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10 things I learned conducting a design workshop

50+ aspirants have graduated from this local home-grown design workshop and so far the impact has been phenomenal

A photo of a plant in the foreground with a design workshop virutal event going on in a laptop in the background

I recently wrapped up the second edition of “Learn Digital Design” workshop. This is a virtual learning platform I established in the winter of 2021 and have conducted two of these workshops so far. More than 50 aspiring designers have graduated from this local home-grown learning initiative. So far, the impact has been phenomenal. I won’t claim I have prepared the next generation of designers (definitely I haven’t), but I have managed to ignite a spark, shown them a way to design as a viable career option.

Design workshops, in general are notorious. All these design courses have ever taught people is how to use the tool, be it Photoshop, Sketch or even Figma. One of the biggest revelations to my participants was how little this course focused on how to teach you draw flawless rectangles, but helped you guide though a process that made your reasoning of deciding to design something in a specific way. Two of my participants were let down because the course did not match their expectation, but the rest were all very very excited to learn the fundamentals and apply it to their process.

So here is my net takeaway from the workshop.

1. All thanks to the pandemic

I wanted to do this type of design workshop two years ago. Calculating the cost of lecture hall, equipments, lunch and refreshments — it had all come out to be quite expensive. I knew people would not want to pay a fortune for this. Thankfully, right at the time when the Covid pandemic was surging, I got the idea to run these virtually.

I think that was a major win: making that decision when the market had finally understood virtual learning was thing and paying for online classes was a reasonable decision. It was easy to reduce the overheads, and managing time and expectations was easy. Participants were joining in from Gulmi and Biratnagar, something they probably wouldn’t have done had this been a physical event. The only “drawback” there was that some participants were extremely quiet, almost like back-benchers in school. Getting them to speak was hard, but overall, the experience was seamless.

2. Design is an acquired skill

You are not born a designer. I’ve heard artists say shit things like you’re either born with it or not. I don’t think that applies to product designers. We are analyzing and understanding data to make decisions. We’re not here to build the perfect color palette or show off some sick typography skills. Our decisions to use a certain color or a font is dependent upon what we’re building and who we’re building it for. This workshop showed me that people from all walks of life can come in, learn a skill and master it.

I’ve had had climate change researchers and government service employees come in; I’ve had hardcore marketing people come in and walk away with a little more idea on design. So I think everyone can learn design, and it is an acquired skill. You don’t have to be born a designer — or you need any previous knowledge to kickstart a design career.

3. You can only learn design by doing

One major feedback I’ve received in both editions of the design workshop is that the lectures were too long. Yes, I agree. There was just so much to cover in 8 one-hour classes that I have victimized my participants by bombarding with too much knowledge in too little time. My participants have suggested to reduce the listening bits and increase the “doing” bits. That’s one feedback I am personally working on to make the next session even more interactive. Because the best works I’ve seen designers do is when they start building a product. Second edition was largely successful because we were able to ideate, develop and test five mobile apps mockups.

4. Design alone is never enough

Yes. Even I was at first amazed that’ it’s never just design. You cannot silo design works and not worry how product management, project management, development and quality assurance impacts or influences your design. So it was very hard at first for me to decide what to include and what to exclude from the course work. It was impossible to talk about design deliverables without showing them the relationship of their work with agile product development, or help them decide a feature without knowing how developers will develop the feature. This was a challenge, but I decided these things need to be talked about — design is a teamwork and stakeholders’ involvement is unavoidable, so I decided these things need to be included rather than not.

5. Design workshop is just the stepping stone

This I tell to everybody. A course completion is not going to load you with everything you need to become market ready and start churning out awesome designs next day onwards. The course material of this workshop was designed to help them understand what all does it take to become a designer and the scope of learning they need to pursue. Workshops are like a trekking map, shows you how far the summit is and how to get there. It won’t airlift you to the top. Establishing this expectation early on was important. When participants knew what to expect next, they would go looking for it, and achieve it and so on.

6. Design tools are arbitrary

Like I mentioned above, some participants came to the workshop hoping they’d master using Figma. They were disappointed, but I think it really does not matter! When I was giving examples, I used a mix of Sketch, Adobe XD and Figma, and told them the differences and similarities up front. When they had to turn in assignment, there was no restriction on which tool they could use (funny enough, everyone used Figma). I would like to tell this to all designers who will be attending future workshops: it doesn’t matter! Tools are arbitrary; it will take you less than a week to switch a tool completely and start using the other. Design is a knowledge than a tooling skill, so be aware when you’re walking in to a course or workshop.

7. Self motivation is best

The first session of the workshop was a mix of individuals who enrolled themselves and those who were sent over by their bosses. While it definitely helped increase the class size, I was disappointed to learn that not everyone shared the same motivation and zeal and they were there simply because they had to. They were mostly the said “back-benchers” — however, this comes with a disclaimer that not everyone were like that; but there were a select few who wished they’d rather be elsewhere. I had no “corporate groups” for the second session, and I could see a striking difference between the groups — the latter was more proactive, completed assignments on time and asked questions whoever they needed to, including a Slack channel I created to engage the participants for rest of the week.

8. Online learning is expensive

I was thrilled to receive a participant feedback that they chose my workshop over pricey online courses in Coursera or Udemy. A generic design course should cost you hundreds of dollars, and we Nepalis have had this problem forever of being able to pay for these courses forever. Also, the dollar to rupee conversion comes into play making a moderately priced course becoming awfully expensive when converted to rupees. I think I was able to overcome this problem by providing almost the same quality in a fraction of the cost — and people could pay directly from their local banks. This I found out was a major factor influenced many people to sign up for this workshop.

9. After hours works for everyone

I had originally scheduled the courses in the morning, hoping people would find learning easier to the mind in the morning. However, turned out reality was different — most of my people were working individuals who needed to work during daylight hours. That’s why I pushed the course to a sweet 8 pm timing — a time when some of them would still be unwinding while some would have already had dinner and would have time to kill. This really helped us even if the workshops went longer than 100 minutes because the only thing everyone was doing after the workshop was going to bed.

10. Professionals cannot be treated like students

It is a bad idea to treat working individuals like students. Yes, assignments are there, speaking up in the class is there — but you really need to respect where these people come from. Most of them are already working respectable jobs, so there is no point penalizing them if they don’t show very “student”-like characteristics, for eg. Not showing up or not turning in in the homework. Also, the second session happened in the middle of the deadly second wave. Two of my participants caught Covid and their families did too, the wisest thing to do is to help them follow up later, which we did and it turned out to be okay.

The workshops are currently on hold because of a situation in my family. The UI Design workshop and the UX Design workshop (that was cancelled in June 2021) will be back in the winter of 2022, and I hope to continue them there onwards every six months. If you want to sign up for one of these workshops, please use a form at the bottom of this page and I will get back to you when I announce the course dates in the winter.

I am also thinking of starting a few other courses mostly on product management and marketing communications, but that will take time. Until then, keep learning and stay safe!