Learning To See

by | Oct 27, 2019

Every year I pick a couple of things to learn, it could be something completely new, or a mastery of an exciting skill. I do this because I believe there is always room for improvement. And I train others for a living so I see it as research for my work—to remind myself of what it is like to be a learner so I can be a better teacher.

Having made the decision to update my company website, I decided that I was going to learn to build a website landing page to see if I could build the whole website myself. I felt somewhat confident I could do it, afterall, there is a plethora of DIY tools, and I have an eye for design. I soon discovered that even with these tools choosing templates, layouts, colors and fonts wasn’t straightforward. In search for guidance on how to, I stumbled upon a book called The Non-designers’ Design Book by Robin Williams.  I hadn’t finished reading chapter one of the book before I realized that I knew NOTHING about design.

Design Basics

According to Williams, there are four basic principles any well designed piece should have. First, proximity, group related items together. Next, alignment which dictates that nothing should arbitrarily placed on a page and should have visual connection to something else on the page. Third, repetition, repeat some aspect (a bold font, a bullet or thick line) of a design throughout the piece. Lastly, contrast various elements differentiated—a large type with small type, or cool color with warm one—on the page to draw reader’s eye. Such simple concepts yet were unknown to me. How could I had thought I knew about design? I had been deluding myself all these years!

Whenever I was creating a document my standard default was to center the headings and underline them thinking they looked good. Wrong! Williams wrote: “A centered alignment creates a more formal look, a more sedate look, a more ordinary and oftentimes downright dull look”, and amateurish. It should be avoided as much as possible unless it is an intentional choice and made dramatic in some other way. I’m pretty sure “drama” was never something I thought of when I was centering my headings.

For fonts, regardless of what kind of document I was making I alternated between using either Garamond or Tahoma, and at times Georgia; I liked the look of them most and they came with my Office application. I learnt that there is a more thoughtful way to pick and use fonts. For instance, Garamond—it is an Old Style type font, best for lots of type you want people to read. Using description of typefaces from the book, I went and examined my Kindle books and the few paper books I have. They were mostly in some sort of Old Style type. I had been reading all these years I never even noticed or even wondered what fonts were used or about how books were laid out.

I knew you couldn’t just pluck  colours next to each other, but I didn’t know they were rules and order for combining them.  How many times I have clicked away at the color wheel on my laptop trying to find the right color? If only I had known the difference between hue, shade and tint and how to create them. I finally realized what the horizontal row of color boxes at the bottom of the color wheel is for—to create and save colors to be used again.

This experience reminds me of when I was short-sighted (I had Lasik operation a few years back), without my glasses, shapes and colors of objects blended into each other and all faces looked the same. The Non-Designer’s Design Book has corrected my vision where graphics design is concerned. I can now actually see websites, books, posters, magazines etc… I can comprehend more the thought and effort that went into creating them and better articulate why I like or don’t like what I’m seeing.

Next Level

I continued to create the landing page based on what I had learnt in the book. However, it looked very amateurish, far removed from the professionally created samples of pages I had been consuming on www.dribbble.com. I accepted that it was best to leave it to the professionals to do, I hired a brand designer. Working with a brand designer took my understanding of design to a higher level. I discovered that design is way more than knowing how to choose and mix colors, fonts and shapes.  My designer spent a fair amount of time asking me in various manners: what problem was I trying to solve? Design, she said was about problem solving. It seems obvious now to me now; hadn’t I long reached the conclusion that life is ultimately about solving problems? But it wasn’t obvious! It dawned on me for the first time that perhaps the real reason to learn isn’t to acquire a new skill, or for research as I had previously thought. The real reason to learn, is to see. Learning to create my own landing page (even if I did it poorly) made visible a world (of graphics design) that had always been around me but I was unable to see.

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