Monday, June 11, 2012

What Makes the Designer?

There was an episode of the podcast, "Let's Make Mistakes", where they discussed the idea of being a designer, and what makes someone a designer.  You can listen to it right here, if you're interested.  The general opinion seems to be that the root of being a designer is solving problems.  The vast majority of working designers are fluent in graphics programs, but being fluent in a graphics program doesn't make you a designer, in the same way that having a nice camera doesn't make you a photographer, and owning paints and brushes doesn't make you a painter.  Even if you know how to use the camera and know how to use the paint and brushes, there's something more.  There's some sort of gap between having the tools and having a knowledge of how to use the tools and actually being a designer.  But that's not quite it, is it?  Isn't there something more?

In list form, because it makes more sense:
1. Obtain tools.
2. Learn how to use tools.
3. Magical unknown step.
4. Be a designer.

Step three, of course, is the problem.  Is it just practice that goes there?  Is it learning to think about solving complex problems?  Is it going to school?  Is talent necessary?
Of course, because design is a creative pursuit, there are going to be people who say things like "I wish I had your talent." as though every designer was born with the skills they have and didn't do any work to gain them.  I don't place much value in talent, but I believe in inclinations.  If you're seven years old, and you are slightly better than average at drawing, and you really like to draw, then you're inclined towards that.  You're likely to continue drawing, and you'll practice far more than peers who aren't inclined towards it, and by the time you're 14, you'll be much better at drawing than other kids your age.  If you're disciplined and have someone pushing you, that adds to the practice.  Then, hopefully, you can find a good art teacher, who will add to that skill, and a few years later, you're probably fantastic at drawing.  People will say that you're so talented, because you found something that you latched on to and spent years honing your craft.
What about designers who haven't gone to school for design?  If there are two designers who have the same abilities and portfolio, one of them having gone to school for design, and one not having gone to school for design, does it matter?  Do you think of them differently?
I probably think of designers who haven't gone to school differently than I think of designers who've been educated in design.  However, I feel really conflicted about that.  I like writing.  I like writing a lot, writing this blog and fiction too.  I hope, one day, that people will pay me to write stuff.  I'm not going to school for writing.  What makes me wanting to write any different from people who haven't studied design wanting to be designers?
What do you think about all of this?


  1. Well, you are correct in your assessment about personal drive and desire . . . I have heard it said, Do what you love, and love what you do . . . So . . . there really is no need for conflict. See them not as in competition but as in communion. Like a right and left hand glove. They are both needed to make a pair. However some will use their right hand more than their left and vice versa, but both are necessary.

  2. If we're playing the metaphor game, how about this:

    Step 1) Buy an oven, pots, pans, knives, etc. You now have the tools to prepare food.

    Step 2) Follow some recipes, ruin some stuff, get better. Maybe take some cooking classes, maybe not. Now you can reliably prepare food according to set directions and maybe even alter a recipe here and there with good result--but you're not comfortable with it. Eventually you get better at learning. You develop the capacity for accurate self-critique, and might be persuaded to conclude that you've moved on to...

    Step 3) Step three is the path from needing a recipe to being able to, say, approach a pile of random ingredients and prepare something tasty. It's the path along which you develop an intuitive sense of why those recipes work; and a sense of when and how they can be altered; and the ability to concoct new recipes from what now amounts to a thick bed of experience gained from all the times your tried at the first two things and failed.

    Step 4) Consider the possibility that step four isn't a matter of arrival. Instead it's a matter of progress through the advancing cycle of step three; sort of "the degree to which you are a cook." There's probably a point along that path of craft-honing where you'd feel comfortable calling yourself a cook in your head, another where you'd be willing to call yourself a cook in public, and another where other people would call you a cook even if you're not in the room. All of those probably come in a different order for everyone, and at different times, and might mean different things to different people. Somewhere in the space between those notions is that state of "being a cook."

    Or maybe it's just "If you've cooked things, then you're a cook." But I feel like the whole concept is a little more shaded than that.

    I'm going to have a nap.