Learning to See

Took some excerpts from one of my favorite essays on design, “Learning to See” by the international design agency Information Architects:

On seeing: #

Learning to design is, first of all, learning to see. Designers see more, and more precisely. This is a blessing and a curse—once we have learned to see design, both good and bad, we cannot un-see. The downside is that the more you learn to see, the more you lose your “common” eye, the eye you design for….

This is why excellent designers do not just develop a sharper eye. They try to keep their ability to see things as a customer would. You need a design eye to design, and a non-designer eye to feel what you designed.

On building practical experience: #

However, as much as seeing mistakes is always easier than doing things right, you will always see more with practical experience than from passive observation. There is no better training than imitation.

Genius or mortal, you need to learn to discern what you see and what you think you see before you can paint either reality. The best way to learn to see is copying the masters. That applies to art as well as to any form of design.

In the development of design skills, theory can get in the way of practice, but only until the theory becomes practice. With practice your intuition evolves, and the better you understand what you do, the deeper your intuition. Only once you do not consciously think about the theory anymore are you achieving mastery.

On design vs taste: #

There is plenty of good design that is ugly, and of course there’s good design that both works well and looks pretty. But a design that doesn’t work can never be substantially good—ugly and broken is just worthless crap, and pretty and broken is phony or kitsch

But you want to be in the Beautiful quadrant. How do you get there? Usually you move from the center to the upper left into Bold. Because first of all you need to make it work. Once you are there, you need to move to the right. How do you get from Bold to Beautiful?

You don’t get there with cosmetics, you get there by taking care of the details, by polishing and refining what you have. This is ultimately a matter of trained taste, or what German speakers call Fingerspitzengefühl (literally, “finger-tip-feeling”).

On personal taste vs. sophistication: #

…while your intuition grows with training and experience, your need for conscious control over the design process gets smaller and smaller the better you get at it. It’s like dancing or playing an instrument—the more advanced you are, the less you need to consciously think about it. The less you think about what you do, the more virtuosity you will be able to achieve.

On form: #

…while professionals are able to more clearly perceive and understand the logic of the design behind a product, anyone can assess the quality of design through use. How well something works is the only obvious criteria of good design. To decide whether an everyday object works for us or not, we don’t need to be experts. We know it when we use it.

Again, this is a rule of thumb. That not everybody can sit down at a piano and play away like Glenn Gould is not the piano’s fault. Your skills need to match the tool you are using to assess its quality—you can’t test-drive a car if you haven’t learned to drive. But everyday objects should only require everyday skills. This is what makes web design so hard.

One of the biggest, most important points in the piece:

To make a product’s use obvious without distracting from the regular use is one of the the hardest parts of the design job. The solution is almost never in implicit or explicit instructions, but of reducing learned interaction patterns into simpler, yet still common patterns.

Beauty in design is not found by adding prettiness to a bold, functional design, it’s adding detail to the essence, so the functional logic becomes more humane, refined, and clear. As Edward Tufte said: “To clarify, add detail.”

On user interfaces: #

As interface designers we need to be careful. Our definition of “interface” is, again, not just what you see, but for better or worse how it works.

Less visual clutter leads to a more efficient interface. Technically speaking it is not quite clear what “less interface” means when you take that expression out of context.

  1. If by “less interface” you mean “harder to work with”, less interface will lead to a worse interface.
  2. If by “less interface” you mean reducing visual and functional elements to the essence, you will improve the interface.
  3. If by “less interface” you mean “hiding how a product works”, less interface will always lead to a weaker interface.

Conclusion #

the aim of design is to facilitate use, and take care of details that are tedious for the inexperienced person.

Now, if you are a designer and proud of your skills, keep in mind: There are not distinct groups of “designers” and “non-designers”—it’s a continuum. And there is no such thing as the worst or greatest designer, since design requires a lot of different talents that can’t be directly compared. Some have deeper imagination, are better with the purely functional aspects, have more talent in polishing details, have better technical skills, and some will shine with an unbreakable will to ship. It is a long way from novice to pro, but what we all have in common is the trained ability to see what others don’t, to create what others can’t see but only feel.

Designers are not superior creatures that can ignore listening to other, supposedly inferior beings. On the contrary! Without critical feedback and the modesty to accept all opinions on our work as a perfectly valid, different view no matter who, how or what, we lose our freaky key ability, which is not just to see more, but to see more with one eye, and feel with the other.


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