There has been a lot of discussion lately about schools not preparing the next generation of web designers to enter the work force. Now its been a long time since I was in the classroom but I remember what my “web design” classes were like. They were all about learning the tools of the trade. Entire semesters are dedicated to learning [insert bloated Adobe design software name here]. Although familiarity with these software titles can prove useful they don’t transform you into a web designer. It’s like saying that because I know how to use a hammer and saw I could start my career in a carpentry tomorrow. Schools focusing on tools instead of theory creates a huge disadvantage for new graduates. Learning Dreamweaver allows you to build a webpage but it doesn’t teach you how to create proper user interface. Learning Photoshop means that you can create a special effect or two but doesn’t teach you how to effectively use line, form and space in your design. I think it would be fair to say that design today is more focused on the how instead of the why.
It’s Easy, Just Paint by Numbers!
There is a reason why tutorial blogs are so popular. Just follow them step by step and you end up with a new trick up your sleeve. Learning the how gives you something to instantly show off. Learning the why doesn’t give you immediate gratification like the how does. The why just isn’t as sexy. Think about a kid taking their first martial arts class. Do they want to learn about breaking boards or learn about the discipline and study it takes to become a real master of the art? I know I’d vote for board breaking and nunchucks every time. The first time I ever played with Photoshop I spent hours applying effects and filters to things. Did it help me to become more familiar with the tool? Yes. Did I have any clue what I was doing? No way.
Can you really blame aspiring web designers for wanting to learn the how instead of the why? Look at any job posting for web design and you see the same things over and over again. Usually the first requirements you see are that the candidate be proficient in Photoshop and Dreamweaver. No wonder why people wanting to become designers scramble to become tool experts. Ten years ago I fell into that trap. When I first started my design career all I knew were the hows. I was totally dependent on Dreamweaver to build websites and I had a whole arsenal full of cool Photoshop tricks that could distract people from the fact that I was a total amateur.
I should have been required to learn the why before learning the how. Instead of spending hours playing in Photoshop I should have been studying color theory and typography. I wish that someone would have forced me to uninstall Dreamweaver and code websites with a simple text editor. The learning curve would have been steep but my understanding of what it takes to create an effective design would have skyrocketed. I wish I would have known that figuring out the how is just a Google search away. I wish I would have known that putting in the time to figure out the why gives you a foundation to think critically, be more creative and have the confidence to challenge conventions. I know that some of that can only come from experience, but I think it would have come much faster for me had I been more concerned with the why instead of the how.
But Learning the How Gets you Noticed
Spend any amount of time on the internet and it becomes clear that we are living in the “look at me” era. This has been especially true in the design community. Seems like the best way to get noticed is to pull off some cutting edge technique or design a super shiny icon. We salivate over these experiments and bookmark them so that we too can assimilate the techniques into our design arsenal. Dozens of times a day I see how to articles in my twitter stream like “Make super cool CSS3 buttons tonight.” And honestly it’s hard not to click on them because staying on top of a rapidly changing industry almost requires that you stay in tune with how people are pushing the envelope.
Every month or so I get the urge to redesign my blog. Sometimes I’m just too busy so I tell the little voice in my head to pipe down but eventually it starts shouting and I give in. A couple weeks ago and spent several late nights reworking my site. Inspired by a recent how to article I decided to add 3D CSS transforms and animations to my site. Then I got the idea to make everything ajaxy. The result ended up pretty neat but life got in the way and I couldn’t find the time to put on the finishing touches. So my creation sits lonely and idle, waiting to be released to the world.
A week or two went by and I started questioning why. Why did I add the eye candy and ajax? Did it help make my site more usable? I can’t argue that it did. I could write it off as trying to stay on top of cutting edge front end development techniques. That’s a noble notion to be sure but in all honesty it’s not the truth. You could boil it down to me simply wanting to be noticed. I wanted my name to be passed around the twitterverse and have my peers check out the awesome things that I accomplished. My inner child that’s constantly saying “look at me” could be pacified. When I think about it I realize that it’s a terrible reason to design something. My site didn’t need flashy transitions and it certainly doesn’t need to be all ajaxed either. There was no design problem to be solved, it was all about showing off that I could figure out the how.
Do I even have a conclusion to this?
As I strive to become better at what I do I need to try and not get caught up in the hype of how. The key word there being hype. Staying ahead of the game is crucial in this field, but learning the how so that we can apply hype to our daily work distracts us from our real mission. Crafting effective solutions to design problems that actually exist can’t be achieved by throwing a shiny coat of awesome on everything. You can see the dilemma that I struggle with here. The front end developer in me is constantly trying to dissect the latest and greatest of the web. The designer in me is forever trying to gain a better understanding of this rich discipline. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, it just boils down to how much time I have at the end of the day to devote to them. I guess if I have any point to this it’s that having a war chest of ninja tricks doesn’t make me a better designer. Tomorrow will bring another slew of new how to’s and so will the next day. It will take everything I have to try and keep up. But design’s history, principles and nuances will always be there for me to understand them better. I simply need to give them the time that they deserve, the time that should have been paid to them long before I picked up my first copy of Photoshop.
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