Can anyone learn how to design?

I have a decent singing voice.

It’s likely the result of growing up always listening to music, playing instruments, and always listening to the radio while studying for an exam in school. People who feel a bit more tone-deaf often say “I wish I could sing like that too”. They usually refer to hitting the right notes and carrying a tune, not winning American Idol.

So I always tell them: “Of course you can, you can learn how to sing”.

And a discussion follows on how –theoretically– one can take singing lessons and learn, but one first needs “some sort of innate talent” or it might be a lost cause. And every single time, I disagree. Each one of us is born with certain natural resonators, specific vocal chords and other biological aspects, but this is only what makes a voice unique. The real reason people who “can’t sing” have those issues, is related to the way their brain perceive things like pitch, tone, and a melody, and for some people this is much easier indeed. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t re-wire your brain to sing better, it just means it might be a bit harder to do.

I believe this also applies to learning design.

There are three important processes in a designer’s output: How they perceive, how they interpret, and how they respond. Very similar to the example with music, those are deeply rooted in a person’s psyche and are a consequence of our unique life’s experiences, and this is probably why not all design-learning methodologies can work for everyone in the same way.

Decide how to learn

The most important knowledge you need when approaching how to learn design, is to recognize whether you are someone who is more comfortable approaching things through intuition and perceptivity, or if you are more comfortable with a rational approach where having a plan and a process work better for you.

People who approach problems more intuitively might have an easier time training their perception skills. By this, I mean making those differentiations to know what works and what doesn’t, what feels right and what isn’t. If you are in this group you will probably be able to absorb concepts like margins, kerning, visual parities, etc with ease, and struggle finding a thread that connects the work as a whole product.

On the contrary, those lean to more rational approaches when problem-solving will struggle more to grasp those basic design rules, as they won’t be precise enough for them. But their advantage will be the possibility to plan, execute and reshuffle much easier, and to be able to deliver well-thought projects with much less loose ends.

Creativity is a myth

Back when I was teaching Graphic Design in the university, our group of teachers was referring to design as simple synapses of neurons: the brain connecting different ideas and images into new configurations. This definition abolished the idea of the magical creativity moment that would give birth to a fantastic design, in favour of the result of a designer’s work being more about achieving those configurations. And this makes the design process much more accessible: one could just try more combinations to achieve a good result.

Me teaching at the University of Buenos Aires, in a workshop-learning environment

How do we get better at combining, then? This is probably something that experience can bring. But as a design student, one can rely on methodologies and processes that will help reach a successful outcome.

Once you know how you feel most comfortable approaching design, and you have the tools and methods to start, you just have to trust the process. Sometimes that process will be very hard, and the result won’t be as great. Other times, it will appear in front of your eyes. But again, there is no magic here, just your brain doing its work.

As we can train other parts of the brain like memory, arithmetic operations, and even recognizing key changes in a tune, we can train it to make those connections faster. So “not being creative enough” just means you need to get better at making those connections.

Design is a 3-movement exercise

There are three areas in which someone learning design needs to focus, those being 1:1 mapped to our process of perception, interpretation and response.

Focusing on perception means training the eye. Probably the hardest to do, as it means seeing things differently, or at least looking into things that we haven’t before. As any training, practice makes the master. Learning what are the elements and the relationships between elements in a page or screen is key. There are of course studies, such as Gestalt’s Laws of Perception and similar, that gives us a few guidelines on how to approach our visual training. But after some basics, this only gets better by doing and connecting with one’s sensitivity to understand if one is doing a good job. The best way to start is collecting a good amount of references for a project, and trying to analyse what seems to be working there that we would like to take for our project.

Gestalt Laws of Perception. Source Verywell

Being able to be a better interpreter involves being a true sponge and absorbing concepts or ideas that will be later part of our interpretation toolkit. As designers, we need to be able to insert ourselves in the topic we are designing for. So good flexibility, a curious mind and great questions are our tool to do this efficiently. Luckily for us, it’s all been done before. So we can research and go back to previous solutions or case studies in the same visual/conceptual universe and integrate those ideas into our own palette of resources.

Lastly, our response will be that actual new configuration of the way we perceive and interpret. But in this configuration there will be an underlying idea or concept, that will be the real value of our design. It’s our proposal and the thing that will never be like anyone else’s, it is a combination of pre-existing elements in a new way. It starts with a clear concept, a simple statement that can tell us whether something we do fits or doesn’t fit in our design. Some people are able to do this “top-down” but in general that concept is always a work in progress, and a direct consequence of how the other two “movements” are going.

So, are you up for it?

Leaning design means being in constant struggle with those “movements”, and it mostly means being comfortable doing that. Each process is personal and unique, and the results are so as well.

So if you are currently in the process of learning to design, make sure your environment is responsive to your sequence of intuitive vs rational, and that it allows the space for you to nurture that. It really doesn’t matter which sub-discipline of design you plan to work in the future, the core concepts are the same, and with good eye training + interpretation toolkit + clear conceptual paths, any designer can arrive to a successful result.

Experienced product designer, helping companies craft delightful user experiences for their customers. On my free time I teach and organise events for the design community in Berlin.

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Experienced product designer, helping companies craft delightful user experiences for their customers. On my free time I teach and organise events for the design community in Berlin.