What does it take to be a designer? - Part 1

Why everyone is a designer and, at the same time, why most are not.


I've always gotten questions from friends and other people about how should one become a designer and eventually do 'all that graphical' stuff I do for work. But lately, the frequency of this kind of questions has exponentially increased (that's probably due to many things, one of which is the rapidly growing demand for designers in the IT market) so I decided to write a multi-part article on that topic.

Firstly, I'd like to take a step back and look at a broader meaning for the word. If we would look up the meaning of the word designer in The Free Dictionary we'd get a really plain description that goes like this:

A person who devises and executes designs, as for works of art, clothes, machines, etc.

Several other dictionaries give similar descriptions, which do not really do justice in todays context. I'm actually very happy that I did not start my designer career by looking up the meaning of the word in dictionaries and only because of writing this article, now is the first time I've done that in my whole life. I would've probably just stopped at that, because, as a profession, it sounds boring, almost machine-like.

Why is everyone a designer?

Luckily, when I was starting to get interested in everything, I've read a quote in a book I can't remember the name of, which dragged me into the world of design - "Everyone is a designer". Now, after more than 10 years in this business, I can clearly see why a person would say that, although in my opinion the phrasing should be tweaked a little bit:

"Everyone is a designer, but few know how to use it."

Plain and simple. You're probably wondering now what that means and what you should take from it. Well, let me ask you a question: have you ever been in a situation where you caught yourself thinking about how you could make a product or an experience better by making changes to it? For example while pouring hot water from a cheap metal kettle you get burned and think about other materials the kettle could be made of, so that the heat would not get transferred through so easily. Or in more simple situations, when you see a billboard and think about how horrible the colouring is and what colours you would use to make it more soothing. That, my friends, is design.

Let me give you an example from my childhood:

When I was little, during winters I would constantly lose my warm gloves, so my parents had to buy me new ones every week or so. But one day, my mother got a pair of thin elastic bands and using them sew my gloves to the sleeves of my overalls. After that, every time my glove went off, all I had to do was put it back on, as it would never go anywhere further than the bands would let it. That is also design.

Design, essentially, is the process of identifying a problem and coming up with a solution for that problem, reducing it or, ideally, eliminating it completely. The difference between a designer and a regular person is that a designer, after identifying a problem and searching for ways of solving that problem, has the knowledge of how the solution should be executed, or rather the tools as well as the rules of how the tools must be used for the execution of the design. This is, still, a very rough description though.

Why isn't everyone a designer?

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In all essence, what this means is that everyone can passingly think as a designer would now and then, but there is a tremendous amount of work, practice and learning that must be done, before a person gets enough know-how to be able to develop those thoughts into a usable design.

As you know, there are many types of design, including, but not limited to: fashion, industrial, sound, etc. And as you might've already guessed, the previously made assumptions about the process might not really apply to all the types of design directly. That's why I'd like to shrink our topic a little bit, so as to be more specific. Let's talk about design in terms of graphical design, which can include web, user interface, print or any other visual and/or interactive design (excluding user experience design, which is a whole other story, deserving a dedicated article in the future).

Now, when you think about that kind of design, you usually think about websites, apps or printed documents (such as business cards, document forms, etc.). When you see such a design, you usually judge it in terms of look and feel. Which is all good, because you're a user of that design and that's the only thing that matters to you. But if you're a designer and you have sufficient experience, the matrix by which you judge a design grows a lot larger. You know that it's a lot more beneath the looks and certainly there had been a lot more work that went into the design to make you feel exactly the way you feel while experiencing the design. Exactly that knowledge differentiates a designer from a regular person. There is a problem, however. There are many people who call themselves designers, but lack the knowledge of a real one, and are only able to judge a design (including their own) by the way it looks - if it looks good, it must be good. Don't think like that. Ever. If you want to be a designer.

Why should you have the know-how if your design looks good?

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I always like to think in terms of the brain and how it perceives things. This is essential when designing things. You see, the human brain works in patterns. Those patterns are learnt, tweaked and adjusted by the things we experience. Some patterns are easily adjustable due to repetitiveness, while others are hard. Naturally, when you see something or experience something, your brain searches for a pattern from before and uses it to process the information. If there is no pattern to use, your brain has to struggle a little bit to develop it.

Now, good design follows certain patterns so that understanding and using it could be as struggle-free for your brain as possible. Of course, those patterns can differ from design to design, but the underlying principles are usually very similar. This doesn't mean you have to design something that looks exactly like other designs, but rather abide the principles of good patterns, while steering off bad patterns. This is where most under-experienced designers fail to do their work, whilst creating designs that maybe look good, but are not as effective, as professionally done ones. Learning those patterns is key, to knowing how to use your critical thoughts for devising usable designs.

Anyway, that's a quick rundown of what design is, why we're all designers (in our minds, at least) and why most of us aren't. In the next part I will try to tell you the ways you can learn to think like a true designer and ways to practice it to develop your skills.

Published on 23rd Sep, 2015

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