Visual Design: how does one learn it?

A lot of companies out there seem to want UX visual design skills more than they want UX research skills. I’ve often felt like I’m missing something important and useful by not having a strong grounding in visual design, and have been searching far and wide for some ideas of how to learn it.

One of the more interesting suggestions I have had relates to typography: many websites have typography and grid principles incorporated into them, so that is a good place to start. I’ve also had a number of suggestions to just make things, with pointers to where to get ideas of what to make. Below are the suggestions that make the most sense to me.

Typography to start?

A helpful fellow volunteer (Tezzica at Behance and other places — trained in graphic design with a UX aspect at MassArt) at the UX Fair offered me a number of useful ideas, including the strong recommendation that I read the book called “Thinking With Type”, by Ellen Lupton. This books is, if nothing else, a very entertaining introduction to the various types and type families. There is the history of various fonts and types, descriptions of the pieces of a piece of type, and examples both good and bad (she calls the latter “type crimes” and explains why they are type crimes). I’m only 1/3 of the way through it, so I’m sure there’s a lot more to it.

Tezzica also suggested that I take the SkillShare course by the same author, Typography that Works. Given that I currently have free access, I am in fact doing that. Some of what we’ve covered, I knew from previous courses (grids, mostly), and some recapped a bit of what I’ve read in the book thus far. Reminders and different types of media are really useful.

I’m unexpectedly bemused by the current section, in which we are to start designing a business card. While I found the ‘business card’ size in Inkscape, I’m not completely sure that I’m managing to understand how to make the text do what I want it to do. I suspect that a lot of visual/graphic design is in figuring out how to make the tools do what you want, and then developing a better feel for ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ with practice! (I’m currently playing with Gravit Designer, which is a great deal easier to use while still being vector graphics.)

I’ve also had a chat with one of the folks I interviewed about getting a job in Boston, Sam, who had gotten a job between me talking to him and interviewing him. He also strongly suggested typography, and seems to have already worked through a lot of the problems I’m struggling with: not a lot of understanding of how visual design works, but a strong pull toward figuring it out.

Another thing that Tezzica mentioned was assignments she’d had in school where basically they had to play around with type. In one, the challenge was to make a bunch of graphics which were basically combining letters of two different typefaces into a single thing, or a ‘combined letterform’.

What do graphic design students do?

Tezzica suggested that it would be useful to peruse Behance for students of RISD and MassArt and see where the samples look similar, and potentially identify the assignments from classes at those schools. I have thus far not been successful in this particular endeavor.

Another possible way to find assignments is to peruse tumblr or pintrest and see if any old assignments or class schedules are still there. Also thus far unsuccessful!

Both Tezzica and Sam suggested doing daily challenges (on Behance, since the accounts there don’t require someone else to invite you) using ideas from dailyui.co or dribble. Tezzica also suggested taking a look at common challenge solutions and seeing if there’s an interesting and different way to do it. Tezzica also pointed out the sharpen.design website and its randomized design prompts.

Sam suggested taking a website that I like the look of, and trying to replicate it in my favorite graphic design tool (this will probably end up being Inkscape, even though it’s not as user-friendly as I’d like), and pointed out that it could go onto my portfolio with an explanation of what I was thinking while I did it.

Coursework

Tezzica suggested a Hand Lettering course by Timothy Goodman and a Just Make Stuff course by him and Jessica Walsh (this one being largely about ‘making something already’). She also suggested Nicholas Felton’s Data Visualization courses (introduction to data visualization, and designing with processing). Both are on Skillshare.

Sam suggested I watch everything I can from John McWade on Lynda.com, and a graphic design foundations: typography course also on lynda.com.

Other training methods

Finally, Sam recommended taking screenshots and making notes of what I notice about sites that are interesting or effective and why.

This reminds me a bit of my periodic intent to notice what design patterns and informational architecture categorization methods websites use.

Mostly, I need to train my eye and my hand, both of which require practice. Focused practice, and I think between Sam and Tezzica, I have a good sense of where to go with it. At the moment, I’m focusing on the Thinking With Type book and course, as otherwise I’ll overwhelm myself.