Many writers in the design industry treat visual design like a family member they’ve disowned. But visual design is more relevant than ever.
Design writers love teaching darling topics like design systems and responsive design, but visual design is rarely discussed.
Often, when people do teach basic visual design topics, they gloss over these ideas quickly. Even when teaching new designers.
If you pay attention to what’s happening in our industry, you will see some pretty crazy things. Experienced designers recommending brief blog posts and step-by-step tutorials as the way to learn about foundational principles like color and typography. Design programs that omit visual design completely. Entire catalogs of design books that completely ignore visual design.
But even when you do find it, the quality of visual design teaching is really poor. You see a talking head, and a quick, abstract description of a principle.
Or a list of steps you can copy. You can find a tutorial for anything. You an even pay a monthly subscription to access all the tutorials you could ever want. You an learn every prototyping tool, design software, and code framework.
But new designers struggle to apply what they learn.
They learn steps to create someone else’s design, and don’t know how to use principles and techniques to create their own new design.
They learn high-level concepts and think they’ve mastered things like typography, but the way they use fonts in their real designs is lacking.
Senior designers are failing design students.
And it’s because the people teaching design are bored with basic principles. To someone who’s been using a principle for 10 years, it’s easy. And they teach it like it’s easy.
And they forget how hard it actually was to learn.
Instead, they get excited about teaching the latest topic or coining their own new design movement.
So we end up with really poor quality design education for the foundational ideas, and really high quality education for the advanced, hot topics.
This leads to what we already see everywhere in the design industry: a tsunami of new designers who are unhireable. Who aren’t qualified to work on real projects.
And, equally bad, an increasing shortage of capable designers on the whole, as more senior designers transition into team leadership, start their own businesses, and even cease doing daily design work.
The design industry is enamored with fancy-sounding strategies, and many of them are completely worthwhile.
But we’ve forgotten that in order to use those strategies, designers need a foundation in visual design.
You can’t create an atomic design system without visual design skill. You can’t create a responsive, mobile-first design without visual design skill. You can’t make an insightful UX flow part of a production app without visual design skill.
While design is a lot more than pretty pictures, visuals are still a critical part of what designers do. Aesthetics affect usability but also connect with people on an emotional level. Visuals affect subconscious trust, persuade users to take action, and inspire.
The design industry has forgotten our history.
So many new designers struggle in the trenches when they could be learning from our experience.
So, here is a reminder for all of us.
Every time you read about some fancy new design strategy, remember that it wouldn’t be possible without visual design and the boring, old principles we designers use every hour of every day.
Advanced strategies like responsive design certainly make the world better.
But design and designers owe every ounce of our value to visual design.
And if you’re a new designer struggling to get noticed and make your way in this profession, hit pause on the fancy strategies you see plastered across every design blog, and focus on building up your visual design skills.
Fill your portfolio with great visual design work.
That’s how you will get hired and start landing the exciting projects you crave.
By the way, you might think I have a scummy ulterior motive to say this because I teach visual design course. But, I’m not advocating visual design because I have a product to sell. I made a product about visual design because I believe in it. If you’re a new designer, even if you don’t buy my course, I hope you learn visual design somehow!
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.
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