I am writing this post for two reasons. One reason is it will be an entry in the Design Group Writing Project for Charity, run by Jacob Cass who writes Just Creative Design. But the other reason is to provide encouragement and maybe a couple of ideas for people like me, who have stumbled onto design as an interest and are wondering where to go from here.
As someone who was a geek in high school and went on to get an engineering degree in college, ten years ago I would have told you that small aesthetic details did not make that big a difference in the long run.
And truthfully, I remember very few classes that discussed design at all. Even in engineering classes, the ins and outs of product design (how do you design something to be made cheaply and reliably? custom components vs. off-the-shelf? and so on . . . ) were not talked about in great detail. As far as aesthetic design? Well, there were some English classes, a high school social studies class, and some other presentation / writing assignments that spent a little bit of time talking about how writing assignments should be formatted, and maybe a couple of high school art and drafting classes.
But that was it.
Obviously, my viewpoint on design has changed. But while design is now a topic I find fascinating (and very relevant to day-to-day life) it is still something I struggle with occasionally.
So here are the things I’ve learned along the way about design.
First off, figure out what it is that you like, and then why you like it.
This is one of those things that falls under the three rules “the important things are simple”, “the simple things are hard”, and “the easy way is always mined”. Figuring out what you like means that you have to actually start paying attention to the world around you, and also to your reactions to the world around you.
Sounds simple, but for some people it can be really difficult to take some time and just experience the world around them as it presents itself. If you have this inability to “let go”, it’s not necessarily for bad reasons, and not necessarily for good reasons — you might have a lot of pent-up emotions you dwell on, a tendency to daydream, a pre-occupation with abstract concepts, or any of a whole list of other things going on in your head. But until you can get all that mental chit-chat to shut up for a while, you won’t have a very good idea what it is you like. You’ll have a very good idea what it is you think you should like, and what your peers like (or at least, act as if they like), but there’s a very good chance you will have only a fuzzy idea what you actually like. So start paying attention to the things around you — what you wear and how it affects how your mood throughout the day is a good place to start. From there start noticing what you like to look at, including what you like to look at or read when you have a quiet moment to yourself.
And then figure out if there are any themes that start presenting themselves. Some of the themes I find in my tastes are cool colors and clear boundaries. But you can also have tastes that run counter to each other; while I like clear boundaries, I also like to sometimes mix things up in odd and unexpected ways — those three rules I quoted at the top came from an old poster titled “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”. And at the end of the day, I always want something that works – I don’t want jewelry or clothing I can’t wear, a quote that doesn’t contribute to the point I’m trying to make, a webpage that doesn’t render correctly, or a gadget that doesn’t do it’s job.
But you might be different. So take some time to figure out what it is you like. And be prepared for the possibility it’s something you thought you wouldn’t like, or it’s something your family or friends didn’t expect you to like.
Secondly, start creating! And have some pride in your work!!
Doodle, sketch, make jewelry, embroider, weld, paint furniture, code, write — whatever! Don’t necessarily limit yourself to one media. But do get used to making things!! Small things, big things, decorative things, utilitarian things, things made to hang around forever, things that will be gone in a month — all fine, but make something!!! Don’t sit there endlessly daydreaming about the Great and Wonderful whatever-it-is you’ll make some day when you have the time.
If you wait around for tons of free time, motivation and inspiration to just drop out of the sky into your lap, you’re going to be waiting a very long time. Make the time now, and get used to giving yourself a kick in the butt every so often to make something. Even if it’s just buying a couple flowers at the grocery store and arranging them nicely in a vase on the dinner table, it’ll be something you can look at and think “I made that. And I liked making it. I wonder what I’ll make next.”
But don’t forget the other part of making things — have some pride in what you do. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. That’s true no matter what your occupation is or what you’re doing. If it’s flowers in a vase on the table, don’t just throw them in a dusty vase and shove them in a dark corner — take the time to get them arranged nicely (and wipe off the vase if it’s dusty). If you think you’re done making whatever it is you’re making, imagine being shown a picture of it by a friend a year from now. If you don’t think it’s something you’ll be willing to take credit for a year from now, then you’re not done.
And one other thing — once you get done with whatever it is and you’re satisfied with it, you’re done. Don’t be like the engineer that never gets a product to market or the novelist that never sends their manuscript to a publisher because there’s always just one more thing. Make something nice, finish making it, stand back and give yourself a small pat on the back, and move on to the next project. When you’re done, you’re done.
Finally, make some friends who like design too, and always look for opportunities to educate yourself further.
There are still times when I will like something but I can’t put my finger on why I like it. I have a friend who understands art a lot better than I do and I can say to him “I like this and I don’t understand why . . . ” and he’ll take a look and usually be able to help me figure out what it is I like about it. If you have a friend who can help you like this, don’t be afraid to ask them for advice. When that friend and I lived in the same city, he and I would regularly go check out exhibits at the local art museum.
I’ve got a female friend who is in the process of redecorating her house, and we talk about things she’s thinking about doing and what colors she’s thinking about painting the different rooms.
One of my first inspirations to look more closely at design came from a male friend who was a salesman at a men’s clothing store — I walked in one day for some pleasant conversation and some shopping, and my friend was wearing a tan suit with a red shirt, red tie and red silk kerchief in the breast pocket. Everything he was wearing looked great together and looked great on him, and I thought at the time “I have no idea how to be able to mix colors and textures and fabrics like that — but I want to learn!”
Be sure to have friends like all the people I just described, who will inspire you to do things that otherwise you might let slip.
And take the time to keep learning more. I started reading Just Creative Design for that reason — Cass has a lot of good ideas on design, and he has lots of links to other people with good ideas on design. I still go to museums a few times a year, and browse through art books in the bookstore a lot — also jewelry and sewing magazines, and photography magazines too. I spent an afternoon looking at what was submitted at this year’s photo contest at the fair. There’s lot of opportunities like that all around you — take the time to look at them.