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I am not a professional designer, meaning: I have not studied Graphic Design at university or similar. I wanted to, but the numerous clauses didn't allow it.

On the other hand, I'm actually doing graphic design since the age of 15. And, compared to what I see from other people with a comparable background, I'm doing quite well.

My problem: while I can usually feel that things have to be placed, styled, laid out, typed or colored in a specific way, I have absolutely no clue why.

What would be the best way for people like me to learn the reasons behind the intuitive decisions I make?

Since this is a rather unwanted opinion-based question in general, the following points are supposed to make it a nice StackExchange-compliant question:

  • I can only learn in my free time. Do not suggest full time studies like going to university. (I have to work in parallel to earn money to feed my kids, right?)
  • I prefer learning at random speed, e.g. repeat things if I didn't understand it. And maybe do nothing for a period of 3 weeks because I'm on a business trip.
  • Cheap or gratis learning is preferred.
  • I think there is already a list of good design books somewhere else, so skip that.
  • Other than books, the type of learning doesn't really matter.
  • In the end of the learning phase, I should be able to tell my colleagues the reasons why I change things, e.g.
    • "don't use red here, because it means danger"
    • "don't use more than 3 different fonts, because ..."
    • "make the distance equal, because ..."

Today my reason is "because it looks ugly", but people don't feel so comfortable with that explanation.

What solution am I thinking of?

  • It's an online training
  • It displays designs and I need to answer what I would change
  • The website tells me whether I'm correct. Like a game maybe.
  • The website tells me the reason why it's correct and offers a link to read the theoretical background. (Beginner mode)
  • In the next step I have to give the reason as well. (next level)

I'm not sure if something like this (or better) exists. And since I'm a non-native English speaker, I have no idea what search terms I would need to use to find such a thing.

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3  
Very interesting question... the book Universal Principles Of Design may help to an extent, and references each principle back to evidence, but I feel like there's a simpler answer than a 272-page book. (I seem to be constantly recommending that book, I wish I'd set up some kind of affiliate scheme...) –  user568458 Apr 25 at 13:33
    
Being a professional doesn't mean going to a university to study the subject. Being a professional just means that you get paid to do it! –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 27 at 3:38

5 Answers 5

It's tough to imagine a website or game that could do this effectively. Even in school it seems there are only "hard" answers (i.e. right or wrong) for the most obvious examples, and the rest is critiques from multiple people speaking from multiple viewpoints.

Of course, those may even change over time, since good design tends to go back to cognitive psychology and social/learned schemas. "Breaking the grid," for example, may have been wrong in the 70's, but right in the 80's.

Personally, I've learned the most from hearing experienced designers critique other work, or when they explain their own work. It was definitely a learning process, and the first step was not assuming the melange of fancy-sounding words were just complete BS.

Also, I find I get better at explaining good vs. bad when I read about the cognitive aspects of design. Understanding these fundamentals allow me to speak broadly about how a design element fits (or doesn't fit) into common visual schemas. It may come down to simply communicating feelings rather than a full understanding of design principles, which is something that just requires practice, in my opinion (based on my experience).

In practice, I often refer to an elements visual hierarchy vs. the intention of the full work. For example, if a logo is too close to other elements, I may say it confuses the importance of the logo vs the other elements. Or if multiple, related elements have strange proportions with each-other, it might reduce the cognitive effect of repetition, thus decreasing the strength or impact of a design.

To abstract it out a bit, focus first on the intention of the design. The intention is most often communicated through a visual hierarchy, which again is based on cognitive schemas that we share as humans (like red means danger, etc.), or physical constraints (like wide paragraphs make our eyes tired). Then compare that intention with the execution in terms of visual tools, such as size, repetition, proportion, or contrast.

With this approach, the books or blogs you read become tools for communicating design, not just for understanding design. For example, you may say a text block feels too busy because it's disproportional to other elements, and then reference Bringhurst to explain why that is a bad thing in your situation.

While you may not be a beginner to design, I often recommend The Non Designers Design Book to people who need an easier way to think about design. The book does a great job of simplifying design into a few categories with simple rules to follow. It won't make good design great, but it can make offensive design non-offensive. In your case, it may simply give you an easy way to talk about design with non-designers.

Last, here's a quote that I use as a touchstone when evaluating my own designs. It also helps with the tendency for non-designers to want to fill in white space, or "make the logo bigger."

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sure, it may sound pretentious, but since there is a common stereotype (mental schema) that good designers are pretentious, perhaps it will help you convince someone without actually having to explain the design. :p

I hope that helps!

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Nice citation of Saint-Exupéry; goes inline with "Don't make me think" by Steve Krug –  Thomas W. Apr 25 at 20:44

This is a great question! It's broad though, so expect answers to be equally so.

How can you objectively explain the reason behind the the intuitive decisions that you make in graphic design?

This is probably one of the deepest questions that one can ask about graphic design, and it takes some serious thought to answer properly, which makes it a great topic.

I'm not going to give you a website or resource, but rather explain it to you my self. In fact, that website that you're thinking of might be the one you're on right now!

Edit: The scope of this question.

Now, this question is too broad to be fully, completely answered in this format, but because I like this kind of question, and the community decided to up-vote it rather than closing it, I'm going to provide an answer by explaining some examples of thinking objectively about intuitive design decisions.

It'll be up to you to use those examples and apply the same thinking to other aspects of graphic design.

The Science Behind your Skill as a Designer

Deep graphic design questions like this are often dismissed as subjective, but this isn't true!

Just like science determines how the mind works, there is a science to graphic design. We artists, instead of using numbers and formulas, study the science of understanding and predicting the viewer's visual and mental interaction with (and response to) design.

Objective Explanation and Understanding of Graphic Design

Here are the points to focus on in order to bring your intuitive design choices and skills into an objective perspective so that you can understand and explain them beyond the scope of "I used this shape because it felt right."


- Focal Point(s): Graphic design of every medium, form, style, and purpose revolves around the design's success at drawing the viewer's eye and mind to the right place(s).

enter image description here

A well written explanation of focal point.

A quick summary:

Whether this is achieved by color, focus, positioning, or a combination of the three, the concept is the same: There are one or more specific areas on any logo, interface, ad, or page that you want the viewer to notice before he looks away.

For example, in this answer, I have designed the content to present your vision with grouped, organized information (points of focus) at first glance, rather than using plain, spaced paragraphs, which would likely leave your eyes scanning the text in boredom.

In the same way that you "intuitively" use a specific font, or icon, or section, or line width in an area of your design, I'm using spacing and font weight/size to present your eyes with a balanced set of visual content that you will feel comfortable with interpreting as I want you to, rather than skimming past it.

This is a low-level demonstration of the science involved in drawing the viewer's eye and mind to the content in the way that you, as the artist, intend.

You take in the spacing, balance, and focus that you see in your design and modify it until you predict that the viewer will see your design in the way that you intend.


- Design Emotion: The intent of stimulating the user's emotion through mood portrayal.

enter image description here

An enlightening article on the usage of emotion in design.

A quick summary:

Whether you're designing an anime character, or simply using an abstract shadow effect on an icon, as an artist, you work to affect the viewer's mind so that he feels a specific way after looking at (or interacting with) the design.

By using vivid (or gray-scale) color scheme, or portraying character activities, you attempt to cause the viewer to feel a specific emotion.

By designing a document, poster, or answer to a Graphic Design question with the proper measure of visual detail, you attempt to cause the viewer to feel visually satisfied while interpreting the information that you want him/her to absorb.

Finally, by combining this visual content with a specific color scheme and character or interface activity, you attempt to make the viewer to feel specific, complex emotions, while remaining visually satisfied, possibly for the duration of time that you want him/her to spend looking at a poster or ad (or TV show).


- Subject Matter: The importance of using the right subject to place the viewer's attention in the right place.

enter image description here

An in-depth lesson on the importance of subject matter focus.

A quick summary:

We can predict how a specific user group will react to a specific style, how he will feel about a specific activity, and where his attention will be drawn throughout the process, but it all acts as a modification to the core of the design: the subject matter.

As a designer, you choose the subject matter that you predict will cause the viewer to focus on the subject that you intend.

If the subject is the words and logo on an ad, you might use a single-color box with text as the subject matter for your design. If you want the viewer to be moved, you may use a touching image, or simply moving words.

Your intended effect on the viewer is centered on the subject matter that you choose for the design.

The Objective Summary

In the end, every decision that you make in the design of anything can be objectively observed and explained by looking at two things:

  • How do I want my target audience to feel and react to the design?
  • What do I predict as an artist, is the best way to achieve that feeling and reaction?

When you combine these two questions with the aspects of design explained above, you're able to objectively understand and improve your skill as an artist.

You wanted to know how you can understand the intuitive design decisions that you make so that you can explain them and also improve them.

That's a very good goal, and I think just by asking this question, you're already moving in the right direction.

In Conclusion

By focusing on focal point, mood, and subject matter, you can understand and explain the purpose for each aspect of your design choices.

These are just a few of the many important areas of design, but by recognizing these, you'll be on your way to having a better understanding of why you make the intuitive choices that you do in Graphic Design,

Improvement comes through practicing your ability to predict a user's reaction to a specific design, and most importantly, your ability as an artist to put that design down on a medium just as you imagined it.


See the cited sources for a fuller understanding of these aspects of your intuitive design decisions if you have the time. If not, this should at least allow you to begin reflecting on some aspects of your design decisions in a way that you can learn from and explain them.

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@Dominic That's what the down-vote is for. If you believe that an answer does not properly answer the question, you're entitled to down-vote it. I'm simply pushing the issue of the way in which SE questions should be answered, and saying "Read a book" is never the proper way to do so, without sufficient effort on your part to provide as detailed of an answer as you deem appropriate. The OP specifically requests, even, in this case, that book suggestions are not used in the answer to his question. –  CuriousWebDeveloper Apr 27 at 22:49

Lots of interesting ideas here, but maybe not what the OP was hoping for. Specifically, @ThomasW asks for an interactive quiz-type training tool where he can learn the right and wrong answers to design questions.

There's an inherent limitation to such an approach to learning, of course: design decisions don't usually have simple right and wrong answers.

That said, a little bit of googling found a number of websites that offer graphic design quizzes of various levels of depth and detail. I haven't explored any of these enough to endorse them, but they may help you develop your design vocabulary and improve your confidence in your intuitive decisions.

So that might get you started, but what then?

Design books, blogs and websites are important in helping you develop the vocabulary to effectively communicate your ideas. But the only way you can have confidence that a design is right or not is to consider how people react to it. Do they understand the information you're trying to convey? Do they feel the emotions you're trying to evoke?

There's a huge industry of user testing of designs. And while a lot of that is kept confidential by the marketing and design firms that do the research, there is also a lot available in academic and popular literature. Search terms to consider are "focus groups", "market research", "usability testing", and "A/B testing", along with search terms relevant to whatever aspect of design you're interested in. For web design, the Nielson Norman Group publishes a lot of free reports of the conclusions of their user testing.

Beyond that, do your own testing -- of your own designs, or of designs you see and either like or don't like and can't define why. The answer by @HostileFork suggests some good approaches for testing your design instincts against other people's reactions; I also like the way this blog post (actually a book extract) approaches what the author calls "Quick and dirty usability testing".

Listen to what people say about what they do or don't like and why. Make it your own live interactive training program -- see if you can predict what people will say, or which design they will prefer. I am confident that this approach, kept up over time, will be a much more effective way to learn design than any of the multiple-choice quizzes for graphic designers listed above.

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Not sure why there was a downvote on this. This actually is trying to address the specific question being asked. –  DA01 May 6 at 2:26
    
Thanks @DA01. My guess is that was a critique of my list of links from "a little bit of googling". But the OP had mentioned being unsure of the correct search terms... –  AmeliaBR May 6 at 3:59

I'll try and address one point (that overlaps a little with @JonathanTodd's point regarding "mental transference") though I'll be more brief:

Graphic design is the study of visual heuristics that generally help achieve clear communication.

If you make a logo for an insurance company, and show it to people minus the name, and they guess it's for an ice-cream shop...you failed to communicate. If it's a concert poster whose main purpose is to inform about an event and no one notices the date (or you forgot to put it on altogether), then you failed to communicate. If you create signage for a restaurant and no one sees or remembers it because it blends in with environmental visual spam, then you failed to communicate.

Books, videos, or long-winded Internet blogs can teach (or claim to teach) you some heuristics that can be used to better serve communication. But at the end of the day they are not going to be as good as field testing a specific design with a relevant audience. You never know when some odd thing you do is going to find a psychological hook with people and click.

Yet there simply isn't time or budget to go around making 20 variations on every design, and surveying people about it. So no matter how much you learn, you will always be working from intuition...it just becomes an intuition that has become increasingly informed by experience. If anything, I think graphic designers become too complacent in believing designs which break a few simplistic rules cannot be more effective than their "correct" (but possibly boring) creations.

How to know? Like the saying goes:

Q: "How do I avoid making mistakes?"
A: "By having experience."

Q: "How do I get experience?"
A: "By making mistakes."

You say you've already started. I vote that any work you've already done is probably a good place to start looking for places to improve. Rework your own earlier stuff...pick one thing wrong with it and fix it. Tell that story of the improvement, and show it to other designers and see if they think you're barking up the wrong tree. Join the chat here, post what you've got.

I'd also suggest getting in the habit of carrying around your designs on your smartphone or tablet, so you can bring them out anytime someone shows an interest in discussing what you do. Mention that you're always looking for feedback and ask people what they think. Not just graphic designers! One doesn't want to wind up in an echo chamber of groupthink.

Put another way: You don't have to reinforce your intuitive design decisions if they turn out to be correct, only challenge them if they're incorrect. And the way to test if they're correct or not is to share your designs.

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@Thomas, Thanks for asking such a beautiful question..:)

You can't teach taste nor you can teach design, you can only show the possibilities and history and share experiences.

I wonder sometimes no UI is the best UI.

Remember “At time of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the world, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world which no longer exists.”

To push the boundaries you need to know where the edges are.

“Design is the action of bringing something new and desired into existence—a proactive stance that resolves or dissolves problematic situations by design. It is a compound of routine, adaptive and design expertise brought to bear on complex dynamic situations.” —Harold Nelson

Design is a discipline that can be managed.

A Framework that should run within yourself

Define the challenge:

Develop a set of powerful questions to surface opportunities, and frame innovation.

Gather data:

Learn how to gather data through qualitative research such as observation and storytelling to augment traditional forms of data gathering. Tools include Journey Mapping and Value chain analysis

Re-frame and clarify the challenge:

Make sense of research by seeing patterns, themes, and larger relationships between the information. Challenge assumptions and illuminate opportunities latent within the market.

Artful reflection:

Cultivate your intuition and develop aesthetic ways of knowing. The elegant solution wins in the marketplace. Visualization: Develop visual thinking skills to de-code images, and communicate ideas visually. Visual literacy transcends the limitations of language, and activates our senses. Tools include Mind mapping, sketching and painting.

Ideate:

Learn six idea generation tools to foster shifts in perception, break out of traditional mind-sets, and generate seed ideas for innovation, including SCAMPER, Metaphorical thinking, connecting the dots, and Edison’s invention techniques.

Evaluate:

Identify the criteria you need to evaluate ideas; learn the distinction between critiquing and criticizing an idea; give feedback that enhances creativity rather than crushes it.

Prototyping:

Create a visual tangible representation of your idea and present it to the group for feedback. Create a feasibility and an adoption checklist to get people onboard. Customer co-creation: Exploring alternative futures with your internal and external customers

Assess:

Gather feedback from prototype. Assess outcomes, and refine your project. Develop a set of feedback questions to get the information you need, i.e., does this add value to the customer?

Implement:

Create an action plan and test-drive your design

Iterate:

Assess results, modify and improve, using this framework.

While learning to be a good designer takes years, non-designers can learn to think like a designer and apply these skills to leadership and innovation. Hands-on innovation challenges will guide you through a design thinking process from start to finish.

  • Develop the 5 discovery skills that make up the Innovator’s DNA and optimize your ability to innovate
  • Examine the four primary forces that shape design and 10 types of design you can leverage
  • How to connect more deeply with customers to uncover opportunities for design
  • Transform insights and data into actionable ideas
  • Explore the tool-sets and skill-sets used by designers: empathy for your customers, idea generation, critical thinking, aesthetic ways of knowing, problem-solving, rapid-prototyping and collaboration.
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  • Create and implement new solutions that create value for your customers, faster and more effectively.
  • Design Thinking for Innovation Strategy is offered via consulting, training, seminars and workshops.
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Umm...I have to flag this answer as it appears mostly plagiarized from here: creativityatwork.com/design-thinking-strategy-for-innovation –  DA01 May 6 at 2:23
    
I agree, it's ok to quote parts of articles (always sharing the source), but unfortunately we can't have duplicated content with other sites because it's something search engines 'punish'. Did you write the original article? If so, mark the quotes as quotes and add a link to it. If not, try to explain it with your own words (source is still necessary, because someone went through the effort of writing it). –  Yisela May 6 at 4:06

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