Do you feel that designers and developers should have formal education and training rather than be self-taught?
Veerle Pieters: That really depends on the individual, but in most circumstances I would recommend a formal education to get a better understanding. Personally, I didn’t have any education in the Web because it didn’t exist back then. That part is self-taught, but I benefit a lot from the basics of design that I learned in school. I think concentrated education on design or development makes a significant difference, but continued education makes the most sense. Continuing education, post-formal training, is just as important. Because we’re designing for the Internet, trends and technologies change. We need to adapt and grow. You aren’t done once you are finished school; it is a continued process throughout your career.
Tony Chester: It depends. How good is the education? I’ve worked with some developers who have come out of school with incredibly strong backgrounds. They have a fundamental knowledge of best practices that they can apply to whatever technology they happen to be working with. In those cases, the education is helpful. On the other hand, I’ve gotten resumes from recent Computer Science graduates who know Java and nothing else. They have the same foundational knowledge, but they can’t seem to apply it to anything else. For those guys, the formal education isn’t really helping.
The same thing goes for designers. If they can apply their knowledge of color theory and typography and layout to the Web – especially if their education was focused on print – they are in good shape. But I see far too many designers who can make something look pretty in Photoshop but have no understanding of navigation or usability or anything else that is necessary to creating a good website.
At the same time, plenty of people in the industry are purely self-taught and do some amazing work. For many of us, the Web was either in its infancy or didn’t even exist when we were in school, so we’ve just learned on our own as things emerged. Ultimately, I think the best option is to have a strong formal foundation but also have the drive to keep learning and the ability to extend what you know to new media. The people who aren’t limited by their tools will be the most successful.
Andy Budd: It’s great that so many people are self-taught because it goes to show how motivated and passionate people in this industry are. However, it does make it incredibly likely that they miss out on some of the fundamental building blocks of their chosen profession. For Web designers, this could be things like color theory, grid design and typography, all of which are lacking on the Web. It could also be more conceptual areas like design thinking and design criticism. Similarly, many developers are missing fundamental skills like software architecture, security, database planing and design patterns. So, while I think a lot of courses that focus on particular languages, software and techniques are a waste of time, these core skills are incredibly useful. Furthermore, as the industry matures, we’re going to need people with increasingly specialized skills, such as design research, usability testing and interactive design. While these skills can be learned on the job, there are still too few agencies practicing them at an adequate level. As such, you’re going to learn these skills at a much higher level if you enroll in a dedicated course.
Wolfgang Bartelme: Generally speaking, it’s a good thing to have a formal education. However, that’s just a starting point. You still need to teach yourself by attending seminars, reading books and, most importantly, just doing new stuff.
Collis Ta’eed: I don’t believe it’s essential to receive formal education or training; however, it is definitely one path, and there is certainly nothing wrong with taking that course. Personally, I taught myself for the most part and only enrolled in a night course so that I would have something to put on my resume. In the end, no one has ever asked me about my qualifications; instead, I have always been judged on my portfolio of work.
For aspiring designers looking to teach themselves, I can’t recommend enough getting out some books on design fundamentals from the local library. There is a lot to be learned that can’t (yet) be found online, particularly about the history of design and how it has evolved.
How do you personally meet the challenge of continual improvement and evolution as a designer?
Liam McKay: One way I strive to improve as a designer is by promising myself to try something new in each design. There was a stage before I launched my company Function when I was confident with my techniques but stuck in creating very similar designs. Everything had the same blue tint, and I used the same fonts, effects and style in each design. It led me to a point where I wasn’t enjoying designing, and I knew I had to do something about it. So I decided that each design I did from that point on would include something completely new that I’d never done before. The other advantage of trying something new is that your portfolio becomes a lot more diverse. The variety of styles really strengthens your portfolio and makes you more desirable to potential clients.
Konigi, one of many design showcases out there. This one focuses on user interface designs.
I think it is safe to say that all designers are always pushing to improve their work and become better designers. The main thing that could get in the way is attitude: you should never feel that you are at the top of your game. There is always something new to learn, always something new to try. I’m very aware of the fact that I’m nowhere nearly as good a designer as I could be. And it’s not something that gets me down; it just means that I’ve always got something to aim for and build on.
Dan Rubin: I’m always looking for new interests and creative endeavors that may or may not be directly related to design. I consider myself a “designer” in the most general sense; not a media-specific designer, but rather a creative problem-solver in as many aspects of life as I find reason to apply myself. Challenging myself to constantly explore new things (e.g. photography, wayfinding and psychology), in addition to teaching and writing about these same interests, allows me to improve and evolve as a designer and as a person. Plus, it’s way more fun than sticking to one thing. :)
Andy Budd: I don’t believe the change is as rapid as people think. However, it gets complicated if you’re trying to stay on top of twenty different fields. So, try to get really good at a couple of things and focus on those. That way, you’ll always be ahead of the pack rather than continually playing catch-up. Blogs are obviously a great way to keep up to date on all the latest trends, but with so many to choose from, it can be overwhelming. This is why I recommend that people invest in their own professional development and attend conferences and workshops. Sure, you could learn it all from the Web given sufficient resources, but why bother when you can pick it up (and start charging for it) immediately for the cost of a couple of days of billable time.
Nathan Smith: Honestly, I try to avoid reading too many top-10 lists on design blogs. While those are helpful for finding tutorial articles on how to do various techniques with design software, there is very little to be gleaned in terms of design principles that stretch one’s skill-set. I look elsewhere for inspiration.
Web design is still relatively new when compared to the rest of the disciplines in the “big D” design field. Therefore, I think the best way to learn about design is to look beyond our discipline. It is laziness that draws me to CSS galleries, looking at what others have done and imitating.
It has been said, “Art is meant to be appreciated. Design is meant to be used.” While there has to be a certain level of aesthetics to design, I think that many of us in the Web design field often design to be admired. We want to win awards. We want our work to be on the front page of gallery websites, ranked with five stars. We want people to re-tweet our tutorials on Twitter. But really, to the end user, none of that matters. Great design is transparent. I am still learning to get out of the way.
To borrow a quote from Joseph Ballay of Maya Design, “It is in its transparency that it fulfills its function1”.
Keith Robinson: Well, I’m constantly trying out new things and keeping my mind creatively engaged. It can be a real challenge when there is client work and the day-to-day business of being a working designer to do. I take time out of each day to sketch; or better yet, when I’ve got a personal design project, I work on that as much as I can. It takes discipline and effort, but it’s those extra out-of-the-daily-norm moments that really help a designer grow.
What separates a good designer from a great designer?
Dan Rubin: Understanding that design is not purely visual, and that visual or graphic design is only a small part of what we do as designers. When people ask me to define “design”, I tell them that it’s about creative problem-solving. The visual aspects are the result of executing the solution, whether you’re designing a product, a Web application, a publication or a car. Knowing that your first role as a designer is “problem-solver”, rather than “illustrator” or “guy who draws stuff” or even “Photoshop guru”, means that your head’s in the right place.
Rate calculator at Freelanceswitch.
Paul Boag: Obsession, time and empathy. Great designers are obsessed with detail. They will spend hours making minor adjustments that will never be noticed but will add to the overall feel of the design. They also add elements that give a design that “Wow” factor. These embellishments won’t be noticed by every user, but they will make the design memorable for those who do.
Of course, that obsession with detail takes time. I don’t believe the majority of clients are willing to pay for great design, which is a shame. Sometimes it is up to the designer to put in the extra hours if they want to create something truly amazing.
Finally, I think it is important that a designer is able to empathize. Ultimately, we are not designing for ourselves or our clients; we are designing for our end users. It is important that we really understand those users and relate to them on an emotional level. Good designers do usability testing, and great designers do that, too, but they also form an emotional connection with users that informs their designs.
Jay Hilgert: If you ask me what separates a good designer from a great designer, it is the hunger to always learn more. In this industry, the stakes are constantly rising. The software is ever-evolving. A great designer is always hungry to learn more and to continue to get better, each and every day.
Nick La: A good designer follows trends. A great designer creates trends.
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