#TechTuesday: What You Need to Know to Be a Designer

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Ingrid Pierre, Lead Designer at Ovuline, shares tips for today's designers, how she taught herself the best design programs and her thoughts about designers knowing code. 

By Ingrid Pierre (Lead Designer, Ovuline)

I got design jobs right out of college with a degree in studio art and a portfolio full of weird Buddhist sculpture. Even though my path to startups wasn't typical, I love my job and it shows.

For me, “designer” is somewhat of a vague title that covers tasks as big as creating an entire suite of mobile apps from scratch and as small and menial as making six versions of a tiny bookmark icon.

So, what do you need to know to be a designer?

People often think that knowing discrete facts and tactics, rather than having talent or skill, is necessary for being a designer. I think it's more a mix of hard skills and intangibles.

The following is what I do or know that helps me on a day-to-day basis, and how I learned it.

Adobe Creative Suite, specifically Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign in order of importance.

I learned all of these programs on my own, each in a very different context that taught me what they were good for. I can’t design for mobile-first without Illustrator. I started using Illustrator to make graphic flyers for my punk band in middle school. I picked up Photoshop when my friends would ask me to fix their bangs or to make them look thinner in photos. I picked up InDesign at the Harvard Lampoon by putting an entire magazine together and working with offset printers. Each situation was a crash-course learning experience. I don’t know what it would be like to learn these programs in a class, but my informal education has been more than adequate for what I do.

Drawing, or More Specifically Vector Drawing

I use my Wacom pen tablet almost every day at work. Knowing how to manipulate Bézier curves in Illustrator is essential for me. A lot of design is primarily illustration (making icons pixel perfect, manipulating logos, etc.). I’m biased, but I really do think my art degree was worth it. I’ve got thousands of hours of drawing under my belt, hours that gave me patience, fine motor skills, and the ability to stare at the same surface for hours without losing focus.

Composition, Contrast and Balance

You don’t need an art history degree to be a designer, but it will help you learn the basics. You probably already have a feeling for many of these things, but to use them, you have to understand where those feelings come from and how other artists/designers have manipulated them historically. It's a lot different than the discrete kinds of knowledge that people usually ask me about. For a study on these elements, I’m a big fan Hiroshige’s 100 Famous Views of Edo.

When you teach yourself design, it’s easy to jump from web tutorial to web tutorial (searching phrases like Usability Hacks 101 or Top 10 Worst Rounded Button Designs of 2014) — but don’t forget that the world has far more design sources than apps and the Internet.

Know How to Control Attention

Because everything I do at work is in pixels or density-independent pixels (for Android users), the most useful thing to remember is that the real world has existed far longer than a retina screen. Web design folks sometimes bring up the eye-tracking study that found that users scan webpages in an F-shape, scanning first across the headers and then trailing down into nothingness. But people have been staring at rectangles for thousands of years; painters know that you can manipulate a viewer to look wherever you darn well please.

Okay, But Do I Need to Know How to Code? 

I’ve been involved in projects that absolutely required me to “design in code,” requiring my knowledge of JQuery/JS/CSS/HTML and only touching Illustrator or Photoshop for assets at the very end. These jobs are fun and the amount of control you have from design to development is addictive.

My current role only requires my programming ability insofar that I don’t actively make designs that can’t possibly be implemented. Programming is terribly time-consuming for a generalist, so a team with large design needs and a well-established technical team, would probably benefit from their designer not being stretched thin writing code when they could focus elsewhere. A tiny team will need all hands on deck to make their web/mobile products a reality.

A designer asking if you need to know how to code is like asking if you need to know how to swim: you don’t really need to until you really do. Just pick it up! Even if you never become great at it, just think of it as another blunt tool, you MacGyver you.

I didn’t learn everything that I taught myself

You can learn all of the little tools in the toolbar. You can learn to write scripts to automate tasks in Photoshop. You can copy other people’s designs and obsessively borrow from trends to find the right look. 

Still, the development of "design mind” is another thing entirely.  For that, you just have to look.  I look by earnestly trying to be an early-adopter instead of a skeptic. I hang on to all my ticket stubs to remember movies and concerts I’ve seen. I keep an insanely well-documented log of my daily outfits, and--shocker--I even read all of my “trash” emails.

Are you a self-taught designer? What other tactics did you use?

ingridAbout the blogger: Ingrid Pierre is Lead Designer at Ovuline, a women’s reproductive health startup in Boston. She received her B.A. in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University. Ingrid once danced with Bill Murray and took a guinea pig to Niagara Falls. Follow her at @IngridVPierre.