Design can be intimidating, and for many people, it’s intimidating by definition.
Even the word “design” suggests something of a “higher caliber”, something with ambition and aesthetic forethought. An amateur crafts, but a professional designs. It makes us think of the “designer”, and their imagined wealth of experience, exquisite taste… and even images of their amazing modernist apartment.
Just associating something with “design” is enough to give it cachet and a higher price. Like the words “handmade” and “artisan” (or “artisanal”, if you’re feeling really fancy), “designer” describes a superior product.
The concept of design itself is heavy with the baggage of expectations.
As a former tech journalist, I came to design slowly and, at first, purely out of necessity. A basic understanding of the fundamentals of design, though not strictly required, was an extremely valuable asset for an aspiring reporter in the digital age, hitting the job market post-2008.
Technology had vastly changed the modern newsroom, making traditional media both more accessible and jobs in it much harder to come by—let’s just say a proclivity for stacking up complementary skills was a good habit to form.
At the time, a gig as a hyper-local blogger meant juggling multiple hats—writer, editor, photographer, designer, even developer, for which I was ill (by which I mean, not at all) prepared. Every day was like educational roulette, forcing me to learn just enough HTML or CSS to patch up a Wordpress template that broke after an update, but never so much that I could have built it better.
For years my experience with web design was like Groundhog Day set in the world of Tron. The game was find the piece of broken code without any idea where to start, or how to fix it.
Even after I’d spent years working in the digital space, designing for clients and getting paid to do it, I was reluctant to call myself a designer. Why? Because I was used to perceiving design as this elusive, out-of-reach thing. And, of course, I was entirely self-taught, which did little to dispel that feeling.
For many years I carried with me the inaccurate idea that to be a “real” designer, I needed not just years of formal training, but also considerable artistic talent. And this insecurity was reinforced every time I was up to my ears in a project, and heard “But I’m SO not a designer” from a client, coworker, or even my boss. “Neither am I!” I’d think to myself. “I can’t even draw. And I don’t know ANYTHING about [insert design topic here]”.
This way of thinking didn’t solve any problems for me, and it certainly didn’t solve any for my clients. Instead, it kept me in a kind of stasis, stuck and unable to forward my career as a designer because I refused to really see myself as one—or even as someone who could be one.
But once I began to actually study design, I rapidly came to realize that I had more knowledge and experience of the subject than I’d ever presumed to give myself credit for. Many of the fundamentals—visual principles, for example—were already there. More than anything, it was creative confidence that I’d been lacking.
I was already a designer. I just didn’t know it yet.
Not sure if you have what it takes to become a designer? You’re probably closer than you think. Here are a few telltale signs that you’ve got the bug—and the basics—in spades.
1. You recognize the marriage of form and function
Just like designers, architects aim to create something that is both functional and beautiful. The best buildings meet our needs at the same time as providing an aesthetically or spiritually pleasing experience.
A perfect example of this is the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He was given just one stipulation when creating a new building to house the museum’s collection of non-objective art: that it “should be unlike any other museum in the world.”
The result—a large domed structure with a long continuous ramp leading visitors through the spiraling rotunda and up to a precipice skylight at its center—did in fact turn the traditional museum form of interconnected rooms on its ear.
Now considered one of his greatest masterpieces, at the time of its creation Wright believed that his design would be “the best possible atmosphere in which to show fine paintings or listen to music”. The design addressed the museum’s function first, and forged an innovative and exceptionally pleasing form to serve that function.
Like architecture, design is functional—it’s about solving problems and meeting needs. And the greatest designs integrate aesthetic or experiential delight. You already interact with countless examples of designed digital functionality every day—whether it’s taking a picture, sending an email, or doing a spot of online shopping.
Take a look at some apps and websites you use regularly. You’ll probably notice that your favorites are those that not only allow you to complete a task, but allow you to do so in an easy, effortless, and beautiful way.