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Sorry, I can’t teach you how to design

I cannot teach design because it’s not something that I can train you over a session. I won’t give you instructions and you’ll manage to pull off a million dollar interface in a week. It doesn’t work that way.'

A photo of a mentor teaching his students

“Dai malai design sikai dinus na…” (Brother, please teach me how to design.) This is something I get a lot. Especially from young “bhais” just out of college. Their bright willingness does really inspire me. I’d love to teach them design.

Unfortunately, I cannot teach anyone how to design. I cannot teach design because it’s not something that I can train you over a session. I won’t give you instructions and you’ll manage to pull off a million dollar interface in a week. It doesn’t work that way. I cannot tell you what colors to use and which font to use; because my choice of fonts and colors may not fit your requirements. I may tell you purple is a good color, but you’re not building a UI that needs the color purple.

I may tell you “Circular” is a good font, but it may not be free to use. So you see, teaching you how to design is not something I can do. But there is something else that I can do for you… Though I will not be able to tell you “how” to design; the good news is that I can definitely tell you how to “design well”. You see, the word “well” is the keyword here, and using certain tips, tricks and formula, you may be actually be able to design that million dollar UI in question. So, how do you design well? Let me give you 10 pointers on how you can design well.

Number 1: Unlearn

Unlearning is the first step to learn better. I’ve dealt with a lot of engineering grads who have some experience in design because their final year projects requiring them to put together a working prototype. I’ve helped many of them polish their UI’s. You see, basic photoshop is good enough to secure the needed grades for your finals, but the tools you use in college are going to be useless when you’re out in the real world. So the best thing to do is to start fresh from a clean slate. Be open to unlearning everything you’ve learned so far. “Hamro college to sir le yesto bhannu bhaeko thiyo” is a dangerous thing to keep believing: drop it. Now.

Number 2: Don’t indulge in a rat-race of Trying to Keep Up

Learning design is like learning how to drive a car; the art of hitting your clutches and accelerators together. Once you know how to get your clutches right, that’s where it doesn’t matter whether you drive a Maruti 800 or a Maserati. You see, it’s going to be painfully difficult to keep up with design trends. Design trends change every year. They’re like runway fashion: baggy pants may be cool one year but they’ll go out of fashion next year. Don’t go running after rounded corners and gradient buttons: because they’ll go out of fashion. Try to spend time how to design functional buttons; then it will not matter whether you use candy gradient or just decide to go brutally flat.

Number 3: Read, that’s what all wise people do

Think books are of no use once you’re out of college? Not a chance! Books are your best friends, forever. You won’t find a life-long friend like books in your life. It’s imperative that you keep reading. Once you start reading you will gather knowledge, and only then you will know your call to action. This knowing will help you shape your understanding of design things. We’ve always made sure we work with people how learn, and thus know how to design. We generally hire designers who have learning as one of life priorities. And you see this is important because the moment you stop learning, you’re dying — said dai Robert Kiyosaki.

Number 4: Solve problems, not build screens

This should be #1 but I’m putting it in #4. It’s okay for customers or non-designers to believe that design is basically putting the pixels together. But you as a designer should know that design goes well beyond the pixels. What shows up in pixels is the end product of all the designing you’ve done behind the doors. Being a designer, It’s insanely hard not to thing in visuals but once you know what problems you are solving visuals will naturally arrive to you. I could go on and on about solving problems part, but for now, I’ll emphasize to think less in visuals and more “how to help User X solve Problem Y using Approach Z”.

Number 5: Make plans

One of the many instances I’ve failed in life is when I’ve not done enough planning. Once I invited 6 friends but ordered only one pizza and six wings making everyone frustrated. Don’t do that — try figuring out what you will do before you start doing. Draw on a notebook, doodle dirtily, don’t be afraid to not understand what you scribbled three weeks ago. That’s fine. We’ve enforced low-fed mockups for all projects we are doing in office. We are able to turn around all the red-lined hi-fed mockups in less than a week when we’ve spent three weeks on low-feds. Planning is not just important, it’s simply efficient and saves you time.

Number 6: Educate the client

A lot of designers think clients are evil. Clients don’t understand and clients are simply evil. The endless memes floating around the internet painting bad picture of the generic client doesn’t justify the fact they’re actually looking for your help rather than making your life difficult. The fact is they behave in odd ways because they don’t understand. Yes, clients need something “tomorrow” but it’s you, the good designer who should be telling them how they should work on something viable. If they need it tomorrow, you can tell them you can send a document with ideas and scribbles tomorrow, but it would need more time to flesh out the details. It’s not that hard.

Number 7: Experiment Ideas

Creating ideas is free, it doesn’t cost a dime to think new and innovative ideas. Do not limit yourself to certain tool, technology or belief. Let the ideas run free. It’s okay to create the most unrealistic UI but let yourself run unbridled. Do not think “eh… this cannot be done because of XYZ factor.” Factors can be considered later, probably in production phase; but if you don’t let your design phase run wild, you will never push yourself.

Number 8: Say no to store-bought readymades

To young and budding designers, Bootstrap, or any other frameworks is toxic. An aspiring chef would never pick up readymade microwaveable food packets from the grocery. If you intend to become a good chef, you would first take a moment to understand what goes into cooking a delicious meal. So don’t use Bootstrap unless you know know to cook. First understand the basics. If you don’t know what a flex or a display-inline does, then you’re not eligible to use Bootstrap. Keep away. Besides, this thing tastes goddamn awful! Tried it once, will never try again. Ever!

Number 9: Forget about remaining “just a designer”

This is true, but often not discussed. You cannot be a designer and choose just to be a designer because of your responsibilities. Without the right word-smithing, right understanding of the market, the users, business goals, photography — you will have to wear each of these hats and you don’t have the liberty or declining to wear them when needed. Without the right wordings, your designs are useless. Without the understanding of correct product-market-fit, your designs will not work. So it’s important you accept your responsibility of making sure your design addresses the need which goes above and beyond putting together pixels.

Number 10: Love, Live and Laugh

Right now I’m reading “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work” by the two top execs of Basecamp and they emphasize why it’s important to have a life outside your work. If you’re working endlessly it means two things — either you have developed an unhealthy obsession with your life which is slowly killing your social life; or you’re simply inefficient and need to retrospect on what you’ve been doing wrong. You cannot produce good design under stress. If you’re prototyping for thirteen hours straights, I’m pretty sure your prototypes are gonna come out messed up. Chill. Life’s short — enjoy whenever you can.