Artistry versus Craftsmanship

It aint nothin' but the dog in me.

It aint nothin’ but the dog in me.

Design is weird. And design is weird because: everybody’s got the tools to try their hand at design.

Let me show you what I mean, by doing this: today, right now, I’m going to make you an architect. The top-of-the-line software tool that architects use to design their buildings is AutoCAD by Autodesk. They make a free trial of their Building Design Suite available on their website. Just download it, install it, run it, and voilà! Or perhaps that’s too much, too fast, and you’d like to ease into your new career. Some architects also make use of SketchUp Pro, which is a bit more reasonably-priced. And you can use the free version, SketchUp Make, to get started.

There it is: free software, just install it and now you’re an architect.

Perhaps not? Maybe you’re having the reaction I would have: “…architects go to at least 4 years of school before they can get hired in their field, and I don’t know any of the stuff they teach in architecture school.” Sure, I believe in myself and my ability to wrap my head around the kinds of things architects have to know about, but I haven’t been exposed to any of them; I don’t even know what they are. Three-dimensional modelling must take some practice to get right. If I were to design a reasonably-complex building right now, I know I’d get at least one thing wrong that I didn’t even know existed. Architectural tools do not an architect make.

And yet, everyone is a designer. Or so they think.

I don’t mean to pick on architecture. Same goes for movie-making, accounting, database administration, audio recording, what-have-you. Software tools are readily available for many things you might want to do on your computer, but I learned long ago that having the tool doesn’t mean you know what to do with it. Heck, give me a ball of yarn and some knitting needles, and you know what I can make with that? A big tangle of yarn, that’s what.

Inspiration versus Perspiration

So, now I’m going to tell you a secret, and in telling it I’m going to have to write a sentence that’s pretty risky for someone with the job title “Web Design Specialist” to write. But it’s the truth, and I feel compelled to share it with you, in the name of Good Design Everywhere. Here goes:

I’m not a gifted designer; I’m not what I would consider a Design Artist.

What I am is a solid Design Craftsperson, and it’s to that that I ascribe the success of the things I’ve designed. A good graphic artist will make an illustration or design that will catch your eye, impress, set a mood, evoke, and move you in some way. I, by contrast, make designs that are not-broken—very, very not-broken. And I see broken design absolutely everywhere.

What I mean by a “broken” design is one that violates one or more of the most basic design principles. Yes, design has “principles,” rules for what’s good and what’s bad. (Though in truth they’re a bit like the Pirate Code: “more like guidelines.”) And they’re not arbitrary; they’re based on the basic physiology of how human beings perceive and process information, and they’ve been arrived at over centuries of trial-and-error iteration.

Un-breaking a Design

In the name of Good Design Everywhere, I’m going to share some of the rules with you, the way I understand them from The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (not that Robin Williams).

  • Proximity – Things that are related should be grouped together. Things that are not-as-related should have some space between them. This is one of the main reasons that whitespace in a design is not always “wasted space.”
  • Alignment – Things that line up with other things look like they belong to the same design. Things in a design that don’t line up with anything else in the design look like they were plopped on there haphazardly, making the whole thing look messy. (This is one reason to avoid center-alignment in most situations.)
  • Repetition – When you use a design element—be it a font, a color, or a graphic—re-use it consistently throughout your design. Things that are similar in kind (e.g. headings) will work better if they are consistent in appearance. In almost all cases, using four fonts and six colors in a design is not “creative and fancy,” it’s a confusing mess. Try just two.
  • Contrast – If things are meant to be different in your design, make them blatantly different. Text size? Not 11pt against 12pt; try 10pt against 16pt. Font? Not Verdana paired with Arial; try Georgia instead (anything but Arial). Color? Lime green and pear green might seem different enough, but they’re too similar to contrast effectively. Don’t be a wimp; try something blue.

There you have it: contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. You may want to come up with some convenient way to remember them.

Of course, there’s much more you can learn on the topic. I suggest everyone get Williams’ book; it’s short, packed with knowledge, and fun to read. Then there’s the excellent Design for Hackers (book and website) by David Kadavy. But the great thing about knowing and applying design principles is that it doesn’t take visual genius to do. It doesn’t even take inspiration; you can do it if all you have at your disposal is a good head for math. At the same time, even the most genius, inspired, and stunning designs will not work as well if they haphazardly ignore these guidelines. As I see it, artistry and inspiration are nice, and without them our lives would be much the poorer. But craftsmanship is foundational.

So the next time you launch some of that software that came pre-installed on your machine—MS Word, PowerPoint, Publisher, et cetera—please, in the name of Good Design Everywhere, take out that calculator and ruler and try your hand at being this kind of craftsperson. Your target audience will thank you.

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