This is the first part in our mini series of getting good at design. We walk before we run, so the goal for this part is to learn how to see. It sounds basic but before we start changing the world through amazing design, we have to see it and break it down for what amazing design actually is.
Here is a warm up. Reading an article sort of gets in the way of practicing seeing so we made an exercise that you could listen to. Don’t worry, we tell you exactly what to do and you never have to leave your chair. That said, it’ll be effort:
Take your phone and put it on a table in front of you. If you like it could be a counter, a desk, anything. Just move everything else out of the way so that the only thing you see is your phone resting on a surface. Sit comfortably and relax.
Close your eyes. Inhale. Hold your breath. Release it. One more time.
Now keep your eyes closed, but I want you to wiggle your toes in your shoes and press your feet to the floor so you can feel your feet on the floor. You’re very grounded. Now wiggle your butt a little or do something to make yourself aware of you in the seat. Your bottom in the seat. You have two points of grounding: your feet, your butt. And then you should be sitting up straight so you can feel the back of the chair. Adjust yourself so you have the support from the chair on your back. So now you have 3 places to ground your body: feet, butt, back. Put your hands in your lap, relax.
Now slowly open your eyes and I want you to just look at the phone in front of you. Hopefully it is just the phone and the table and no other visual clutter. And I want you to just look at the phone, not the table, just the phone. Probably doesn’t have a lot of features on it, but maybe it’s got a little lint or it’s got a little parting line or groove or it’s got a shiny surface, it’s got a scratch. I want you to stare at it intently. If I were to ask you a couple questions in a few minutes, you could tell me everything about the shape, that shine, that color, all of the lines and scratches. I want you to form a perfect visual representation of the phone in your mind. If you stare at it really really hard you should be able to make the background just kinda disappear, it goes away, it goes dark, because you are only looking at the phone, all of your visual attention is on the phone. So the phone is in the foreground, everything else is in the background. Bring your peripheral vision in, bring your focused attention just to the object in front of you. It helps to anchor on little details and things, but I want you to see the whole thing. I want you to stare at it so hard that the background disappears.
Ok, look up for a second. Look around the room, tilt your head, move it around. Look back. Now this will be a little harder but you can do it. I want you to do the reverse. I want you to stare at everything that isn’t the phone. I want you to stare at the background. I want you to see the phone as negative space. The phone disappears. Just kind of a gray blob against a very vibrant background. Look at the grain of the wood on the table, maybe there are a couple of scratches or there is an ink mark. If it’s stone look at the shape and color of the patterns, the veins in the marble, the shadows on the surface. Whatever you are seeing that is not the phone, you have to take your focus outside the focus that you had before. Look at everything that is not the phone in any way that you can figure out how to do it. I want you to stare intently at the background. You should be able to make the phone disappear and the background will become the foreground.You can tell when it flips, it’s a moment when it changes.
Now keeping that same vision, now reverse it. Pop the phone into your foreground, and make the background disappear. Ok look up. How did you make the phone the only thing you could see? Could you do it? Almost? Kind of? Were you able to make the background so vivid that the phone disappeared? A little bit? And then when it was reversed, could you go back and forth? What was your trick how did you make it work?
This is a good practice. Designers, like artists, have to be able to see the thing in front of them in a way that is different than how most people see. When you go to a museum and you look at some art, you’re going to want to see it in much more detail than the average person. Particularly when you are looking at a product and you think “Wow this one is very attractive” or “this one is not” you are going to want to articulate why. The burden is on you when you say “I am a designer” to also be able to explain 1) what the hell that means and 2) have this sort of sensitivity about objects. We design the whole world. We are the people who decide what tables look like, what chairs look like, what laptops look like. So we have to be more visually sensitive to the details of the object. And partly, to be able to do that, you must focus on something intently so you really see the details of construction, or the surfaces that are painted or colored, or what the difference is between the shiny surfaces and the matte surfaces. Because if you were designing something you want to be able to manipulate that. Mostly you’ll be on a team and they’ll bring in a bunch of designers and they’ll show a bunch of possible solutions they’ve been working on, and you want to be able to articulate why one idea is better than another, why one idea is more coherent or consistent of a design than the other. So that is part of what you get good at, is focusing your vision on the things that matter.