Friday, March 29, 2013

Learning Design: An Initial Curriculum

I'm a programmer, not a designer. And in the past, I've been fine with that. I'll do the programming, let the designers do the designing. But now I want to learn how to design. And by design I mean just about everything that design can mean, both things like visual, graphic design and things like usability and information architecture.

Why? What's changed? I would say two things really. First, I think I can learn design (I think anyone can learn just about anything if motivated). I used to think that it just wasn't my talent. I would tell myself that "I can make things work, I just can't make them pretty." Second, I'm curious. I want to learn design now. I have come to appreciate that design isn't just "making things pretty". I think that design is about solving the human side of a problem. Being a programmer means I can solve the technological side of a problem, but that is only half of it. The best code in the world that actually solves a real problem won't do anyone good if it isn't usable. And the more that the user interface to a system delights users the more impact that solution will have in the real world.

I also think that learning design is a better career move than, for example, learning functional programming or how to write event-driven, non-blocking web server code, or whatever the new hotness is. I don't expect to become a great designer, only a decent one. I expect I will still need to work with a "real" designer on at least some of my projects, maybe all. But being able to put together good looking prototypes, being able to communicate better with web/graphic designers, being able to produce decent initial working versions of software, being able to layout and organize displays of information in ways that are helpful and appealing, all of that makes me better able to deliver software solutions and hence make me more valuable to potential employers. Perhaps most importantly to me, as an wannabe bootstrapped entrepreneur, it means I can create more compelling applications and that I can more fully realize the applications that I see in my imagination.

So here's what I'm looking at now as resources for learning design.

Treehouse: Become a Web Designer Adventure

I like the idea of an online course. I think it will be easier to consume and stay on track. I also like that Treehouse covers theory (although maybe a little light on it by the looks of the curriculum) and also practice, how to use the tools of the trade. (But man is Photoshop expensive!)

Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams

I've seen this book recommended on Hacker News and elsewhere more times than I can count. I'm including it with the hopes it will give me a good foundation in the basics of design theory (and practice).

Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Another book that comes highly recommended. I realize this list is a little light on HCI type topics and perhaps I can add some more useability/user experience resources to this list, but I think Don't Make Me Think is a good place to start.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards

I don't think drawing will directly help me with web design, but I do think it will get the artistic juices flowing. One of the things I've read about this book is that it doesn't so much teach you how to draw as much as it teaches you how to really see. That ability to see clearly will help me to see what is good in other's design and perhaps also help me see how to make my designs better.

Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

Another highly recommended book, but I haven't read much about it. Looking forward to reading it.

Copying good designs

What's the saying, good artists create, great artists steal?. As part of my curriculum I'll study and copy design that I find appealing. Why do they work so well? How do they implement those designs?

I've done something like this before when I was working on learning CSS. I took a screenshot of, copied the HTML and images and wrote the CSS from scratch to match the screenshot. It was a good learning exercise, not just in that I exercised applying what I had learned about CSS but after I was done I also compared what I had done to the's CSS code and learned from the approaches they had taken.

Notable Mention

In my research, these resources looked interesting and I might use them, but I don't have enough time to do everything.


Otoniel Venezuela said...

I think that is a real good move! Specially usability!!! People are making a lot of money just as designer... But a programmer that can design that is the new GOLD Rush here in California. Exito

Marcus Christie said...

Thanks Otto. I need to write a follow up post. I've read the Non-Designer's Design book, which I enjoyed, but haven't made much more progress. I got sidetracked recently reading "Programming in Scala", it's a pretty interesting language.

Take care Otto,