How You Can Train Yourself To Think Like A Designer

Toward the end of last week’s post concluding my short series about design concepts, I mentioned that you want to consistently look at other designs and ask yourself questions about what you see. I want to spend today expanding on that idea a little.

To me, this Q&A about design is training yourself to think like a designer and I think one of the first steps to becoming anything is to train yourself to see the world within the context of that discipline.

As a designer you’ll be tasked with solving design problems and your first step in being able to solve them is to learn to think like designer and see design in the world around you. You want to develop the ability to see your environment through the lens of design.

Learning from Example

One of the ways we learn is through example. We see how someone else did something, copy what they did in order to learn how they did it, and hopefully achieve similar results.

I remember when I first learned to write HTML and CSS I would see something I liked on a site and ask myself how I thought the developer built it. What HTML structure did the developer choose? What CSS was written to create the layout? How various elements positioned on the page? What code contributed to the aesthetic presentation?

Once I had spent a little time asking and trying to answer these questions for myself, I would view the source code and find the HTML and CSS for the component I was curious about. Only after first trying to figure it out for myself did I look through the code to see how it was done.

Later when my skills had improved, I’d see something in print and think how I might code it. Sometimes I’d make the attempt and see how close I could get.

The exercise trained me to think in terms of HTML and CSS development. It helped me see the world through the lens of a web developer, which allowed me to look at design images and quickly formulate a plan for how to develop them.

Learning to See the World as a Designer

The same idea works for learning to design. There are examples of design, graphic or otherwise, all around you. Designers don’t provide their source code (the reasoning behind their choices), but they do present you with their solutions.

Design solutions are everywhere. Anything made by a human being can serve as an example of a design solution. They won’t all be great solutions, but they all give you opportunity to think about their design.

Pay attention to what you see. Notice everything. Observe closely. Think about the designed objects you encounter during your day. Reverse engineer their solutions.

When you open a magazine and see an advertisement or when you land on a website and take in the aesthetic, really look at what you see. What problem do you think the designer meant to solve? Does the solution work? Why or why not?

Question everything you see. Why is it there? What does it contribute to the design? Why was one typeface chosen over another? Why that particular layout?

Think about the aesthetic you see and think about what it communicates to you. Compare that to what you think it should have communicated? Are they the same? Why or why not?

If you want to think like a designer, it’s important that you put in the effort on your own to both ask and answer questions about the designs you see. You can seek explanation from others later, but not until you first put in the time to think about it on your own first.

Your effort is the training. These Q&A sessions with yourself train you to think creatively and they will help you develop concepts in your own work as well as give you a greater understanding of design principles and how other designers choose to use them.

My Experience

Let me share a little of some of the things I did when trying to see the world within a design context.

Whenever I was out shopping I’d look at the logos on the signs in front of every store I’d see and I’d ask myself a bunch of questions.

  • What did the logo suggest about the company?
  • Why did it attract me or turn me away?
  • What did the logo communicate to me?
  • What did I think of the company’s brand?
  • How much did the logo contribute to those thoughts?

I’d also ask myself questions about the choices the designer made in regards to color, type, layout, and imagery. I’d ask myself why a specific text label was used. Why those words and not others.

I’d also think what I might have done differently. Would a different color or another font better communicate the brand message? Would different imagery have been more effective.

I wouldn’t stand out in front of the same store for hours at a time, but each and every time I found myself near the same store, I’d ask myself some of these questions. Maybe six months would pass before I had an answer to why I thought a certain color was used, but I continues to think about it until I had an answer and then I’d think a little more looking for another.

Whenever I’d finish one of these short Q&A exercises, I felt like I understood design a little more than I did before. Not a lot. It isn’t as though my knowledge of design suddenly increased or I had reached a new level of skill to create a design.

Over time though, my understanding of design increased and I further trained myself to observe what was around me and to make connections between those observations and my preexisting thoughts.

I often liked to do this with one aspect of design at a time. Say I wanted to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of color. I would pay special attention to the color of everything. When I’d see a design I’d ask:

  • Why those particular colors?
  • What do they communicate alone? Together?
  • Does that message reinforce what I know about the object or company behind it?
  • If not, how do they differ?
  • Do they differ because I don’t understand something?
  • Or does it mean the design could be improved?
  • Or is there a reason why the message communicated through the colors might contradict what I knew about the object or brand?

Keep doing this over and over, observing examples of design that you come across, whether in total or one aspect at a time, and think about how and why they’re designed as they are.

You can do this with organic objects too. Why did that tree grow to be the shape it is? Why did the stream flow to the left there instead of to the right? How did that canyon form? Why are that flower’s petals that particular color?

The actual questions you ask and the answers you come up with are less important than that you ask and answer the questions.

Again, it’s the time you put in thinking that will help you see the world as a designer sees it. It’s doing the exercise that’s important, not that you come away with the “right” answer.

Closing Thoughts

One of the first things I do when trying to learn any subject is to build some context for my learning. One way to do that is to try and think how experts in the subject might think about it.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It’s often mentioned in business circles to say we all see every problem based on what we do best as opposed to what’s best to do.

I think the way to get good at something is to see that quote in a different light. If your job is to hammer nails, then you should be looking at the world through that lens at times in order to better hammer nails.

If you want to be a designer, you have to be able to think like a designer and see the world through the context of design.

Look at the many examples of design that surround you right now. Ask yourself questions about the objects you see. Try to figure out why these things are designed the way they are. What problems are they trying to solve? How was the solution implemented? Does it work?

Engaging in this Q&A consistently and thinking critically about design will be the best training you can have as a designer.

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