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The value of a design education

Design fundamentals trump software proficiency. Timeless design triumphs over trends.

There’s a very serious debate raging about whether there’s value at all in going to college/university anymore. The massive debt pressure you put yourself under for the rest of your life is a strong argument that it’s not worth it. If you leave school with $25K, $50K or even $100K in debt, can you honestly say your education has given you a leg up in life equal to that cost? It’s difficult to justify it when the power a degree in the employment market has substantially weakened over the past generation.

That’s not what I’m writing about today, but it’s good context.

If you want to be a designer, I believe there’s still tremendous value in a traditional design education. In fact, I credit having one as being a key part of my successful freelance design career.

Why? Design fundamentals.

What are design fundamentals?

It doesn’t matter what kind of designer you are — graphic, digital, web, mobile, interactive, UX, UI, product, branding, insert your favourite label here — the same set of underlying fundamentals are what you apply daily to solve visual design challenges. These are things like:

Line, Shape, Colour, Space / Negative Space, Texture, Scale / Size, Value, Contrast, Repetition, Rhythm, Emphasis, Weight, Balance, Typography, Etc.

Anything on that list you don’t recognise? If so, you may wish to polish up those design fundamentals before your next job. Here’s why…

Why are design fundamentals important?

They are the building blocks of everything creative you produce.

Being a designer without knowing the fundamentals is like being a chef without knowing about flavours. Being an engineer without knowing geometry and physics. Sure the chef could have amazing knife skills, and he’ll create beautifully crafted, tasteless food. That engineer could have a super creative mind, but her creations will not be fit for purpose, and fall over the next day.

If you can know only one thing as a designer, these fundamentals are it. There’s is no shortcut or side-track. They need to flow through your blood.

Can’t I learn those things online?

Not really. Not very well.

This is where the traditional educational environment — a classroom full of instructors and other students — is an invaluable resource.

Partly because these concepts start out quite abstract, and personal instruction and repeated application are how you learn them best. Also because learning from the trial and error, successes and failures of your fellow students is far quicker than learning those same lessons all on your own.

But more so because of one major factor: critique.

Any design student will be well versed in giving and receiving critique. You may know it better as feedback. It’s how you improve at anything. And unfortunately the internet is quite a broken place when you’re looking for constructive critique.

How many of us wished Dribbble was a place where you could share work for genuine critique, and were disappointed when it turned out to be just a vanity contest where the most impressive fake interface animation wins the most “cool”s and “nice job”s?

There have been, and will be, design communities who’ve started out with the lofty goal of creating a place for serious critique online, but the very nature of online engagement ultimately opposes that goal, and they inevitably degrade into the shallow popularity contests that you see today.

Without serious, constructive, and frequent critique from both peers and teachers, the learning process evaporates. You’ll stagnate quickly or learn so slowly it will feel like you’re not learning at all. Self-critique, although possible, is very challenging even for the most well trained and experienced designers — it’s not an adequate replacement for the real thing.

There are online resources that attempt to teach the design fundamentals, and I have no doubt many of them were created with the best intentions. But theory is one thing and practice is another. Putting them to use is only valuable as a learning process when you can get the immediate and useful feedback you need to realise your faults and improve for next time. That’s where a classroom environment can never be reproduced.

This becomes even more important if you choose a freelance career, where you’ll be working on your own more often than not. You won’t have the support of a design team to help you fill in the gaps on the job, so your success or failure lands squarely on your shoulders, and depends completely on the right training.

How to give and receive great design feedback

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My design education experience

I got a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degree with emphasis in digital media. It was a traditional 4-year undergraduate university programme.

By far the most important and frequently used part of that education were the fundamentals I’ve spoken about above. I learned them from required drawing and painting classes, as well as a class specifically called “Design Fundamentals” which covers most of the list above from theory to practice.

There are also many “softer” skills you learn from a university education that you don’t naturally absorb from online tutorials. Things like: design process, managing your time and deadlines, problem solving, collaborating with others, how to give and take critique, communication skills, etc. The value of these cannot be overstated. They are equally important to a successful design career as any other job-specific skill you can learn.

It must be said though, that any design education with a digital focus will require a lot of self-learning. The technology and techniques in our field simply change too quickly for educational curriculums to keep up. Things like coding, in particular, always felt inadequate and required massive supplementation. But that’s the case with almost any degree, especially if you’re the type of student who excels. The good news is, those skills are the kind that are most easily learned from online resources. It’s the fundamental things — that which never changes — that are absorbed most quickly and deeply in a traditional education structure and environment.

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Fundamentals vs. Tools

What this all comes down to is: how do you, as a designer, provide the most value to your clients or employer?

One flaw of many educational resources — and this applies to some colleges, universities, and design schools too — is an over-emphasis on learning specific software or tools. This is also a flaw in the strategies of many new designers or freelancers.

We think if we become master of Photoshop, learning all the keyboard shortcuts and hidden features, that there will surely be work for us. Or Illustrator, or Sketch, or whatever.

For all the time you spend mastering that tool, you’re spending less time mastering design.

Trouble is, tools change. They can change quickly.

When I started, creating Skeuomorphic graphics in Photoshop with drop-shadows using far too many filters was all the rage. And then we’d code those pages up using HTML tables with no CSS, in Dreamweaver. A few years later, we were all creating futuristic, gratuitously animated, slow-loading Flash sites, trying to keep up with Actionscript and pretending every interface should fit right into Minority Report. Then mobile started to kill flash, design got way flatter, Javascript got easier, and we finally had some better CSS tools for layout. Now even those tools are being replaced by the next wave of CSS, not to mention pre- and post-processors. Photoshop got supplanted by Sketch. Chat got replaced by Slack. InVision became way better than email conversations, and good old pen and paper lists are now done in Trello.

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The old days of “visual design” are long gone. We need to think much broader & deeper to solve today’s design challenges.

Tools are like design trends. They impress when they are new, but then the next new thing comes along and you thrown them away when they’ve reached their expiry date.

Employers are part of the problem. They put far too much emphasis on buzzword labels and software proficiency. Instead they should shift their focus to hire based on fundamentals, soft skills, and disposition towards learning new things.

As an employer, wouldn’t you rather hire a designer with a firm grasp of all the fundamentals needed for truly timeless and effective designs, and have to train them in Sketch (that takes a few days max). Or a hire designer with amazing software proficiency in every app under the sun, but struggles problem solving or maintaining consistent design output because they don’t no how to replicate an effective design process?

I know which I’d choose.

The right education makes you a more valuable designer

Be the designer with the fundamentals and experience to weather the storm of ever-changing tools and trends, and you’ll offer value to your clients or employers for as long as you like.

Be the other designer, and you may find it difficult to deliver results today, and even more challenging to adapt in a few years when the technology has all changed again.

The fundamentals are the foundation of consistent design success. Become best friends with those fundamentals. If you’re plateauing in your design career and can’t figure out why you can’t equal the great work from inspiring designers around you, you may just need to get better acquainted with those old friends.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 17 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, and Entrepreneurship.