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Books For Learning to Design, The Hard Way (alexn.org)
161 points by bad_user 1945 days ago | hide | past | web | 33 comments | favorite

The Robin Williams book is great. I used it as a text several years ago for a class I taught. A very good overview.

I was a bit surprised to see the Edwards (Drawing on the right side of the brain) book. Pleasantly surprised. One of the things I've always stressed to my students is that learning to draw is actually learning to see. People think the can see things clearly and objectively, but what they are actually doing is recognizing. (There is a small motor skill component to drawing, but seeing is by far the most important.)

If you want to communicate visually, you first have to learn to see.

Design theories and formulas will only get you so far.

Those students who learned to do a little sketching improved dramatically.

And yes, it is hard to do. It is a process as deep as you are.

It's just not seeing, but also knowing. That's why some art schools have dissection labs where art students learn how human body is structured. And when you know anatomy, you can draw from imagination which is really a lot more valuable skill than copying a person's photo using a grid method :P

Drawing synthetically or constructively is a different skill. And learning to draw observationally, that is learning to see, is still a prerequisite.

Knowing anatomy, by the way, doesn't necessarily help you draw. I've had doctors that specialize in anatomy in class and they were terrible at drawing until they learned to see. They could recognize and label the parts, and they could even do a simple 2D schematic type diagram of muscles, but put a real 3D, foreshortened person in front of them and they were just as awkward as anyone else.

Well, when you're drawing from a long pose (week or longer), the model is bound to change her/his shapes slightly.. So just drawing what you see is not enough, you have to understand the 3-dimensional structure of the thing you're drawing at least on a basic level.

But also, I agree -- foreshortening is hard until you learn 2-point perspective and can "see" perspective points that you can easily build up the foreshortened feature from.

Seeing isn't necessarily a 2D process; and not just because our vision is binocular. Our visual system is very complex. The hardware is, optically, very crappy. Our image processing and integration software is very complex, much more complex than we really are able to understand at this time.

And it behaves almost nothing like a camera. Even mechanically, the optical projection is very different than a camera makes, or what one would get from a linear perspective projection.

There is a projection, but the "image" is actually composed of multiple viewpoints over time. The adjustments an artist must make for small changes in the model's pose is nothing compared to the varying nature of the mental image you actually "see" inside your brain. It is far from static, and is in fact very dynamic.

Which is why that drawing from life is considered much more important than drawing from a photograph when learning to see.

Note that I'm not knocking the study of structure or synthetic processes like linear perspective. They are important tools and aids in perception and image synthesis. But a good drawing, or painting, or photograph for that matter, is not a mere 2D projection of light and dark. It is an encoded record of a multitude of perceptions, or perception artifacts that your brain then interprets, inside it's magic "seeing" box, which then produces a simulacrum of a perceived event or process.

Else making a good drawing or photograph would be an entirely mechanical process that anyone could make by following a few simple rules. Instead they are like moments of insight into a scene or event.

And all of this is relevant if you are creating software that is going to communicate visually. When you are building your data structures and models inside your head, it is a very different from that which the experience the user has. Your job is to make the important aspects of that model manifest visually, and usefully manipulatable.

I tend to split design books into two related but somewhat distinct clusters: books about visual or aesthetic design, and books about engineering or technical design. Of course, it's not a clean split (architecture in particular strongly combines the two), but some books are clearly more on one side or the other.

For the engineering-design side, two good books, imo:

Herb Simon's classic Sciences of the Artificial, which approaches design from the lens of an AI researcher trying to figure out what design really is, partly to develop it into a science of design, and partly with an eye towards formalizing a model of design that a computer could use: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&...

Designerly Ways of Knowing by Nigel Cross, which positions design as a third kind of inquiry, neither fully science nor fully humanities, but a kind of constructive investigation of objects and their properties: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/3764384840/ref=as_li_ss_tl?...

why is this the "hard way"? is reading introductory books hard now? what's easy? and get off my damn lawn.

It's a little tongue in cheek, it's a little bit of truth.

Reading an introductory book is still way harder than just diving in trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It's also hard if said book contains exercises (which 2 of those books do), after all we can always find other things we'd want to do with our time.

I feel like I offended you in some way. I apologize.

I believe this a popular new phrase thanks to Zed Shaw.

It's been awhile since I've read LPTHW, but as I recall from the intro, and from the LXTHW site, ""Less Talk, More Code" summarizes the philosophy." Given the lack of emphasis on doing here (outside the last book) I don't think this post really captures that philosophy

(That's not a commentary on the quality of this post though, or the recommendations)

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is a very well written book which highlights perceptual issues of representing space. It also does a great job of mixing in developemental psychology to help you understand how a human's representation of the world changes as they grow older.

One of the best examples from the book explains why hands in children's drawings of people are always so large. Essentially, as a child focuses more on complex details (each individual finger) they unconsciously enlarge the object in order to fit in all the detail. Its a good illustration of our perception of scale vs scale relative to other objects.

There are plenty of other great observations about the way humans think visually in the book as well.

+1. I think anyone could learn to draw from life by reading and do the exercises from this book. The trick is to stop trying to draw symbols ( left brain ) and draw what you actually see ( right brain )

It's for anyone who ever told themselves they can't draw

The book is a marvel. I read the first edition when I was in college and it taught me more than two semesters of basic drawing taught by an indifferent "modern" artist. In most books that try to teach drawing as a mechanical process, as opposed as a purely "creative" exercise, they seem to leave out a "magic" step that makes things possible. Turns out that it isn't magic, but it is fairly subtle. The books makes a process explicit that is too often left to subliminal happenstance.

Don't mistake, the process is still hard, and requires much effort, but it does remove a lot of the magic feather aspect.

Yeah, what you said. This book is great - I think I went through it about 3 times in High School. Was a gift from my mom. Was happy to see it included.

Thinking with a Pencil, by Henning Nelms, would be a better choice for practical drawing and design, rather than Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.


"The non-designer's design book" is really great, I learned a lot from it. It helps to know these things, even though I am a software developer and normally do little to no design work for my clients.

Currently I read "Visual Language for Designers" (-) which is also very interesting. It describes how our brain processes visual information and how you can use this to create better (easier to understand) designs.

(-) http://www.amazon.com/Visual-Language-Designers-Principles-U...

If you are interested in the theory design and if you can find them (no, they're not the A-Team, just maybe out of print), have a look at "Design and Form" and "The Elements of Colour" both by Johannes Itten and "Principles of Form and Design" by Wucious Wong.


Somebody also suggested "The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist", by Frederick P. Brooks (Mythical Man Month) ... http://amzn.to/ueRrkv

I really loved - not something that happens often to me - "Designing visual interfaces" by Mullet and Sano. The examples are dated now, but the techniques and the suggestions are pure gold.

No book on Information Architecture and User Interface? Human psychology of decision making? This is not the hard way.

Hard way is to study human behavior and then study how good things were designed around them. Study the thought process behind and try and solve some design problems yourself.

This is not the hard way.

Can you recommend resources for those 2 topics?

For starters, see the footer: http://www.andyrutledge.com/calculating-hours.php (His home page is changed so doesn't link to them all)

http://www.alistapart.com/ Does talk about psychology and logic behind design.

http://52weeksofux.com/ UX

And Don't make me think. An awesome book on usability: http://amzn.to/uZ4uH5

I haven't found any great resource on Information Architecture yet.

<selfpromiton> I wrote a very brief intro to them all: http://www.64notes.com/design/design-and-subsets-essay/ </selfpromiton>


I also read "Don't Make Me Think", but I haven't included it (in this article) because I don't consider it a good book. It felt like some examples were just wrong and I also couldn't take away much value from it, although I may have been biased by my opinions on the matter. Its other flaw is that it bored me after the first third or so.

Also, "The Design of Everyday Things" (included) does talk about the psychology behind user actions. It's pretty good.

> It bored me.

> The hard way.

Words don't teach; life experience does. Books are good for intro.

I'll probably have to check out the Color book by Betty Edwards. Any other recommendations for color-centric books?

I took a "color and design" course my first year of college, hoping for a lecture on color theory, but instead ended up pasting cardboard paper on poster board for four months.

Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney is a good book on color theory. Strong emphasis on learning to observe color and lighting effects observationally.

"Interaction of Color" was suggested as an alternative - http://amzn.to/vnkSqW

The main idea behind “Interaction of Color” is that the original was a large book that included (dozens of?) large colorful cards, and the focus of the book is on exercises in playing with colored paper and seeing the relationships created thereby.

The actual “theory” of the book is fairly basic, but I think the approach (i.e. learning by repeatedly doing) is definitely the right one. If you buy any recent printing, you have to force yourself to make your own and do the exercises, if you want to get the full value from the book. Comparing with other students working exercises at the same time would also probably be helpful, even if there are only two or three of you.

Here’s a longer review: http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/book3.html#albers

There is absolutely no harm in getting an appreciation of a complementary subjects -- quite the opposite, should in fact be encouraged -- and no book can teach the innate art of either programming or design, but really, isn't anything worthwhile hard?

The ones that helped me the most were:

Universal Principles of Design

Bridgman's Complete Guide to Drawing from Life -- this is not related to design that much, but it's a staple life drawing book and once you can draw a person's face well, everything else becomes easier to draw.

I don't personally believe you can "become" creative, but putting on good music and drawing for awhile makes things "flow" better for me. I suck at drawing tho...

While I never think one could reach the levels of enlightenment of Michelangelo or Jonathan Ive :) I do believe one can exceed his creative potential. As with any other endeavor, like software development or sports, you can be better just by doing it repeatedly, getting out of your comfort zone, pushing your limits and all that crap other people keep saying.

Another thing I'm contemplating, besides drawing, is learning how to play an instrument, like the violin. A mere mortal like myself will never be a virtuoso, but I could be good enough for my own and my family's gratification.

Creativity is a stupid buzz-word. Here's an easy way of being creative: find two different objects, and link them together creating a third object, like this (from my room):

Abstract painting of a guitar

Door-shaped plush toy

Plastic bottle in a shape of a cigarette

Door-knob that turns on the stationary bicycle

Notebook-shaped pillow

A lamp that projects bible verses

Window with a magnifying glass

Headphones that have a constant noise of airplanes flying over my head

See, was that hard? No, it was easier than a frog-shaped cake. And that's why I think it's useless.

This comment and your comment are both examples of creativity, since we 'created' something new. And who gives a shit?

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