On Shaping a Design Education

Reflections of an autodidact.

When we say someone is self-taught, we mean that their skill has been acquired apart from any formal education. The term connotes initiative, dedication, and raw talent – particularly attractive attributes in the field of digital design, where romantic tales of garage startups, bootstrapped bands of digital pioneers, and fables of failure and determination are our industry’s lore. Our founding fathers were college dropouts seeking new frontiers.

The term “self-taught,” however, is slightly problematic. 

For one, it implies an isolated individualism that isn’t realistic, which might mislead many an industrious would-be designer. The term obscures the reality that we never really teach ourselves, but are always learning from others – whether or not we acknowledge our pupilage. Ability isn’t honed in a vacuum, but is instead developed through exposure to others' work, whether we're looking at an iPhone or driving a MINI Cooper or reading Designer News. We may celebrate or deny these influences; either way, we're responding to others.

And secondly, the term implies that some of us are self-taught and some of us aren’t. It distinguishes those who have been formally trained in design from those who have gained their experience working in the field. This distinction that has its uses, yet I would argue that formal education is one way to create a framework for the informality of true education. Though syllabi are followed from semester to semester, which ideas, books, projects, or conversations actually form us? Which take on lasting meaning in our lives? Which come to define our sense of good work and how to do it? Could any of these be predicted? And don’t we all play a role in crafting what’s meaningful to us, if only to be receptive to our experience? Education is unpredictable, accidental, gathered as we go.

 

The painting A Printer's Workshop, by Abrahem Bosse
"A Printer's Workshop," by Abrahem Bosse

 

What’s more important than the contrast between formal and informal types of education, then, is the fact that we’re always learning regardless of our circumstances and can choose to shape our context to our benefit as designers. In other words, the ability to frame your education – to learn how to learn, as we often hear – is the trump card of abilities, essential to any context in which we find ourselves. So take hold of your intellectual destiny! Write your own syllabi! Make endless reading lists, assign yourself projects, work in places where you're given time and space to learn. Take notes, compare notes with others. Be a sponge. The world is your classroom. The next project will teach you new lessons.

We learn from others, and we learn from our experience, and whether we learn at all depends on our receptivity to each. To be self-taught, then is simply to take the initiative to shape our education. Here are some considerations to that end:

  1. Keep good company. We’re forever picking up the perspectives, habits, techniques, mannerisms, coping strategies, wisdom, stories, and language of the people around us. These people may be other students, coworkers, family members, teachers, masters in the field, and this influence may be firsthand – through conversation, observation, critique – or it may be mediated through video, book, hologram, etc. This is why so much is said about the importance of the company we keep, the nurture of our nature. Formal education is the effort to institutionalize good company; the same can be said about design agencies, conferences, and meetups. Who are you learning from? Even Mozart had mentors and heroes; even the Desert Monastics lived in community.
  2. Cultivate a sense of good work. Learn how to discern mastery in others, the unassuming balance of grace and efficiency gathered from long practice. As a UX designer, I eventually learned that the Edward TuftesJakob NielsensLorna Rosses, and Don Normans of the field are the ones worth listening to. This isn’t to say that we ought not listen to newcomers, but that the masters have sussed out distractions and irrelevancies that many of us take for granted. They articulate what matters. Likewise, coworkers – those part of and outside of your discipline – bring insight to their work that’s applicable to yours. Study how great project managers talk with clients; learn how strategists think broadly about projects; notice how visual designers subtly craft moods and environments; marvel at the efficiencies developers achieve in their code. Adopt their principles and habits of mind as your own.
  3. Practice self-reliance. While learning is communal, it's also an essentially individual experience, each of us following our interests, reasoning through problems, trying ideas, seeing what holds up and what doesn’t, summoning the will to forge ahead and grow. Self-reliance involves curiosity, which propels us to learn. But it equally requires of us a dogged resourcefulness to act on our curiosity. It’s singlemindedly finding what works and putting off what doesn’t. It’s equal parts grit and improvisation, making inventive use of what’s before us, situations and resources alike. It isn’t staking off on our own, but finding those who will help us learn the craft.
  4. Be open. To design is to learn, and then translate what you learn into a thing. When you’re designing something, you are learning about the problem, the content, the dynamics of the people involved, the constraints, and the possibilities of the project. Apart from the sheer joy of building things, this kind of incarnated learning is what draws brilliant people into the field. We often hear that designs are never complete; the same, of course, is true of our education as designers. Be receptive to whatever the project at hand might be teaching you, and spend time reflecting on your evolution as a creator.
The painting What I Know About Her, by Stanford Kay
"What I Know About Her," by Stanford Kay

 

So thoughtfully build your design micro-culture, keeping in mind that our intent can carry us only so far, and that education has more to do with serendipity and happy accidents than we might realize.

Brandon is a user experience designer with a Midwestern concern for craft and people. He works with clients such as Privia Medical Group and The Nature Conservancy from our Durham, NC, office.

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