I am a great proponent of getting an education. Not because you learn skills but because you learn how to critically think, do research, challenge yourself, learn about yourself, learn about human behavior, and gain valuable networks and mentorship to help you in your path.
So it may surprise you to hear that the best way to learn design is not through a formal education, though it greatly helps of course, and I most definitely encourage it. But you don’t need to take classes or workshops nor do you need to read articles and books on trends and theories. You simply need to do one thing, but you need to do it every day and all around you. —And that’s this:
Observe All Mediums, Things and Placements
Look around you with wonder. Every object you use, print piece you read, website you interact with—they all were designed. Everything around you is design. (Think about how amazing that is for a moment.)
Want to learn how to design an email newsletter? Observe the newsletters that already hit your inbox, and start ranking them against each other in effectiveness.
Want to learn how to design a website? Look at the websites you visit often and observe how you interact with them.
Want to learn how to draw an illustration? Observe every perceived line, shapes, reflected light and shadows of all the objects you look at.
Want to learn print layout? Observe materials like magazines, flyers, books, posters, mailers from cover to cover and edge to edge.
I could list a million examples of things to observe—I find it so interesting and inspiring to do. And once you start observing, you’ll start to recognize patterns. This will inform you of what is good design and bad design.
“To be a good artist / letterer / designer / guitar player, it takes practice. A lot of it. More than you can even fathom when you’re starting out.”Jessica Hische
Ask Yourself Questions about Design
As you are looking at design and studying it with great detail, you can ask yourself questions like:
- How does this design emotionally make me feel?
- Am I bias toward this design? Why or why not?
- Is the message clear?
- Who is this message for?
- Do I understand what to do next?
- How effective is the typography, hierarchy and readability?
- Are the colors following a distinct palette?
- Can you identify a brand within it?
- Are the lines straight or curved?
- Is the delivery appropriate for its context?
- Will you remember it?
Anyone can design things, but few people can design things well. The only way to get better at it is to start being an observer. Don’t frame it as a way to self-critique your own work against what you see, but rather see it as an opportunity to become a stronger designer.
Design is always changing at rapid pace, but there are fundamentals that remain consistent. Observe everything with curiosity, and challenge your designs with new perspectives.