When I first started learning about design I had a lot of questions. While I didn’t know the answers, I did hold expectations about what they would be like. For example, if I didn’t know how many columns a grid should have, I assumed my confusion arose from not knowing the right grid formula to apply. I was looking for the exact solution where no exact solution existed.
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Last night I was replying to an email with several design related questions and I realized the person asking held those same expectations. It helped me realize that many people who ask questions about design seem to be seeking that same absolutely right answer that I used to look for.
Design doesn’t work like that. Unlike 2 + 2 = 4, design problems don’t have such an absolute right answer. In design 2 + 2 might equal 4. It might also equal 3 or 5 or 17. In fact part of what we have to do in forming a design solution is deciding which of these many answers is the best one to apply.
The Science of Design
When I began my design education I approached it entirely as science. If given a certain set of conditions I expected there to be a single right path to a solution. I thought the way to increase my understanding of design was to know more of its rules. If I knew the rules, I could apply them to a problem and they would inevitably lead me to the right answer.
For example if a design problem called for an aesthetic that was elegant and sophisticated, all I’d have to do is find the rule for choosing an elegant and sophisticated typeface along with a color scheme and layout that were also both elegant and sophisticated.
In some respects that is what you do. You look for a typeface, color scheme, and layout that communicates elegance and sophistication. However, there isn’t a single typeface, color scheme, or layout that will work. There are a variety of each that communicate elegance and sophistication in nuanced ways, particularly when used in combination with each other.
My approach to learning at that time came more from a math and engineering background. If the problem in front of you is to add 2 and 2, you would consult the rules for adding numbers, which would lead you to the single answer of 4. The problem 2 + 2 always results in the answer 4 and no other answer is correct. Where design was concerned I was looking for similar formulas. I wanted to know what typeface = elegant + sophisticated.
You need to see past the context of a single right answer in order to become a better designer. There’s more art involved in design. How you recognize and determine the problem is often something of an art. If you see the problem as having a single correct solution that you must find, you’re approaching design in a way that won’t lead you down the best path.
The Art of Design
It’s taken me considerable time to realize that design doesn’t come with that absolutely correct answer to the problem that rules will automatically guide us to. Every design problem comes with a set of conditions and constraints and can have many solutions that are workable. While it includes aspects of both science and art, design leans more toward the art.
Much of our work involves defining the problem in order to whittle away the many possible solutions down to a manageable few. We make choices and add constraints to further reduce the possibilities and lead us down a path to a solution. We follow design principles to help us make these decisions.
We won’t know for certain if the path we walk down will end at the best or even a workable solution, but we continue to make decisions based on the knowledge we’ve gained and the experience we’ve acquired and have faith they’ll eventually lead us where we want to go.
Ideally the large decisions we make early on will lead us down a successful path that will help make the smaller decisions along the way easier and more obvious. However, ultimately we have to travel a path to a solution without being able to tell if we’ve chosen a best path until we’ve walked the whole thing.
Hopefully we can recognize if we’ve chosen a good path well before the end, but often we can’t. Sometimes we have to hold faith we’ve chosen well, while accepting when we find out it may mean starting over down a new path.
We also have to accept that even when we’ve walked down a path to a workable solution, it might not be the best solution. Another path we can’t see might also have worked better. The only way to know is to walk down that other path or see the results of another designer’s walk down it. We might at times get a clear vision of that other path, but only by walking down it can we know.
The lack of a clear and single solution means there’s more creativity to what we do and also more unknown along the way. We want to find the best solution when there is no single best solution and we can’t really explore every possibility. It can be maddening when you think about it.
Learning to design better is like learning to communicate better in any language. The words and grammar of a language can’t ever tell you what’s the right thing to say. They can only offer guidelines for how to say it in the moment.
If you’re like me and approach learning design as an effort to find the right choice, you need to rethink your approach. Design isn’t about learning the single and inevitable correct solution. It’s about learning the different tools you have to communicate and how you might use those tools in the moment.
Learning design is learning about communication tools and guidelines for how to work with them. The more possibilities we see the more options we have for finding a solution in the moment. Ironically the better we get at design the more difficult we make it to design, because we’ve given ourselves so many more options to choose from when we need to choose.
However, as we learn our tools and add to our toolbox we get better at knowing which tool to choose under a given set of conditions and constraints. Ultimately every design problem needs to be solved by making a series of decisions through knowledge of what’s come before, our own experience, trial and error, and some faith in yourself that you’ll choose well or recognize quickly when you haven’t.
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