What do designers need to know?

Technology, social context, and ways of working with others will change. In order to become and remain relevant in their practice, designers need to continuously learn and develop formal concepts, methods, theory, and techniques. While designers often focus on a specific field at any given time, no one works in a vacuum. It’s important to know and understand the histories and theories of design and art, and how they intersect with the wider worlds of politics, economics, and technological advancements.

Many of the first programs in the “useful arts”—graphic design, fashion design, and interior design—began in urban areas in the early twentieth century to give workers in the new industrial economy the chance to rise beyond their specific tasks. Without education in the field, the worker had to fight to compete with others who could do that specific task faster or cheaper. The same situation exists today: designers who can learn to do one thing well and understand the big picture stand a better chance at a design career, as opposed to a one-off design job, especially because skills and job expectations are changing all the time and jobs are increasingly automated.

But what is the history of the field? For graphic and communication design, there is more than one history. For example, a web designer would contextualize her work in the origins of the internet and the different frameworks and ideas that have led to the way the web looks today. A digital product designer might find inspiration in the history and theory of industrial design. An editorial designer might look at printed communication over time, while a designer working in advertising would reference the history of advertising and marketing. What does apply to all types of design, however, is the history of how ideas manifest in form, something that can be understood through study of the history of art, architecture, or the design of objects.

Formal concepts

Those histories matter because the way something looks has always carried meaning. To fully understand that connection, designers first need to be able to look at the world and understand why things look the way they do at a given time, in the past and in the present. From there, they need to be able to put type, forms, and images together and be able to judge whether or not they convey an intended message to the target audience. Then they need to learn how to use these systems of relationships, sometimes articulated as rules or guidelines.

Knowing how to do that requires learning basic layout principles such as balance, rhythm, movement, and proportion, executed through scale, position, value, and color and using line, shape, texture, and space. This skill, also known as composition, is learned through practice, observation, and reflection. Composition can be learned through Gestalt principles like proximity, similarity, closure, simplicity, continuation, segregation, and emergence. Composition is also a foundational skill for illustrators, photographers, and fine artists.

From there, a designer needs to know the relationship between typographic form and meaning, as well as how the arrangement of type, also known as typography, conveys meaning. Like composition, these skills are learned through practice making and evaluating typographic forms and arrangements.

The relationship of typographic form to meaning is constantly changing. Audiences and their visual associations change. An advertisement sparely typeset in Helvetica meant something different in 1960 than it does today. In 1960 it would have signaled a move towards something new and different, whereas now it could even be read as retro, or nostalgic for mid-century modernist aesthetics and ideals. Just as colors are perceived differently in different contexts, forms are read differently depending on what’s around them, what they’re associated with, and how they’ve been used before. Images, too, change meaning depending on what they are viewed with and when they are viewed. A basic understanding of art and design history helps a designer understand and communicate, with shared references, the relationship of form, image, and structure to meaning.

Building these systems of relationships also requires a deep understanding of and control over hierarchy and contrast. Visual hierarchy gives the user or reader a clear understanding of what is most important and least important. Contrast allows that person to distinguish one thing from another. Designing an alphabet is the ultimate exercise in non-hierarchical systems: each letter must be distinguishable from the other, but no letter may be more different than the others, making them all similarly different. For example, in a font the “a” must look clearly different from the “e,” and you need to be able to tell an “i” from an “l.” But if the “w” or the “m” is heavier or bigger than all the other letters, because it calls attention to itself, it makes it harder to stay focused on reading all of the letters and words in the right order. In branding systems, wayfinding systems, advertising campaigns, and books, there are many situations where elements need to be visually the same and others where they need to be clearly different. Designers know how to read, create, and implement these systems, coding the hierarchy into the design.

Methods

A design method is a repeatable way of doing things that can be further broken down into processes. All design methods include some version of research, ideation, prototyping, iteration, and presentation but may approach each of these categories differently depending on the medium, the audience, and the purpose of the communication.

Research is often difficult to define, because it reaches into every phase of a project. In high school curricula, research is often narrowly defined as reading, quoting, and citing books. However, designers use dozens of research methods, up to and including making prototypes. Anything that involves learning and then communicating or sharing what has been learned is research, and in design, that learning can happen by reading, looking, talking, listening, or making. In short, research is learning made visible and tangible.

A commercial website project, for example, may start with a visual or written analysis of available technology and a survey of the people who will use the website, while a redesign of a brand identity may begin by collecting and sharing images and expressions of competing and associated brands. A book or a website will often start to become real through an analysis of content and the use of a grid, while a book cover or art-directed image may start with reading an excerpt of the writing and distilling it into keywords. All of these approaches are early research methods.

Another important part and purpose of the research phase is problem definition. Even if the designer is working for a client who believes he or she already understands the problem at hand, it’s important to first check the underlying assumptions and then map out an agreed definition of the problem before proceeding. Sometimes all or part of this phase will also be called discovery, which is a term borrowed from law to denote a period of review to unearth evidence for a case.

Ideation can also take many different forms, depending on the medium and social context of the work. A larger design team may use formal design thinking methods to come up with ideas, where designers and non-designers use collaborative tools and feedback forums to maximize participation and engagement in coming up with ideas, and then determining which ideas will be carried forward. An individual working with a larger group may sketch out ideas alone and bring back one or a handful to discuss with an individual or a group. In the context of design, an idea is any kind of mental construct that is not yet tangible. It’s something you wish to see but haven’t seen yet. Ideally, an idea or collection of ideas will form into a design concept, which is an articulation of how that idea or ideas will work over time and within a specific context. For an identity system, for example, an articulated design concept would set out the direction for projects within that identity system that do not yet exist.

A prototype is something you make to learn about or test the thing you ultimately want to make. A prototype can be a lower-resolution or smaller-scale version of that whole thing, or it can be a part of it. For exhibition signage, for example, a designer could build a scale model of the space and place scaled versions of the designs within it, or print out a single title and text panel at full scale and place it on the wall for which it is planned. Both of these are forms of prototyping that allow the designer to evaluate and discuss the design before final production. For a book cover, a designer may make several digital or hand sketches to communicate an idea.

A digital designer working on how someone will sign up for a mobile app may use commercially available prototyping software to show the flow, language, look, and sequence of that action, or build just that one part in HTML and CSS to demonstrate how it would look and work. If it is built in code, it could also be released to a portion of users or beta testers to get real-time feedback on the design and content.

Iteration is how a design is developed. Once research uncovers the key questions or problems to address, ideation maps and communicates possible solutions, and prototyping tests some of those ideas, then the task of the designer or design team is making, reflection, and making again until either further improvement is no longer possible or necessary or the time or money to further iterate have run out. Iteration can also be an important part of the ideation process, as making many versions of something without a specific visual goal in mind is the only way to come up with an idea that you did not previously imagine. In iteration, each version can be either an improvement on the last or a completely separate application of parameters. For example, if the design project is to place a retail logo on a shopping bag, a designer could try many different color and scale variations until arriving at one that best expresses the brand at that time.

Presentation is how a designer communicates the design. The most familiar form of presentation is a slide show, also called a deck, in front of a group of stakeholders who will approve or reject a project. Presentation, however, encompasses so much more than this: it includes having an initial conversation before a project begins, making an elevator pitch (an extremely short explanation of what your project or idea is and what it offers, often imagined as something you could complete during an elevator ride with an important person), sharing prototypes while the project is under way, rolling out a brand system to the public, and documenting a project in a portfolio. While you may hope that a project will speak for itself, it will not do so to every person who encounters it, at least not without help. Finding concise and clear ways to communicate the context of the project along with precisely tuned visual representations of the design is necessary if your clients, your users, and your future clients are to believe in the integrity of your design.

Designers use different presentation methods in different contexts, even for the same project. Sometimes the presentation is in real time and live, and sometimes it is static or archived. Sometimes the viewer has just a few seconds or minutes to understand it, and sometimes that viewer has an hour.

A designer learns all of these methods—research, ideation, prototyping, iteration, and presentation—through study and practice. There are also no set periods of time for each phase of a design project. One project may require a lengthy and formal research process while another may not; you may use one method for iteration when working alone and a different one when working with a team. Over time, designers develop a methodology, which is knowing how to select and sequence appropriate methods for specific design problems or situations.

Theory

Theory refers to any system of ideas that helps explain or speculate about why we do the things we do. Of course, designers regularly read and incorporate theory from other areas of study, such as art, architecture, economics, anthropology, sociology, technology, or science, but reading and writing design theory is how designers speak to each other about design to discover commonalities beyond day-to-day questions about business or technique. Theory also shifts and builds with culture and technology, as new relationships, tools, and modes of consumption create new questions.

Theory is often presented as the opposite of practice, but in reality it comes from practice, as designers encounter the same questions over and over again in seemingly unrelated situations. What’s the influence of technology or tools on aesthetics? Should designers regard themselves as authors? Do designers have ethical responsibilities? Are there universal truths in design, or is everything relative? What is the role of the designer if everyone can now create and distribute work?

Theory also overlaps with history in that changing economic and social conditions bring about new ways of thinking about the work. Reading or listening to theory from the past and thinking about those relationships enables designers to better see their own moment in the present and to ask good questions about how design should respond to what is happening now.

Each new era, however, brings its own questions about the past, the present, and the future. Some theory speculates about that future, because projecting into the future is one of the better ways to reflect on the decisions we make in the present. What new technologies, or what new commercialization of an existing technology, will change how we interact with information and each other in the future? How will changing demographics of audiences or of designers affect how we approach our work? Will a particular design pattern cause significant social or cultural shifts if it is widely adopted?

Speaking or writing about these scenarios is a way to prototype them before they happen. This kind of thinking also allows us to reflect on how what we design, and what we participate in as designers, is not just a result of social, historical, and cultural forces but can and will drive them as well.

Techniques

Technique is how to actually execute the design work. It’s the most recognizable yet most rapidly changing part of what designers know. At the time of this publication, a designer is often expected to know how to manipulate type, forms, and images for both print and digital media using contemporary software; how to put them in motion with or without audio; and how to make and modify templates and working prototypes for web and mobile (where the content itself may be continuously changing) through both prototyping tools and basic programming in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Thirty years ago, making physical comps or mockups was a key skill; twenty years ago, most designers were using QuarkXPress and FreeHand; and ten years ago a designer could be reasonably expected to know how to create something in Flash. Even software programs that have survived for a decade or more have changed enough to require re-learning, and new design tools emerge each year to respond to new needs.

This doesn’t mean that learning a new tool is a waste of time if you’re not still using it ten years later. Each tool has a conceptual underpinning that you will understand if you learn to use it competently. For example, if you learn one kind of software that uses a timeline, you will understand the basic functions of another that uses a timeline. If you are competent in several applications or platforms, it will take you less time to learn a new one in the future.

Techniques aren’t limited to making physical or virtual things. It’s equally important to develop the skills necessary to communicate design ideas through writing and speaking. A successful designer has the ability to write clearly and precisely for a specific audience, discuss a concept one-on-one, and present a project to a larger group. Excellent listening and negotiating skills are necessary for working with non-designers, whether they’re clients, prospective audiences, or the people ultimately making the work.

Similar to design tools, designers and design teams adopt new communication and productivity software each year. Today, for example, a designer could be using Google Calendar to make appointments, Apple Mail to read and write email, Evernote to take notes, Google Docs and Sheets to collaborate on writing and spreadsheets, QuickBooks for invoicing, and Slack for team communication. The same designer could be using a completely different suite of tools ten years from now. Every one of these tools brings with it new protocols for communication to learn, and knowing how to use them productively can be as important as knowing design tools well. Finally, in addition to writing, speaking, and team communication, it’s also very helpful to learn core techniques early on for managing time and money.

Formal concepts, methods, theory, and techniques are not learned only once and then applied. Designers are learning all the time and are sharing their learning with each other through writing, talks, and classes. This shared learning is what makes up the discipline.

Continue reading excerpts from The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication DesignNext up: What goes on in design school?


About the Author: Juliette Cezzar is a designer, writer, and Assistant Professor of Communication Design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, where she was the Director of the BFA Communication Design and BFA Design & Technology programs from 2011–2014. She served as President of the board of directors of AIGA/NY from 2014–2016. She is the co-author, with Sue Apfelbaum, of Designing the Editorial Experience, and the author of five other books, the latest of which is The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design.