Pursuing the How Instead of the Why

by Les James on February 15, 2011

in Design

Adobe Photoshop 1 discs

Adobe Photoshop 1 discs

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!

Young girl breaks a board with her fist in karate class

Hammerfist for effect

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

Lady Gaga meeting the Queen of England


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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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole Foster February 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Amazingly true article. Several colleges, and universities that teach design only teach how to use the tools, never design theories, and other essential lessons. The more you learn about just the tools, the more you will blend in as a designer, and the less likely will you land a job you truly love. If you learn design theories, and how they apply to your field, you will see mass amounts of success.


Cliff Huizenga February 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm

After going through all my schooling, there are only two places I can say really gave me an education on designing for the web: grad school and my first “real” job as a web designer.

For grad school, the Interactive Communications courses focused primarily on how to deliver a message across the interactive spectrum. They taught how to better present a message/content for the end user, how to make it more accessible to retrieve information, and—most importantly—why this was important. One of our design classes had a field trip to IKEA to illustrate how there are multiple ways to design with the end user in mind, and for us to remember why something would be designed a certain way.

While this was a worthwhile experience—that I’m still paying for—I don’t believe this kind of education should wait until the graduate level. These concepts need to be taught at the undergrad level, and the basics should even be covered in high school. Learning how to use the Adobe Suite does not make someone a designer. If someone knows what makes good design, then they can worry about the tools to create it later, especially since they keep changing versions all the time.


Brian McDonald February 15, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Unless you go into a real design curriculum it’s hard to understand design elements. I studied communication and learned design after college doing desktop publishing using Photoshop 1 discs you have in your post! My first lessons were in layout and typography doing simple flyers and newsletters. Using the tools at first gives you some level of craft and expertise.

At the same time I think I was able to apply some basic design principles in what I was creating. But they were more in terms of information architecture and messaging with clean and easy to read layout. At the end of the day you have to have some taste and level of talent to create something that works and looks good.

I have worked with traditional designers that migrated to web design and knew the tools inside out but never did great web designs. I think they did not approached web design differently than traditional media and got lost in the fluidness of it.


Jenna February 15, 2011 at 10:27 pm

So true about new media/web design “schools.” I took a one year course that I now see as a waste of money I’m still paying for. The majority of the course materials were software manuals I didn’t even open. Anyway, I thought to get started working at an agency that I would need to have a paper saying I knew how to use all those programs they list as job requirements. After working at an agency for two years now I see that the paper might have got me in the door, but not as more than a production artist or a pixel pusher. I wasn’t happy in that role, so I’ve been trying to bring in my views about design and asking for more responsibility. The “great” agencies don’t even list software requirements in their job posts. They ask that you are able to solve problems and talk about design, explaining your solutions. At the school I went to, only lip service was paid to the fundamentals of design. I’d learned more about the principles of design and colour theory in high school art class where we used those concepts in doing self art critiques. Although I didn’t like doing art critiques at the time, now I’m seeing how important that kind of language and knowledge is when you are designing and presenting design to clients. When you know why you are doing something you have more confidence in your work and there is less guessing and wasting time. There is less ‘throwing things on the canvas and seeing what sticks’ and more ‘seeking the best solution.’ I think the designers who complain about their clients nitpicking the design aren’t able to offer solutions, just decorations. If the designer had no purpose for their choices and can’t back it up with good reasons then they either have to grumble and go along with the client’s every whim or stubbornly insist on their design and be seen as a difficult egotist. It would have been great to have an environment where design was taught and discussed so I would have had more experience explaining and selling design before being sent out into the wild.

I agree that “how”s are not the key to great design, but they do help in making designs become real. Learning the tools can’t be dismissed so easily because some people find them to come with quite a learning curve. One thing I wonder about though is having that ‘war chest of ninja tricks’ and nothing to show for it. We can’t just try to cram new techniques where they aren’t needed and may actually be detrimental, but I think it’s important to show versatility in technical skill too. Or maybe it’s better to wait until you need a certain solution to learn it instead of having it practiced already? It really is tempting to show off, but sticking with good design at the core will win over hype any day. I hope.


Rob Miracle February 16, 2011 at 9:51 am

Very well said, Les.

But from a business perspective, I’d rather hire someone out of college who knows dreamweaver and can build my website fast and cheap, rather than pay someone who’s going to take longer and when they leave have a hard time finding someone to take their place. It sucks, but that’s some of the business logic behind “How being more important than why”.

Of course I don’t agree with that thinking. In my previous life I spent hours undoing DreamWeaver bloat to make the website run as efficiently as I could. Even in my current life, luckily we don’t use bloatware, but it took a long time to convince everyone that having a sub-4 second load time was a major need to keep your audience around.


Morgan Siem February 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Really fantastic article, Les. You make such an important point and it relates directly to social media just as it does to design and development. Knowing how to use the tools does not give you the “why.” What I find so often is that people who pursue social media are chasing the “shiny object” instead of creating a strategy to determine how to use social media to achieve their business goals. Thanks for all the thought leadership here!


Anthony February 17, 2011 at 1:00 am

Great post! I can relate! I spent a lot of money on school that taught me how to use the programs, and that was it! You’ve gained a new reader.


Maura February 17, 2011 at 9:34 am

This makes me happy that I went to NCSU College of Design before the graphic software surge. We were told, “Understand the “why” behind the “what” you are doing. It allows you to achieve YOUR level of success not just dwell on a desire.”


Hudson February 17, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I can’t agree more. To me it is super important to stay inline throughout the whole design process with your strategy. I sometimes feel that a lot of designers lose sight of the clients ultimate goal in favor of making the design “pretty”. It’s great to have a beautiful design, but useless if it can’t communicate your message. But the truth is, we all love the people who can accomplish both the Why and the How at the same time.

Great post!


Ilias Carré Ilias Carre February 20, 2011 at 10:12 pm

This is a perfect description of talent versus creativity. You can learn all the tricks and techniques and be talented, but unless you know how to grow your conceptual and creative process, ask the right questions, and try to understand the “why”, you will only go so far. Instructors and mentors need to help students and young designers understand this and help them become smarter and more creative designers. I have met designers and artists that have beautiful work, but don’t know how to talk about it or explain the reasons they chose to do something a certain way. Sometimes pieces of designs are just intuitive, or spontaneous, or happen by accident, and this is part of the fun of the creative process, but if you are creating something for a client and trying to “craft an effective solution to a design problem” you should pause for a second and ask yourself whether that piece is helping.

Finding the time to learn all the ninja tricks and whys of design is almost impossible for me, but that’s where working with and learning from smart and creative people that are also pursuing the why helps me grow as a designer. Excellent post Les.


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