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How to self-educate if you lack a formal design education (netmagazine.com)
197 points by cwan on Sept 4, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments

The "Non Designer's Design Book" is pretty good. It was suggested to me on this forum some time ago, and I got a lot out of it, even though it's still a struggle to really internalize it


(And, yes, I have an affiliate link there. That's why I got a high karma score here, so I could start raking in the millions with affiliate links to books...)

You're clearly not greedy enough. Here's the UK link with my affiliate ID :-P :

Papaerback - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Non-Designers-Design-Book-Robin-Will...

Kindle - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Non-Designers-Design-Book-3rd-ebook/...


I do not fathom the people who have been downvoting my comment. By all means, if you find someone on this site who submits nothing but link spam, downvote and flag them. Otherwise, why get your knickers in a knot about me getting a pittance for recommending a book I happened to like?

I have learnt to ignore HN downvotes on my comments, and am now learning to also ignore upvotes. Thinking about internet karma is not worth anyone's time, especially because it robs you of your sense of humour.

I agree wholeheartedly with your last sentence.

After stoping to care for downvotes and upvotes, I started to see my karma as a _wallet_, with it I could _spend_ points in irrelevant comments, bad jokes, etc., but not carelessly, just enough to have a good laugh without compromise or worry. Positive points in my _wallet_ means I'm still contributing positively to this community, just that.

The whole karma system is childish and unnecessary. Assigning imaginary points to posts doesn't improve them any more than taking them away discourages trolling and juvenile behavior.

The affiliate link affects the way some of us see the recommendation. In turn this reduces the contribution of you comment. It's kind of an internalized spam filter.

I would never downvote you for it, and I'm not saying you're wrong to put it in, I'm just trying to explain how some of us here will see it.

I'm more likely to check out the link if (a) you have nothing to gain and (b) I've seen great design work you've done. Without that I usually can't be bothered.

Why would you sacrifice your objectivity for what you admit is a pittance?

I'm not sacrificing my objectivity. I wouldn't post a link to something merely for the money. But since I'm posting a link to something I feel is worthwhile, I might as well put some money in the stash for more Kindle books.

Probably because so many people are reasonable until there's seventeen cents towards their wishlist on the table and then they'll shill for anything to get it.

An Amazon link doesn't save as much time as it would have in the 90s and the message looks spammier for it.

I recommend against the Kindle version, as the illustrations are messed up. Which is really bad, because they are supposed to illustrate design

Agreed, The Non Designer's Design Book has been the most helpful for me. When you've learned the basics of UX design, you can probably improve your overall UX design best by learning the basic skills of visual design.

That article misses the bulk of what good design is actually about. To quote Steve Jobs:

"Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it's this veneer -- that the designers are handed this box and told, 'Make it look good!' That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

If you want to learn about design, before reading books about colors, fonts, grid layouts or how to make an inner glow in Photoshop, you should start by reading something like Don Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" to gain an appreciation for how things work, and why. Then worry about making them look good.

If you want to learn about design, before reading books about colors, fonts, grid layouts or how to make an inner glow in Photoshop, you should start by reading something like Don Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" to gain an appreciation for how things work, and why. Then worry about making them look good.

This is a book that developers should read because it helps you think about thinking, and is applicable to APIs and other software internals.

Warning: If you read this book you may find yourself distractedly aware of the UI faux pas circus that surrounds us (e.g. doors that have handles that look pull-able, but can only be pushed).

If this book can get even one designer to resist the urge to make screen UIs that look like glass bubbles or brushed metal the world will be a better place.

It depends on what type of design you're talking about. Some design disciplines are "make it look good" and some are "make it work good" or "make it read good". Design is too broad a word to use in this context.

For a design-studies take even more on the "how things work" side, I like Herb Simon's classic The Sciences of the Artificial, which conceives of design as a science of man-made artifacts.

I also like Nigel Cross's stuff. His book Designerly Ways of Knowing (2006) is good but published in some absurdly expensive, for-libraries-only monograph series, so find it in a library rather than buying it. His more recent book, Design Thinking, is a collection of case studies with some analysis, a bit lighter but also good (and not $149: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1847886361/ref=as_li_ss_tl?...)

Don Norman's DOET should be required reading for anyone making a human-facing system.

It is not a complete education on the topic, but it's a huge step forwards.

I would also add Don't Make Me Think (by Steve Krug) to that list.

I recently read that book and found bits of it useful, but overall quite overrated, considering it's recommended every time UI/UX is discussed. Does anyone else feel this way?

I agree completely. In general it has good value, but to me it's in no way near being a bible, which some people ascribe it to.

I think most of HN users who fit that description (wanting to self-educate if you lack a formal design education) are programmers.

To these i say: learning design is good and valuable, but if you want to learn design because you want your next websites or web apps to look good, IMHO you'll be better off outsourcing to a designer who spent years studying these things (you won't become a great designer overnight). For a couple hundred dollars you can find somebody (good) on odesk to design a couple pages that would look much better than a starting designer could do.

What so many programmers just don't get is that design isn't a programming language that you can learn in a few weekends in your spare time. When you got to art school you sit in a room with over a dozen other artists so you see every potential solution to a problem. When you go to art school you study with a wide range of teachers who have every sort of professional experience (which is different than reading a book or looking at a website).

I've been doing design for interactive media for over twenty years and I can tell you that most self educated "web designers" are really just decorators who know HTML. And not that there's anything wrong with that but there's a huge difference between a decorator and someone who thinks like architect when you need one. Simply put: Despite our love of the idea of the brilliant actor or rock star who becomes famous overnight most of us really do need an education.

I've been taking a different approach. I started poring over books on people like Dieter Rams, reading about other design oriented fields like fashion,advertising (Ogilvy's book is amazing) architecture, etc. It's been hugely helpful and just fun in it's own right.

Which one of Ogilvy's books you meant (or recommend): Confessions of an Advertising Man (2004) or Ogilvy on Advertising (1985)?

"Ogilvy on Advertising" is his most famous book

Thanks, that was what I ordered. And it seems Confessions is actually from 60s, just the print sold in Amazon was from 2004.

Confessions is a good read, suspect it covers a lot of the same ground, but with autobiography added, although havent read the other. Good writing about advertising is interesting, though there is not much of it.

A question to web-designers: What are the metrics with which you test your design experimentations?

Does it pass the test if it aligns to a grid, contains a pleasant color palette, has enough whitespace, hierarchy, and contrast? Or is there something more fundamental you strive for?

I think a formal design education would be much less concerned with the former, and more concerned with the latter -- what are your most fundamental first principles as a person, and how can you instill those into your design and/or design process.

I want to see more articles about that.

You are right, there is something more fundamental to strive for: purpose.

Alignment, whitespace, hierarchy and contrast are elements of visual syntax. You internalize the rules so much that when you're designing you're not thinking about it; you are thinking about what you are trying to achieve.

Say you need to design a sign-up page for a newsletter, you need to:

1. Tell users what the newsletter is about

2. Say how often it's published

3. Make them feel comfortable giving out their e-mail

4. Give some demonstration of value

As you are designing, you are thinking about what is the best way to accomplish each of these goals in a visual manner. You often don't even think where to align stuff, it just falls into place because you know where it's supposed to be.

If I were to make a parallel to code, it would be clearly internalizing the syntax of the language. You no longer think about where to indent your code, or of a comparison operator in javascript is == instead of =, you have achieved enough fluency to stop thinking about how to write code and actually achieving something.


Since everybody is plugging their own stuff, I wrote on the subject of programming and design here: http://method.ac/blog/design/programmers-designers.html

It's always about conversion. More people, less bounce.

The former is introductory design (and the focus of the article). The latter is advanced design & expression - applying one's voice towards different fundamentals.

It's hardly ever actually about conversion. It's usually about what your superior accepts as looking "good."

As I have programmers and designers that work for me I see the programmers often butcher the work of designers when taking the mocksups to html/css. A simple rule seems to be that things should not stick out. There should be uniformity through out the site with fonts or spacing that are consistent. This isnt advice to make a great design but rather advice for how to improve a crappy one for the non designer. Another tip for those forced to design without the appropriate skillset is to search the web and find a professional site that has a good design and copy it. Yes I said copy it. Thats what we did with the original cramster.com (years ago) by getting inspiration for the page from amazon.com. You wont win any design awards but it will help you get something acceptable up while you look for professional help.

I think the fundamental problem is that designers use right brains to come up with solution: the brain that's involved in processing of emotions, shapes, "a-ha" moments, and seeing the whole picture.

Programming, on the other hand, seems to be a fairly analytical and logical activity that involves verbalizing logic in a programming language.

I suggest starting out with "The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" because if you try to approach design as you would approach programming it will look like a stick figure.

The book he recommends for grids[1] isn't available yet (and has no release date).

As an alternative perhaps Khoi Vinh's Ordering Disorder[2].

[1] http://www.fivesimplesteps.com/products/a-practical-guide-to...

[2] http://www.subtraction.com/2010/11/05/i-wrote-a-book

The most important thing when learning design is to learn and use the right process. Except for the very abstract inspiration part, everything listed here would all fit in the last 50% of my process as an 'educated designer'. I believe there's much more low hanging fruit in the first 50%. It's hard to give concrete examples for this though because it's all very dependent on the kind of product you aim to design.

Fine article, but if the goal is legitimacy in the design community, make sure not to misuse terms. Kuler and colorlovers.com are great resources but they probably won't teach you anything about color theory. Also, white balance does not mean what the author thinks it means.

I have been working with a designer to design his website and based upon his feedback and my constant redesign I'm developing a design aesthetic which is very helpful. I suppose I am learning design by doing.

This is the same way I started designing! My dad would have me design ads for his businesses growing up and I was horrible at first, but as I kept designing the skills started to come. Keep it up :)

Also, Check out Smashing Magazine, http://www.smashingmagazine.com/ it is a great resource for design! and if you get more into web app design 37 signals has an awesome blog called Signal vs Noise. Check it out!

I feel like I get all the theory. I can't sit down in Illustrator and make it happen. I'd really like to get a good book or course that can help me actually use the tools to design great sites.


Plenty of free courses out there as well of course. I personally prefer paying for most self-learning stuff since I'll be investing so much time into it.

There's a lot of good Photoshop walk through tutorials out there, I find they're a good place to get started, after you do a few you start to internalize the various techniques that are popular.

many opinions here is important to me, and i have been thinking some of the problem. i like this.

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