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3 Ways to Help You Develop an Eye for Design

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Words: Robbin Arcega / Illustration: Gina Medranda

Learning to develop an eye for design can be difficult for many of us, especially if you’re coming from an academic background. For example, I’ve got degrees in Psychology and Japanese, as well as a minor in Education, and visual design always used to intimidate me. (Shoutout to folks transitioning to design from the land of endless formal essay-writing and expensive degrees!)

Despite the difficulty however, some people still feel compelled to take a risk and learn the technical and creative process that is UI/UX design. I am one of those people, and I therefore wanted to share how I developed an eye for design and the lessons I learned along the way.

Lesson #1: Art Is Not the Same as Design

Many years ago, I got into education technology (edtech) as a support associate. I’d never even heard about UX design at that point however, one day, I had the opportunity to sit down with the design team to learn what their day-to-day work looked like. Specifically, I wanted to understand how the individual team members developed an eye for design.

I was curious: Did they all go to art school? Was there some sort of hidden major that I didn’t know about? How do people even become UX designers? WHAT EVEN IS A UX DESIGNER??

I sketched well, knew my way around Photoshop, and had a pretty keen sense of what looked good. Or rather, I knew what looked good to me. But I had never considered becoming a designer, because I had no interest in art as a career. Cue my first misunderstanding: thinking that art is the same as design.

It’s a topic that gets debated pretty heatedly from time to time, but I’m firmly on the side of “art is not design, but good design can be art.” After speaking with many mentors, I’d noticed a pattern in terms of the distinction. Art is creative self-expression; when we create art, we do it so that other people know what we think about something.

Design, on the other hand, is art with the purpose of conveying meaning to other people. We don’t design for ourselves, but we can create art for ourselves. The artistic merit in design is related to how clearly it conveys meaning, not how well it expresses your artistic vision.

Lesson #2: Design Is Not Just About the Visuals

Another important thing to note is that design doesn’t just consist of visuals, especially when it comes to UX design. UX means user experience, and what you see is only a small portion of that experience. So while the pixels on your screen do count as design, what you don’t see is all the stuff that happened before — which is still design, and is arguably more important.

Once I understood that design was literally more than meets the eye, I found that I needed to think critically about how other people interacted with design, not just how I did. I could empathize and hypothesize all I wanted, but until I actually saw a design being used, it was just speculation.

For example, a recent online shopping trip for fancy, new types of tea brought me to a website that was visually appealing to me. But on the product page I couldn’t see how much the tea was, nor how much tea I’d be getting. Confused, I went back to the search page…and there were no prices anywhere! This is important to keep in mind as a designer: what looks good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good user experience. (I didn’t end up buying the tea.)

One thing I like about UX design is that only part of it can be considered ambiguous and artsy. Personally, I like concrete definitions and linear learning. For a while, I thought I wasn’t creative enough to be a designer because I couldn’t magically come up with a brand-new visual design overnight — which is how I had defined being “creative”.

However, I was observant and curious. I found myself analyzing apps and websites and would look at each UI element (not yet knowing that was the term), and try to understand why buttons were labelled a certain way, or why information was hidden behind a hamburger menu.

I wondered what it would be like to use a product if I had broken my arm, if I were giving voice commands in a car, or checking the tiny screen of a smart watch. I also wondered what it would be like if I were a nurse using a medical app versus a patient, and how people could play certain board games if they were color blind, since most pieces aren’t designed with color blindness in mind.

These empathy-driven curiosities and questions are what led me to UI/UX design and that journey has helped me realize that design is not just about the visuals. It’s also (very importantly) about what you don’t see — user experience and user research also goes into creating good design.

Lesson #3: Diverse Design is Good Design

Since breaking into the UI/UX design industry, I’ve worked as a product designer at well-known companies and grassroots organizations. One thing that has truly developed my eye for design throughout is working with a lot of different people.

It’s important to understand that design isn’t done in a bubble; it’s very much a team sport. I brainstorm with fellow designers and product managers, and explore constraints with front-end developers. I also work with a lot of the people who would use the products I design for.

For example, I play board games with a friend who is gray-scale colorblind and often bring the perspective of being color-impaired into my designs not only because of this experience, but also because I personally have trouble distinguishing color hues, so I can’t always tell when something is red or orange.

Designers bring their history, community, and perspective into products and companies and this is why it’s so important to have diversity at the forefront. I currently work on the curriculum team here at Designlab, and I appreciate the emphasis we place on diversity in design and diversity of opinion. Being a part of a diverse team helps us create truly useful, meaningful, and ethical products and curriculum.

3 Exercises to Help You Develop an Eye for Design

Hopefully those lessons have given you a little insight into how many of us can develop an eye for design, even if we don’t think we’re “creative”. You can also use the following exercises as a great reminder that design isn’t always making something completely new; design is being able to solve problems creatively. I picked these exercises up from my mentors over the years, and I continue to find them helpful, so I’m sure you will too!

Exercise #1: Study an app you’ve never used before

There is an app for everything, but not all apps are created equally. Thinking thoughtfully about the apps you use on a daily basis can help sharpen your eye for design.

Try this exercise out with an app you’re not familiar with:

  1. Open the App Store and select the App of The Day.
  2. Grab your writing instruments of choice, and organize a way to time yourself (your phone, Google Timer, an egg timer, etc.)
  3. For 1 minute, write down all of the reasons you do want to download the app.
  4. Then, for 1 minute, write down all of the reasons you do not want to download the app.
  5. Finally, for 3 minutes, write a reflection on who you think this app was made for, and how you think they’ll use it.

Hopefully this exercise helped you to notice the little things involved in design. (Design is in the details, afterall.)

Exercise #2: Practice prototyping with copywork

Copying is a valid, and effective, learning tool. Have you heard the phrase (or read the book) “steal like an artist”? The idea behind stealing like an artist is that nothing is completely original, and all creative work builds on what came before.

At Designlab, we massively encourage copywork when students are starting out in their UI/UX design learning journey. In UX Academy Foundations for example, students use copywork as a way to start understanding the nuances of visual design.

For this next exercise, you’ll need either Figma, Sketch, or Adobe XD. (Learn these tools in our free 7-day email courses.)

In this exercise, you’ll use copywork to recreate a web page or app screen:

  1. Look for an app or site that you like. Then, take a screenshot of a web page or app screen, and paste it into your chosen design tool.
  2. Make a new frame/artboard/etc. in your design tool, and position it next to the screenshot.
  3. Grab the images from the screenshot (by either taking screenshots of the images involved, or seeing if you can right-click and copy the image itself).
  4. Find fonts that match the original as closely as possible. (Note that most fonts may be premium; look for free fonts that look similar to avoid spending hours on this step.)
  5. Proceed to recreate the web page or app screen as pixel-perfect as possible. Be sure to make all the forms, buttons, etc. on your own.

Once you’re happy with your copy, spend 15 minutes reflecting on what you learned through the exercise so you can utilize those learnings in future design work.

Exercise #3: Get out and observe user experience in the wild

One thing that we often don’t do enough as UI/UX designers is stepping away from the computer. Make sure to take a walk on a regular basis, and pay attention to all the little things you see along the way.

For example, you could go to your neighborhood park and wander around to see what you can find. Is there a map? Is there a trail? When you get to that park, do you have an idea of what you want to do?

The purpose of this exercise is to think about what is around us, for whom we think it is designed, and how things are used.

Some suggestions for outings and considerations:

  • Your local park: how do kids know how to play with certain pieces of equipment?
  • Art gallery: how do people who know nothing about art get around versus an art historian?
  • Public transportation hub: how do you buy a ticket if you don’t speak the language?

The list goes on, but the important part is to stop and think about who interacts with this environment, how they do it, and why.

How to Start Building Foundational Design Skills Today

If you’re looking to develop an eye for design and transition your career into the world of UI/UX design, learning visual and UI design is the best way to start. With UX Academy Foundations, you’ll work 1-on-1 with an expert mentor to learn key visual design concepts and practical skills. By the end, you’ll be ready to apply to UX Academy, where you’ll obtain design skills across the full breadth of the UX design process.


3 Ways to Help You Develop an Eye for Design was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.