have gotten better ideas. I’ll be waiting for your T-shirt.

  • This is a great idea for a post. Can’t wait to see more πŸ™‚

  • Feeling trendy with your use of Gotham are we. I’m starting to think that Gotham is the new Helvetica. Hmmm…anyway, nice tutorial.

  • Go for a run, Have a bath, go for a walk, read a book, take the phone off the hook, but always within reach is my moleskin notepad and a gel ink pen. You just get ideas and jot them. It may not be the idea for the job you are on bit you can archive it. The other day I worked out how to a scene from transformers in after effects, I wont use it though, but its there in case a client comes in.

    My work is never finished, sometimes a deadline is your best friend as its the one true critic.

    I always never approach a task from the same direction. Get away from from ADs and TDs they a vampires of the soul.

    Great post love to see more.


  • Nice work Nick,I think you should try and get a fren from DK to do what they are good at.like a featuring thing.so that guy at work thats responsible for designing can come an do it.lol

  • Hey Nick! Great video. I like seeing other designers and their processes. I have to say, I love the new schedule you’ve got worked out. The flow of the blog seems a lot smoother and more cohesive. I don’t mind the long runtime on the videos either, the quality is strong, so they hold viewer attention just the same.

    Keep up the good work. I think you should keep these unscripted posts going.


  • Very helpful, inspirational video Nick, thanks for the effort.

  • What software did you use for this screencast? The cursor animations and keystrokes are super helpful to see.

  • Now that was waaay cool – watching over your shoulder and seeing you design. Thank you Nick – please, more of that stuff! In the end it really looked got (I mean the design and the women;)) and I really learned a lot (at least that PS has a messed up workflow ;)). But you also have to forgive me – when you used the rainbowcolour, I started loughing out loud – thats just like that one running gag in our agency: If we are out of Ideas, always somebody in the team is coming up with a rainbow coloured title – because itΒ΄s so creative and popping right into the eye πŸ˜‰

  • What helps sometimes is when I sit down and sketch ideas old school like.

    Thanks for the honest look at your workflow. Yes, not EVERYTHING we make is awesome, it’s knowing when to let that idea out to the world.

  • Cool, looking forward to more of these!
    maybe you could do your design process on your take on the 5 second project.

    another vote too for bringing in guest designers, maybe other folks at DK, for more perspectives on design process.

  • For me it’s like wanting to be an NHL hockey player and having Wayne Gretzky take time out of his life to show how he does his shit! Thanks Nick!

  • Just a little PS technique hint:
    instead of filling a selection of the font-outline,
    create a layer with ur gradient (or anythin’ else) ABOVE the type-layer, and press “alt+cmd+G” to create a “cutting layer”. this will fill ur typo-layer, and its still fully editable!
    maybe it comes handy for u some time..
    thanks for ur inspiration! cheers!

    • “cutting layer” –> “clipping mask”, but yeah, that’s a really cool technique to fill type like that with gradients or patterns and keeping it live with the text. Keeping text editability (is that a word?) is always a great time saver when clients want to change the copy! Good tip Tjard, I didn’t think of that until you mentioned it.

  • as much as i like your tutorials and blog
    i dont think you can “teach” design, its something you just have to learn on your own over time

  • Best way to learn! thanks look forward to the discussion of more design principles and their application

  • +10 POINTS for the door opening at the end.


  • Great as always, and I love how your girl pokes her head out at he end. Very funny!

  • Have to say, the tint made it look like a poster for an Eli Roth movie. so the food did not look delectable.

    Love the tutorial, just didn’t make me wanna grill, maybe change it to “Time to Kill”

    That would really work I think.

    Best part about the tutorial is knowing you suffer the same thing we all do….PERFECTIONITUS.

    It will never be perfect.

  • This is unique stuff. it connects so well and answers questions in a way not found anywhere else…

    watching those other tutorials elsewhere makes you depressed man and makes you wonder what kind of an idea machine they have installed…

    thanks to these videocasts i feel more confident knowing there are other people sharing the same minds…

    thanks a lot again….

  • No project is ever truly finished, but finally abandoned. There are very few video projects I wouldn’t have continued to tweak had the clock not run out. Human nature, I suppose.

  • ok now this is some really raw stuff to watch you wont find things like this on any other site
    good work keep it up

  • I never knew option + left/right could adjust kerning on the fly. I love finding stuff out like that, why didn’t I know that?

  • Design is making it suck less untill the time runs out πŸ™‚ awesome recap hehe.

  • This tutorial is rainbow-tastic! You managed to capture the design process:WorkinΒ΄, moving stuff around, dispair, panic, and (sometimes) eventually “YES!!!!#

  • Woow …

    what a amazing review .. Thanks for that ..

    Keep going with this great job!!

  • I’m in the other side of the world, and you can totally make me want to learn more and faster;
    after watching every new blog, you make me love even more what i am studying.

    thank u so much dude, keep on inspiring us.

    ps: sorry for my crappy english (!)

  • Hello from France!
    Great job Nick πŸ˜‰

  • Hey nick, just a quick question. I was searching – font shop & fonts.com and can’t find it. Could you please shed some light as to where i could find it?

    Would appreciate it thanks. you could send it to my email as well. Thanks a mil.

  • This is a bit late, but here is something my teachers drilled into me:

    “Make a dynamic piece, no matter what. You want the eye to play with your work, but then be welcome home by a single focal point.”

    Scary thing is, HGTV re-iterates this quite frequently as well.

    Cheers, and great post!

  • nice work nick. thanks.
    fail better.

  • Nick You Rock!!!… very useful…keep them coming.

  • it plays only 5 minutes for me

  • “Ugh, that’s kinda dumb.”

  • Hey Nick, this is great, did you make more like these?

    Good to know I’m not the only one.. I am a self professed crap designer but I can get things done and I do know when something doesn’t look right. Your style is similar to mine in how you mess around.

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