“I’m not creative enough.” / “I wasn’t born with the artistic gene.”

“I don’t know how to start. Everything I read about design confuses me more.”

“I recognize good design when I see it, but everything I design looks bad.”

The answers are always the same. I write about design specifically for developers, and have even written a book on the topic. I talk to developers about design a lot.

Developers want to design—that’s apparent from conversations. However, many are confused about how to start learning. And even worse, some developers don’t think they are capable in the first place.

But that’s not even remotely true. Design is a skill anyone can learn. You don’t have to be born with a special talent, or acquire a wealth of knowledge before you can design something beautiful.

Developers are creative

“I’m not creative enough.” / “I wasn’t born with the artistic gene.”

You might consider coding to be logical and analytical, while design is creative and artistic. That’s completely inaccurate. Coding is every bit as creative as visual design.

I’ve seen code that was art. I know you have too. The kind of code that just seems so brilliantly creative—a solution to a problem that was too elegant to believe or a new technique that completely changed the way people work.

Programmers are creative. When you are debugging code or writing tests, you are imagining possible outcomes and causes. That’s creativity—the ability to imagine.

Which means you already have the creativity you need to design.

The only problem is you haven’t learned to be creative in the ways necessary for design. You are creative in problem solving, but maybe not in visual communication. But that’s ok. For now, what’s important is that you know you are capable of creativity. You can learn to express your ideas visually, just like you learned to express them in code.

Stop reading design education that’s intended for experienced designers

“I don’t know how to start. Everything I read about design confuses me more.”

You’ve read design books, blogs, and/or tutorials, but you don’t understand how to use that information. None of it seems to help you make a design, or demonstrate what your very first step should be.

Learning to code, you install libraries and a text editor, then start typing. The tutorial teaches you what each line of code means, and introduces concepts one at a time.

If learning design seems more difficult, it’s because the tutorials/books you are reading are intended for experienced designers, not people just starting to learn. (And often, even if a resource claims to be written for developers, it still covers advanced topics too soon.)

Would you try to teach someone learning to code about OOP or TDD before they understood what a variable or a function is? Of course not! It would be impossible.

So don’t make that mistake while learning design. Don’t read about advanced topics like responsive design, color theory, or typographic genres before you have grasped the basics.

When you try to learn design, if you find yourself getting lost, take a step back and try to find a source for more basic topics. (I’d suggest that the most important topics to start learning are alignment, proximity, and visual hierarchy. My book could be a starting point for you.)

Your designs will look bad at first, but keep practicing

“I recognize good design when I see it, but everything I design looks bad.”

Look back at a sample of your code from just a year ago. I’m sure you could find ways to improve it. In a year’s time, you’ve practiced programming and you’ve increased your skill. You also have new knowledge.

Was the first program you ever wrote from scratch incredibly elegant, or was it buggy and gnarly?

Starting out with design is exactly the same. Your early designs will be ugly and gnarly. But each design will be better than the one before it.

Design is a skill. You have to design things to get better at designing things. It’s exactly the same as learning to code.

You have to be willing to let yourself make mistakes. Know that the first few times you try to design something, it’s going to be flawed. That’s ok. Look closely at those flaws and learn how to fix them. You’ll get better at it.

Practicing design is not as much work as you’re thinking

Practicing design sounds like a lot of work. After all, if it’s just practice, you might think you’re not actually producing real work.

Practicing on fake projects is great, but if that feels like a waste of time, practice on a real project. Redesign your personal blog, or finally design a concept for that side project you keep putting off. Or, take some minor feature of a bigger project and redesign it. Just do something.

You don’t have to make 100 websites before you get good at design. (Who has the time for that?) It happens in small steps. However, if you don’t start taking steps, you’ll never get better.

Design's Iron Fist ebook

Get the free design ebook that's inspired tens of thousands of designers.

Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.

Enter your email address and I'll send it to you along with my newsletter. You'll get 1 email per week on average. More details here.

* Email required. No spam, ever. Privacy Policy.