守破離

Is How You Learn Design

It is refreshing to realise that every designer — even Dieter Rams — was once a n00b. It might help to have the right genes for becoming a designer, but even without, it is a skill you can learn — like almost everything in this world. All you need to do is put in the effort.

守破離 or ShuHaRi is a japanese martial arts concept that describes the stages of learning to mastery. Although it normally only applied to martial arts, the concept can easily be used in learning any skill. Design is no exception.

The concept of ShuHaRi consists of three stages in learning a skill that everyone goes through in becoming a master in their field of expertise. I focus in this blog post with my examples on learning the skill of Design, since that is what I’m familiar with an I know many designers go through the same stages.

守 Shu — Copy designs

The first stage in becoming a master is ‘Shu’. Loosely translated it means “obey”. In this stage one has to obey their master (in many designer cases a design teacher or mentor). Everything in this stage is focussed on learning the fundamental techniques. No time for questioning why or how, just do what your master says. In this stage you should bluntly copy work from others. In the case of designers this means you should practice your skills by trying to copy others work. With copying I don’t mean copying designs for commercial use, but just for the sake of practicing the skills. With designers you see a lot of copy cats, but as long it is not used commercially I would like to encourage that.

Note to beginner designers: Go try to copy work from others, don’t feel bad about it. Try to master the techniques to achieve that result. Don’t use this work commercially but do show it to other designers to receive feedback.

Note to the experienced designers: Stop complaining about young designers copying your work, remember you once started like that too. Encourage them and help them to become better.

破 Ha — Understand & Detach

In the second stage of becoming a master, ‘Ha’, it is time for the student to try to understand the thoughts behind design and to find their own way. Designers in this stage master the fundamental techniques, they understand the ‘why’ but might just yet lack the consistency and fluency. When students reach this point it is time to break away from their teacher or mentor and spread their wings. For many designers this might be the stage right after university. It is the time where you do a lot of ‘real’ work and gain confidence — an essential ingredient for the next stage.

“First learn stand, then learn fly”
— Mr. Kesuke Miyagi

離 Ri — Become a master

The last stage is the most difficult stage; Ri. In this stage you mastered the skill and all the knowledge and skills are part of you. Everything goes fluent and consistent, you break away from all the rules to form your own style. Loosely translated ‘Ri’ means ‘separate’, meaning you can ‘go your own way’. Not everyone reaches this stage, but when people do, it is my belief that it is essential that the master of any skill have the power and duty to help people who are just starting out learning.

If you are a designer who reached the ‘Ri’ stage, congratulations. “Now go help, mentor and coach beginning ‘shu’ designers. We tend to complain about and judge work of less experienced designers, instead we can create a lot more value by helping, coaching and giving good feedback. Help others to reach the next level in ShuHaRi, just like someone helped you when you got started”

Interested in getting better as a designer? I created a playlist on gibbon with all kind of articles about becoming a better designer.