How to develop an eye for design when you aren’t a designer
“Why is everyone so gifted but me?”
From time to time, our high school art teacher would have us put on an exhibition of our work in the school corridor. When I saw my paintings among the others, it seemed to me that everyone had more original ideas, better techniques, and greater skills than me.
Do you ever feel the same way when it comes to your online presence?
After all, the Internet is one big exhibition where your work gets compared to other people’s work and judged by the cover all the time. If your visuals suck, the rest of your work is basically invisible.
Nowadays, you need to be a decent designer even if you aren’t a designer.
But what if you have no artistic gene? No talent? No eye for design?
Well, here’s what I know for sure: You can become a decent designer — and you can do more than that. You can attract your dream clients, inspire people, and create outstanding brand experiences using the power of visuals.
The thing is, “no eye for design” or “no artistic gene” are mindset issues; they have little to do with talent and a lot to do with the way you feel about yourself as a visual creator.
So, to awaken your inner designer (she is there, I promise), the first step not to immerse yourself into learning the theory of typography and colors, but to work on your creative confidence, train yourself to look at the world around you with curiosity and attention, and see yourself as the creator you are.
Train yourself to pay attention (again)
Your brain filters out most of what your eyes see. It’s a good thing, and it’s perfectly normal. It’s the only way to stay safe and sane.
The trouble is that as the world around us is getting more visually aggressive, the spam filters inside our heads need to work more effectively, which is not so good.
The omnipresent visual clutter and interruption-based marketing make us less perceptive towards everything. We’re losing the ability to focus, to pay attention long enough to actually see the world around us.
To develop an eye for aesthetics, you first need to learn how to control the filters and blockers inside your head. You need to learn how to slow down and look at the world like a child.
“The child is quite right.”
Corita Kent was a nun, artist, activist, and teacher. The quote above comes from her book Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit. According to Kent, two to three years old children are the best teachers here: Observing a child’s “small journey” through a familiar territory (home, garden) can teach us a lot about approaching the world with the curiosity and attention it deserves.
In the same book, Corita Kent introduces her famous concept of the “finder” that helps adults see the world afresh:
The DIY device to help you *see* the world around you
Corita Kent would have her students cut a 35mm slide sized hole out of a heavy piece of paper or cardboard and use it to look at small pieces of the world: “It helps us take things out of context, allows us to see for the sake of seeing, and enhances our quick-looking and decision-making skills.”
She calls this device a “finder.”
Exercise 1: Find a new world
Create a finder: Cut a rectangle out of a heavy piece of paper or cardboard.
First, use the finder to explore the familiar: your home, everyday objects, clothes, or picture books. Then, take it outside — on a walk, to the shopping mall, to the art museum, anywhere.
The finder lets you study colors, shapes, materials, structures, and tiny little secrets of the things around you that you have never really noticed. It helps you see the world the way you never have.
To reinforce the effect of the finder assignment, Corita Kent suggests that you draw some of your findings. Which brings us to the next point.
Turn on “active” looking
Looking at the world with attention and curiosity, or “active” looking, is the opposite of the zombie mode you’re in when you zone out while watching TV, mindlessly scroll down your social media feeds, or go on autopilot while going through the motions of everyday life.
When you learn how to switch into active looking, you’ll discover a whole new world, even when dealing with the most familiar and mundane things.
And learning the basics of realistic drawing can help you with that.
Once you learn how to draw, you’ll start noticing perspective, composition, shadows, lines, white space, colors, and other things that others pass by.
You don’t need to become another Picasso. Even if you just start drawing the world around you, any way you can, without any theoretical training, it will change the way you look and see.
But a drawing class (and a photography class, while you’re at it) will help you unlock new perspectives much faster.
Exercise 2: The secrets of the familiar
Here’s a fun and simple drawing exercise you can try no matter your drawing skills:
Choose an object that you use or look at every day, like your favorite mug. Don’t look at the object, hide it from your sight and just imagine it. Try to recall all the details and draw it as accurately as you can.
Then, make another drawing of the same thing, this time while having it in front of you.
Compare the two drawings: What are the differences? What have you forgotten? What has your imagination added or edited? Which version do you like more? Why is the object designed the way it is, anyway?
Curate your visual input
You are what you eat. In case of visual input, you can’t choose 100% of what you consume, but you can be proactive and serve your eyes better quality food at least in some areas:
• Make small changes to your surrounding: The space you spend time in and the objects you interact with everyday influence you more than you realize. How can you make your surroundings a little bit more beautiful and joyful? (Check out the resources below to find inspiration.)
• Add beauty to your social media feeds. Follow artists and brands with strong aesthetics, and unfollow people and brands that make social media dull or ugly.
• Collect. Create a Pinterest board and/or a physical file (I have a shoebox for this purpose) to collect things that visually appeal to you — paintings, drawings, illustrations, ads, postcards, little objects, anything that sparks joy.
• Expose yourself to strong aesthetic sensations. Go to the art museum (take your finder with you) and spend time looking at great art.
• Go to nature and soak up the beauty.
When you set the bar a little higher for the input, the output must get better, too.
Exercise 3: The influence map
The child is quite right, and when you were a child, you were right, too. You used to create art without caring about making mistakes and without comparing yourself to others. You also consumed a lot of visual “food” without having to read reviews to make sure your taste is good enough.
You knew what you liked and what you didn’t like. Do you remember? Let’s see.
I first stumbled on this exercise in Christine Nishiyama’s SkillShare class (link in the resources section). An influence map is a collection of everything visual you loved as a child — picture books, movies, tv shows, table games, video games, and so on.
Here’s how to create one:
- Make a written list, first.
- Then, choose up to ten most important influences.
- Google the images and take screenshots, or dust off those old books and take photos.
- Create a collage or a Pinterest board (you can also search for “influence map” on Pinterest to see some cool examples).
The purpose of this exercise is to help you remember that you do have, and have always had, an aesthetic taste of your own, and also to find out who you are as a visual creator — because the things we absorb when we are children influence us more than anything.
My influence map — artists: 1. Stanislav Holý, 2. Vladimír Jiránek, 3. Adolf Born, 4. Jiří Trnka, 5. Gabriel Filcík, 6. Zdeněk Miler, 7. Helena Zmatlíková, 8. Ondřej Sekora
Just a few years back, design skills would give you a competitive advantage. Nowadays, being a decent designer is becoming the new standard. Because even if you end up hiring a pro to design your stuff, you still need to be able to tell good design from bad design. Because if you can’t tell the difference, your audience can.
Luckily, an artistic/design ability is not something you are given or not. Although some people may have better prerequisites or resources than you, it’s what you do with the cards you have been dealt that counts.
You can develop an eye for aesthetics by:
- becoming mindful about the visual world around you,
- injecting beauty into your daily life,
- learning how to draw, and
- working on your creative confidence.
Of course, this is just the beginning. To become a better designer, you also need to learn the theory and, well, practice design. But more on that another time.
Now, my question for you: Can you tell me about your childhood visual influences — illustrators, movies,…? Please share them in the comments so I can google/pinterest them!
I mean, as business owners, we try to do everything right and we like to compare ourselves to each other (the same way my teenage self did). As a result, everything looks kind of similar.
But by sharing the things we loved as kids, we can see how diverse our cultural backgrounds are, and maybe we can find the courage to bring a little bit of that diversity into the online world. What do you think?
Creativity + mindset books:
Carol Dweck: Mindset: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential (esp. chapter 3: Is Artistic Ability a Gift?)
Corita Kent: Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit
Injecting beauty and joy into your surrounding:
Ingrid Fetell Lee: Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness (the author has also given the TED talk “Where joy hides and how to find it”)
Get started with realistic drawing (books):
Carrie Stuart Park and Rick Parks: The Big Book of Realistic Drawing Secrets: Easy Techniques for drawing people, animals, flowers and nature
Betty Edwards: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (book + workbook)
The SkillShare class I mentioned above: Art School Boot Camp: Developing Your Style (heads up, that’s my referral link that will give you 2 months of SkillShare for free)
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