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Ask HN: Independently learning design?
93 points by nicholjs on Feb 10, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 40 comments
I'm a self-taught programmer (iOS and some back end web). Here on hacker news and also on other forums and startup news sites, I always see information on learning to code. The standard routes are codeacademy, certain recommended books, types of projects to get started out on, etc. As recent as yesterday I saw a post on properly learning javascript. It was inspiring, but more so, it went in to such detail on a 6 week method one could follow.

Are the same sources out there to learn design? Books, apps, certain forums that designers look to (akin to stackoverflow)?

Go to art school, like I did. Hahahah. No, I'm kidding, don't. But do become educated about the past. Buy some books. I recommend starting with Paul Rand http://www.amazon.com/Paul-Rand-Steven-Heller/dp/0714839949 I love that book. I'll never let go of my copy.

The most important thing is not to focus too much on current trends. They're mostly bullshit that will be forgotten fast. The reason I say study the past is because everything old that has been documented is actually worth studying. It's "stood the test of time," if you will.

I think a lot of designers today focus too much on what's happening NOW, reading today's blogs and knowing the trends and whatever. So they go make things with an extremely narrow perspective and think they're designing when really they're retracing the only thing they know.

People don't know nearly enough on say, 50's modernism. Or the Bauhaus aesthetic. Watch the Eameses' films. Know the greats. Respect them. Broaden your awareness. Graphic design was huge before computers.

Then apply the broad ideas you absorb from that to the medium you're working in. That's my advice. There's no Stack Overflow for design. It doesn't work the same way as programming. You're not going to become a good designer by visiting websites.

> There's no Stack Overflow for design.

There are actually two stack exchange sites for design:

- http://ux.stackexchange.com/

- http://graphicdesign.stackexchange.com

I've used both and found them very useful.

> It doesn't work the same way as programming. You're not going to become a good designer by visiting websites.

No one becomes a solid programmer by visiting websites either. It's about practice with a focused effort on improving, just like any other skill. I would be amazed if design were any different.

I'm aware of those, I've been to both. I agree that ux.stackexchange has something to offer. graphicdesign.stackexchange is basically an Adobe support site.

Programming problems are much easier to solve with a Google search. In programming, the state of the art is the most important state. Nobody really reads or studies historical code from obsolete technology. Sure, there are things you won't learn without a good mentor or teacher.

My intention wasn't to claim you can become a good programmer by visiting websites, I was just trying to express that learning design is a much more offline experience, and OP was asking for websites he should visit.

Brilliant advice here. I often see similar questions about photography, and the advice given always centres around learning technical things about your camera or photoshop. Nobody ever mentions looking at photographs, visiting exhibitions, talking to artists, finding peer groups, learning about history, etc etc etc.

You do need to combine this broadening and growing education of taste with a technical understanding of simplicity and communication. Understand that design is essentially just communication. Realise that you may have to start doing extra, even "wasteful" work, in order to prioritise ease and pleasure of use. This seems to be an upsetting idea to many developers, but I adore it. What's better feedback of your interface/design/object than someone saying "of course that's how it works"?

Thanks for the advice.

On Stack Overflow: I understand that design is a different ballgame than code. However, a Q&A site geared towards helping with the tools of the trade (photoshop, illustrator) might be useful, right?

It would be, in learning tools. As a designer, it took even me a while to see the design as a separate concept from the means to invoke it—it's a very easy mistake to make, and it renders you completely blind to the slant of the particular proverbial hammer you're using. One way to get over this is to use many tools, the other, experience in many mediums; but neither can be gained without time spent. The only way to get better at design is to design, preferably in many projects, in many disciplines.

Exactly. OP, by all means learn the tools available today; you'll never be commissioned to paint a website in gouache. Just beware: it's easy to get locked in to using Illustrator and only ever coming up with things you can make in Illustrator, for example. That makes for a shitty designer.

Nothing wrong with gouache though, in fact you can learn a lot about color just messing around with some paint for a while. A lot more than you'll learn from pixels.

My advice in a nutshell: play with a lot of different mediums and look at a lot of different work if you really care about being a designer.

http://hackdesign.org/ is trying to cover this exact niche (I'm following along as a designer just out of curiosity, and it's pretty cool).

Mark Boulton's A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web (Five Simple Steps) http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0956174019/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_f-cg... is also a good start.

There are the usual suspects such as Nettuts, Smashing Mag, Core77, Creative Review, Design Observer (though that's more intense).

For web typography, try http://kaikkonendesign.fi/typography/ and the older (but based on a lauded print book for print type design) http://www.webtypography.net/

Just for the insight into the nutty world of type design, I like the MyFonts newsletter: http://www.myfonts.com/newsletters/cc/201301.html

If you want to get more into IXD, Cooper has a good list: http://www.cooper.com/journal/2013/01/self-study-interaction...

HackDesign looks awesome!

In my experience the very best way to develop design chops is to get a sense of the kind of design you like, and then let that influence the look and feel of your own projects.

At first you will be copying other peoples' style and that is okay. As you proceed and improve you'll start doing your own thing. Great artists steal, etc.

Of course, without your own projects, you'll get nowhere, as has been pointed out.

Design it Yourself is a pretty good read: http://amzn.to/UV6jFV

As an aside, there's very little of the camaraderie/collaboration you're probably used to from the hacker world in the design world. (Though http://hackdesign.org/ looks rad!) No one has written The Cathedral and the Bazaar for design yet. Know that upfront and you won't be surprised when designers act more afraid than excited at the prospect of unskilled hackers trying their hand at design.

Don't buy into the suggestion you need to worship 'the masters' of graphic design to learn to do your own thing. The web is not just paper that you can click, it's a new medium. You'll learn as much studying design on the web as you will from books.

I'm in the same boat. I'm not very good but I'm starting to get better at design. Here are some tips, which might be useful. None of these are affiliate links and I'm not associated with any of them, if that matters.

- It's cliche, but read "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald Norman [1]. It gives you a good sense of design's place in the greater world. The best design principles are as at home in a product development firm as they are in the software world.

- I own "Design for Hackers" by David Kadavy and I think it's pretty good. The content may or may not be "obvious" depending on your skill level, but he phrases things in a way that is understandable and reassuring to the engineering set. [2]

- There's a guy on HN (Jarrod Drysdale) who produced an eBook called "Bootstrapping Design". I haven't pulled the trigger on a purchase yet, but I need to. I've read his sample chapter and am subscribed to his newsletter and I think he's an excellent coach. [3]

- I keep a bookmark folder called "design inspiration" and when I find really cool sites or apps I save them here. You might also want to keep a clipping diary or something where you can keep notes for yourself about what you like and don't like about certain things.

- There's nothing wrong with imitation, within reason. EVERYONE stands on the shoulders of giants and the guy who designed that awesome site or app probably started by shamelessly copying existing stuff. In fact, I recommend that you spend some time trying to EXACTLY copy things you like. You'll start to get a feel for how to accomplish certain affects and, in general, you'll get design a little more "in the fingers".

- http://ux.stackexchange.com/

- Have a project. Have a project. HAVE A PROJECT. It's very difficult to just "learn design", just as it's very difficult to just "learn programming". Unless you're just a natural autodidact, you can read all the tutorials and books and whatever but, when it comes time to do something on your own, you'll just be sitting there staring at a blinking cursor (or an empty Photoshop document) unless you have some place to start.

I hope this all helps, and don't be afraid to share stuff on HN with us. There are plenty of folks who would love to give you positive criticism and feedback.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Design-Everyday-Things-Donald-Norman/d...

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Design-Hackers-Reverse-Engineering-Bea...

[3] http://bootstrappingdesign.com/

I'm Jarrod, the guy behind Bootstrapping Design. Sorry I'm late to this thread, and thank you for sharing the book!

There are a couple of other design ebooks worth a look:

Sacha Greif's Step By Step UI Design: http://sachagreif.com/ebook/

Nathan Barry's ebooks: http://nathanbarry.com/app-design-handbook/ http://nathanbarry.com/webapps/

If I can answer any questions, leave a comment here or send me an email: hello <at> bootstrappingdesign {dot} /com/

Hey, thanks for mentioning "Design for Hackers" (I wrote it).

I'm a bit late to the thread, but if anyone wants to get a sampling of the approach that I take to explaining design check out some sample articles I linked to on http://designforhackers.com

I talk about design more abstractly than most, but I try to keep it entertaining. More than anything I want you to see differently.

I also occasionally send out emails. If you sign up on that site I already have some queued up for new subscribers.

Sacha Greif also sends out some good emails: http://sachagreif.com and of course there's http://hackdesign.org (I'll even be doing a lesson on there eventually)

Really good advice. Having a project is by far the most important part.

Also if you don't have a feed reader already, get one. It's really useful to subscribe to a few feeds about any area you want to familiarize yourself with. And then every day you get a litte kick to keep your mind focused on that topic.

Great advice! Exactly how I get better at design. It's actually really hard to exactly copy good design works. It made me start paying more attention to small little things, like space, font size, proportion, etc.

Amazing tips. Thanks a lot. And I can totally sympathize with having a project to learn. That's how I learned to code, and that's how I teach students. Good to hear that design can be done in the same philosophy.

Great list of resources! My blog post today was actually addressing how my design skills are lacking so this couldn't be more relevant to me, thanks for the share!

http://hackdesign.org/ is what I am using

Hack design is really awesome. It goes down from what is design, understanding design on everything we do, to typography and next on.

Exactly what an advise is.

One method that I've found useful is to completely re-create somebody else's design in Photoshop. Find a website that you really like, take a screenshot of it, paste it into Photoshop, and recreate the whole thing.

The benefit of doing this is three-fold. For one, you are more than likely not going to functionally know how to re-create some effects which will force you to go out and read targeted tutorials. Second, you will notice the subtleties of the design that you are unlikely to notice when just looking, which will help build your design intuition. Lastly, you won't waste time trying to come up with an idea and failing through the execution; you will start with something great and end with something (hopefully) great.

Clearly this isn't the way to learn the creative side of design, but it will build up your skill-set such that you will actually be able to execute when you have a vision.

I can vouch for this method. I've been coding since childhood and developing websites for the past ~15 years, but I never quite figured out how to get designs in my head on to paper (or into Photoshop). Instead, I spent years designing websites by recreating individual elements from sites that I liked and frankensteining those elements together to create something.. respectable.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, I opened Photoshop one day and everything just clicked, and has been ever since. I can't say for sure if it's from working with so many different designs or styles, or being exposed to them, or just recognizing the styles that I preferred, but it does happen eventually.

If you're intentionally trying to learn design and you put in the time to consciously recognize what you're looking at and how it works, I bet that light bulb moment would happen much quicker.

It's all about metacognition. You need to look at the designed things in your life and understand WHY you like or dislike them. Look at the spacing of text, the font choices, the color choices, the contrast between fonts/colors/etc, the shape of things. Design is also how things work, not just how they look.

The only necessary book on design, at only 46 pages, is "Notes on Graphic Design And Visual Communication."

I have met AIGA award designers and Internet design celebrities who don't know some of the basics laid out in this short book.

It's probably the only handwritten book you'll ever read: http://www.amazon.com/Crisp-Graphic-Design-Visual-Communicat...

I have started out with Graphics Design course[1] at Berkeley Extension in SF downtown (good for people who work in the bay area).

It's once a week, I enjoy learning the very basic elements of design like understanding and using shapes.

Other than that, keep reading books and ux.stackexchange.

In my day job, I work as a software engineer.

[1]: http://extension.berkeley.edu/spos/graphicps.html

Subscribe to dribbble's popular RSS feed. You'd be surprised how good your taste becomes just by being surrounded by it. Also, you'll start to pick up details about how they do it. You just study it at the pixel level and try to replicate in photoshop. That's the best way I've found...

Here's a similar Ask HN from a few years back:


I recommend Before&After (a magazine and a couple of associated books)


Having self-taught myself a lot about design, let me give you a few pointers.

The number one rule is that you have to start paying attention to the design of everything. Don Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" is a good start on developing this, and you really shouldn't miss it. But this applies to everything: when something's nice, figure out why. Notice typefaces, and form a mental library so you can identify them.

It's a bit of an odd path, but I'll also suggest, since you're interested in interactive systems, reading several great Human Interface Guidelines. Apple's OS X ones are my favorite (You might even want to get an older version, because they're a bit more general), but the Nokia Meego ones are worth a look too. Most others are too mediocre to teach you anything though.

Some other books I have to suggest: Bringhurtst's "The Elements of Typographic Style." Definately read some kind of lighter treatment of type first, so you know humanists from geometrics, serifs from sans, high and low contrast, and so forth, but if you want to really get it, this is the book. If you go in knowing that some of what he's saying is opinion, this is the book you need to read.

The Universal Principles of Design: It's really not the best book, and there's some things, like the readability research, that's actually just complete crap, but it's an alright, quick overview of a few dozen concepts. If you understand the concepts in it, skip it, but as a first intro, you could do worse.

The Humane Interface: Other than Raskin's whining about the Canon Cat not being a hit for slightly too long, it's got some interesting concepts that all designers should understand.

Thoughtful Interaction Design: This one's very theoretical, and very heavy reading; it's really about a way to view the design process, and how it proceeds, more than it is about how to design. Don't read it until you've done a few projects.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information: This is a great book on presenting information. Just ignore the ridiculous stuff about minimizing ink, and think of it as minimizing the cognitive load.

For a quick overview of a couple interesting concepts, you might try method.ac, reading the wikipedia pages on Fitt's Law and http://worrydream.com/#!/MagicInk and trolling through http://informationarchitects.net/blog/.

Stay away from ux.stackexchange.com, news.layervault.com, PSDtuts, et. c. It's almost all crap, about tools rather than actual designing. In general (very much in general), if a blog post on design is short, it's crap, 95% of the time.

http://littlebigdetails.com shows some really exceptional examples of ergonomic design.

Would you mind giving a link to the post about JavaScript that you mentioned? I would really appreciate that.


Thank you very much! :)

That post was amazing. Even the related ones he wrote on Backbone.js and Node.js are worth going through.

Exactly my thoughts! Very well written guides (tutorials?). Thanks a lot again for the link.

step 1: Go through lot of tutorials in Photoshop, replicate different type of effects, patterns, actions.

step 2a: move on to Illustrator, once you start needed quality images.


step 2b: start using your html/css knowledge with your new found design skills, to start making websites

after that you are pretty much done.

I mean no offense here, but this isn't design. This is parroting visual effects.

  Inoculate yourself against bad design and subscribe to Jakob Nielsen  newsletter.

maybe you can check out http://psd.tutsplus.com/

a long long time ago, i wrote a post here on hn on how to get started on web design [0], but since you already have the technical bit, you can just skip ahead to the Design part.

That said, I don't think that many "howto design" books are all that interesting (and the best design books are mystifying in a way which defies reason), but you will find books about the nuts and bolts of design which are very good even if you're totally green to the field. The other most important thing is that you keep making things. Even little things. Make them and show them to people and get feedback. Lather, rinse and repeat.

Anyhow... You will want to specifically look for books on Typography, Color, Layout, Photography, Contrast/Scale, and Poster Design. Poster Design is actually sui generis despite appearing to be a subset of graphic design.[1]

My belief is strongly on the side of typography being the most crucial skill a designer needs (since its use of space/contrast/layout) is basically design in a micro level, rather than on the macro (page) level. The skills you pick up in typography do translate over, but it takes lots of practice. Since illustrators are readily hopping into many design jobs, our best bet is to differentiate ourselves with our exhaustive knowledge of typography.

A great book on "Book Typography" is Cyrus Highsmith's Inside Paragraphs.

A good book on "Display Typography" is Wolfgang Weingart's My Way to Typography.

Three good books on "Typographic Fundamentals" are: Ellen Lupton's Thinking With Type, John Kane's Type Primer and Erik Spiekermann's Stop Stealing Sheep (and find out how type works).

One excellent "Typographic Reference" is Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style.

One good book about "Design Process" is Nancy Skolos & Tom Wedell's Graphic Design Process.

No design book suggestion will be complete without mentioning Emil Ruder's Typographie, Josef Muller-Brockman's Grid Systems and Armin Hofmann's Graphic Design Manual.

That said, a good starter is layout/formmaking Christian Leborg's "Visual Grammar," part of Princeton Architectural Press' Design Briefs series[2] (all of which are good for skimming the next time you find yourself in a bookstore/amazon showroom).

Finally, I never realized it until I made a joke about it, but you can summarize many of the principles of good UI Design in PEP 20, which is to say that if you care about API Design and Code Cleanliness and all that stuff, then you probably already have the right attitude towards graphic/visual design. Take those principles and apply them visually when you make anything or use them as a rough litmus test for your designs then break the rules as you see fit.

Have fun! Relax. Don't Panic!

[0]: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1605228 [1]: While poster design employs many of the same structural techniques as Capital-D Design, it has its own rules which are useful to know, but above all it is free to play with scale in a way which is difficult in web and book design. Still, knowing about it will inform your own work and probably make it wayyyy more fun. [2]: http://papress.com/html/book.list.page.tpl?action=seriessear...

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