Learning to Design Without Losing Your Soul

Aspiring designers are failing. They are being let down by their schools and sometimes by our design community. In America, creativity is on a decline. The resources available online are massive; Quality content is hard to find.

“I’m eager to hire the next great class of designers, but to my dismay–and the dismay of many young hopefuls who’ve often spent many years and thousands of dollars preparing to enter the industry–I’m finding that the impressive academic credentials of most students don’t add up to the basic skills I require in a junior designer.” — Gadi Amit1

The design community has a new challenge. It’s not how we push design to the next level. It’s not how we best design publications for the 80 tablets coming out this year. It is something I see as much more critical: Guiding the next generation of designers.

An Open Door

The greatest thing about design is that there is no real barrier to entry. There are many designers that have skipped the academic route and learned on their own. To be a designer you aren’t required to have a specific background or degree. It’s a very unstructured discipline, yet there is a set of required knowledge in order to be effective. Even though this exists, many practicing designers are not aware of it, or choose to ignore it.

Of the emails I get, “What’s the best path to becoming a UX designer?” is by far the most popular question. It’s difficult to answer because everyone learns differently and starts out with a different set of skills or talents. In addition, the entry paths to UX are so radically different. In many cases design, in an visual/artistic sense, is not required. We need design thinkers and problem solvers too.

The Disciplines of User Experience – Kicker Studio

I believe that with many embracing user experience (UX) in the digital era, there has been an attempt by the industry to establish a bit more structure to this craft. We are trying to define what we do and how we do it. The problem is that everyone thinks they are doing it the right way. Many claim that they know the secret sauce to designing a great experience. Others claim that no one really owns the secret sauce, and in fact there’s not really anything secret about it.

Obviously this is a work in progress.

Too Cool For School

Recently there have been quite a few posts coming down hard on the value of a standardized design education. Employers have observed a real lack of fundamental skills they see as requirements for entry-level positions from graduates emerging from design schools. Although much of the evidence I’ve seen is mostly anecdotal, I can see how this is happening.

Even looking beyond the broken design education system we find a lack of understanding with major design organizations that should be leaders, rather than another institution that misunderstands the current state of design. Consider a recent post by the AIGA, “Has Sharing Gone Out of Bounds?” The apparent lack of insight into the basic value of a site like Dribbble and their poor tact in their approach caused an uproar in the design community. The title has since been changed, as well as many comments backtracking and trying to reframe this faux pas as a “great discussion generator.”

I think the problem with articles that are talking about the failure of design programs is that they could be sending the wrong message: Don’t waste your time with college.

“Clearly, university administrators, instructors, and curriculum advisors must not be trusted with design’s future and most universities should cease receiving tuition fees that allow them to pretend that they can.” -– Andy Rutledge2

I still believe there are many other types of benefits in the academic experience. One large benefit is social. Sure, we have “social” sites, but nothing can top face to face interaction. Working with a team is a critical skill. Even as a freelancer you will work with organizations and a variety of individuals. You can only hide behind your screen so long. Public speaking and written communication are skills that are fundamental to success in both school and your career as a designer (or anything else for that matter).

The biggest advantage, though, that I see for the academic path is that it’s a place where you learn to learn. If you’re going to survive in an industry where the technology changes monthly, you will have to be able to adapt quickly.

Here’s a Tip

Certainly much of what you need to know about design can be found online and in your local library. So, can anyone really build a career and a life for themselves through an internet connection and reading? It’s possible. Although, this alone is a tough path.

“Self-directed education is no less arduous and often no less expensive than institutional education. However, if you’re not prepared to work just as hard at this as you would at an academic institution, you’re doomed. You’ll be culled to make room for your betters in the profession. That’s a good thing. Our profession doesn’t need any more dilettantes.” -– Andy Rutledge3

There are plenty of success stories for designers that have taken the self-taught path. This doesn’t mean it works for everyone. I also feel that success stories are difficult to trust since we typically don’t hear about the mass of people who failed at taking this path.

Keeping up with the design industry and the world is a challenge. We read more information everyday than most of our closest ancestors did in their lifetime. There are plenty of discussions around information overload. However, I don’t believe that information overload is really a huge issue; Time (attention) management is the key. The problem is finding quality content. We can only absorb a certain amount of information. If that information isn’t quality, then we’ve lost out on time and effort we could have spent on good information.

Information Overload
Theory on Information Overload: As time goes on we can only absorb so much information and we miss the rest. – Scott Berkun

Much of the content that we find is focused on only small bits and pieces of design. In essence they are just tips and tricks. We are addicted to reading tips: Want to know the secret to being a great designer? “Yes, please.” Want to know how to deal with that difficult client? “More!!”

The problem with reading these sporadic tips is they really have little benefit in the big picture for our design or career. The application of them is important, and it’s difficult to always fit that into the scope of our career goals.

“A tip is like…what? A little scrap of a map. Not only is it not the actual destination, but the part you can hold in your hand will only make sense when you understand its place in a much bigger picture.” -– Merlin Mann4

There is so much more value in actually doing something: Practice. Practice. Practice. Through experiences and interactions with others we learn and grow more than any article could teach us. That’s not to say there’s no value there. It’s just that you can only get so much out of consuming (or creating) content. If we never actually get our hands dirty we just become pundits. Talk is cheap. Skills pay the bills.

The Unfinished Pyramid

If you take out your wallet and remove a dollar bill you’ll find an image on the back. The image is the Unfinished Pyramid on the back our country’s seal. This symbolizes the endless effort toward perfection. In the case of the dollar it represents the Founder’s (of the United States) desire to create a perfect country. They knew that it wasn’t – and would never be—perfect. However, the pursuit of perfection is noble. This is something that we as designers or developers should have as a goal: Keep learning and pursue perfection. The so-called best designers of the world are good because of their drive.5

The path of a career is generally envisioned as “up.” It makes sense. No one would really want to aim down. Everyone wants to aim at that highest point. It’s somehow a better view from “up” there. When you work at corporation, you “climb the ladder.” The cheesy motivational posters tacked up– speaking about personal growth — show a mountain that we are supposedly climbing up and at some point reach the apex. So what really happens when you reach the top? Nothing.

The reality is, you start over. When you reach the top you have only conquered one of many many mountains. There are some that are satisfied with that and decide to stay there, comfortable with knowing that that one thing well. There are others that take that moment to enjoy it, and look for the next skill they want to learn.

It’s obvious that academic UX and design programs won’t be fixed right away. Taking the self-taught path remains somewhat ambiguous and finding the right stuff is truly a needle in several haystacks. I believe that it is in the hands of the community to start driving some change.

The community is only as strong as our weakest members. To improve we need to lift others up by helping to educate and guide them.

1) “American Design Schools Are a Mess, and Produce Weak Graduates” – Gadi Amit on Fast Company Design
2) “The Employable Web Designer” – Andy Rutledge on Design View
3) “Education for Dummies” – Andy Rutledge on Applied Arts
4) “Real Advice Hurts” – Merlin Mann on 43 Folders
5) “The Lost Symbol” – Novel by Dan Brown