One of the most commonly asked questions from my colleagues outside of the design department goes along the lines of, “I’m not a designer. How do you evaluate whether a piece of design is good or bad, and why can’t I do that?”
Although broadly everyone can tell when something looks good or not – it’s much more of a challenge when there are multiple stakeholders on the client side.
As much as I enjoy possessing “hidden powers” that enable me to see what others can’t – anyone can develop a relatively competent level of design appreciation. It starts with a simple shift in how you approach design: treat design as a language.
This realisation came to me when I was reflecting on my journey as a graphic designer, the languages I’ve learned since young, and the languages I’m learning as an adult (a story for another day). Has it occured to you that all of us learned our native languages as children and continued to refine it into adulthood? Sure, we learned grammar and new vocabulary formally in school, but the bulk of our learning was outside of the classroom. In other words, we acquired our native languages before we learned new aspects to it.
Dr. Stephen Krashen, a PhD in linguistics who speaks 8 languages, is a huge proponent of acquiring new languages rather than purely learning them. I’m here to suggest that we can acquire an eye for design in the same way based on Dr Krashen’s second-language acquisition hypotheses.
Start with comprehensible input and progressive overload
The first of Dr Krashen’s hypotheses states that learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they understand something said in a slightly more advanced language than their current level. This is a crucial step in language acquisition; using just any input is not sufficient; the input received must be comprehensible.
A great place to start would be to look up some of the best and worst designs ever created and hear what has been said about them. What did designers and consumers say about the Nike logo? What were the criticisms of the latest macOS UI? Start with reviews and videos made for casual consumers, and then the ones made for other designers. As you receive more exposure to these articles and videos, you will begin to remember key phrases and how they were used.
Immersion and deliberate practice are necessary for continued progression
Language immersion camps are lucrative businesses in the world of second-language learning because they work. Students are only allowed to speak their target languages throughout the duration of their course and by the end of the camp, most of them would be competent in the languages that they’re learning because of the acquisition that takes place alongside the formal lessons. Fortunately, we don’t have to go so far, because we are surrounded by design — both good and bad — everyday and everywhere.
Spend at least 5 minutes a day to speak or write about the design of items around you. What do you like about it? What makes it look good? And if you’re a fast learner, how would you sell it strictly based on its design? Use as many words that you’ve picked up from your comprehensible input as you can and discuss them with a designer. The more you attempt to talk about design with a designer, the better.
Make the process fun with Free Voluntary Reading
Learning any language for long periods of time can be tiring, which is why it’s important to take active breaks from your target language without completely detracting from it. With the Free Voluntary Reading method, students are allowed to simply read what they like in the target language. This method encourages students to read more on their own, which increases exposure to the target language and helps with pattern recognition.
I believe the same method when applied to design can be even more engaging and visually-stimulating. Think about the design of something you’re passionate about. Maybe you’re an avid book collector, or a fan of branded goods. Can you list the top 3 book covers or logos that you like the most? What do you like about their design? Could you describe them in your own words?
Observe how bloggers and “prosumers” review these things that you like. How do they evaluate them, and do you understand what they’re saying? Once you have a good grasp of what they say or write, move on to professional reviewers and see if you understand what they say as well.
Take your time and experiment in safe environments.
While this last point is not necessarily a technique, it’s important to remember that an eye for design, just as with any other languages, is a lifelong skill to develop. As a designer, it took me close to 10 years before I could confidently say that I can reliably evaluate design, regardless of the topic or media.
You may not want to make a blunder in a business presentation, so don’t be afraid to practice this new language during scrum meetings or internal design reviews with your colleagues. Through persistent deliberate practice, empathetic correction from designers and exposure to design appreciation, you will be able to hold your own in a design conversation.
Need help in building an eye for design? We can help: [email protected]