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Good Tools or Good Design?
It was not until recent years (my late 30s) that I began to appreciate great art and design. That appreciation grew out of my own attempts to design websites, graphics and motion graphics with pretty much no experience, training or understanding of the design process. What I found was while I loved learning the tools of design (namely Photoshop & After Effects), I had a combination of both fear and a antipathy for process of design. Since I feel most comfortable as a technician rather than a designer this led to countless hours of stares at a blank screen and an overall lack of enjoyment in the process of creating. And if the joy of creating isn't there, you simply cannot make great (or even good) looking work!
I think those of us who like to create in this digital age are real suckers for the latest software or plugin that seemingly promises to make a stronger design in mere moments. This is a classic problem that is true in almost every circumstance from fitness equipment to household appliances and is just the type of sales tactic that has made the infomercial industry gobs of money. I mean really, who hasn't thought that the latest version of software will crank out a design with a few simple clicks of the mouse? The looping animation below is from 2003 and was my first attempt to design in Livetype, an application that was bundled with Final Cut Pro at the time. The software was limited (and was a predecessor to Apple's Motion) but I thought it was brilliant. Now I look at these and see flawed design including bad animation, awkward backgrounds, mismatched coloring and the unforgivable sin of using the Papyrus font. I can say without boasting that my skills have improved but how have they improved? Well the tools have indeed improved over the years but so has my ability to maneuver through tools. Also, however, I have begun to develop a sense of what good design looks like. If I had that sense in 2003 I would not have used the fonts and colors knowing what I know now since good fonts have pretty much always been around.
I, like many of you, did not go to art or design school and I'm not at a place where I can return to get that type of training. Also, despite all I have learned I still find my design skills to be quite weak. So what do you do? Well if you are new to design and are thinking that purchasing Adobe CS6 (when it comes out this spring) will automatically take your design skills to the next level you will be quite disappointed. You can Google up a good tutorial which helps but can also further reaffirm our lack of originality and skills. For after the tutorial you return to the dreaded blank stare at the screen. The obvious truth is yes to both good design and good tools. I cannot design great motion graphics with Windows Paint anymore than I can create them out in the garage with yarn and a hot glue gun. So how do you make this transition from the love of tools to the love of design?
Well first you need to invest time in actually learning design, which translated means spend less time looking at tutorials and the latest gadgets of design. In the beginning this might make your designs simpler and less 'effect driven' but the payoff will be enormous. Truth be told I use just a fraction of the built in effects of all my Adobe Creative Suite and I used to fret over that lack of knowledge but now I am learning that good design skills coupled with a fraction of "tool knowledge" can actually take you quite a long way. Look at this Infographic-styled motion piece I found on Vimeo. It appears to have been animated entirely with shape layers, animated text, a few expressions and a number of camera moves. I see no major effects used yet it communicates very well. There's no doubt simple design is the way to start yet I see more beginners, myself included, throw just about every effect into a design, covering up what is simply a bad design to begin with.
Next, always be taking in and observing good design. When you see something you like, don't exclaim "I'll never be that good!", say to yourself "what is it about this that is so darn appealing?" If you have a smart phone you are without excuse, use it. Take pictures of designs you like or jot them down to dwell upon later. I use Evernote and the iPhone's Voice Memo application if I'm unable to take a picture. Taking in good design is the most intuitive way to learn.
Third, always be experimenting and testing. Now that you have a foundation let's play with those awesome tools! I say have at least one Adobe (or other design product) application running at all times. Go ahead, your PC or Mac won't complain, I promise! Try those things out you've been learning in your book or on the web. Attempt to replicate that design you took a picture of earlier. Practice various layouts of the same design elements and see which ones you find most appealing and ask yourself why that is. The most important part of practicing is actually finishing the piece. I find an unfinished piece is either a concept that was just plain bad to begin with or perfectionism telling me my work is unacceptable.
Fourthly, put your work on the Internet, for good or for bad. Go where designs are and put yours out there. If you build it, opinions will come! Some are just haters but I've had a number of people give me great feedback. I suggest posting on Tumblr, Pinterest, Youtube, Vimeo and Facebook. If you're looking for a more personable approach then I suggest finding somebody with an eye for design that you trust who provide constructive criticism. If you want or need even more resources and feedback then go to Twitter. Follow people, comment and reply to other people's work and strike up conversations. I don't have to say but I will, we live in a great time when passions of any sort of democratized and available for anybody to learn. That wasn't always the case but is today. So keep your priorities straight! Enjoy the tools but love design. My final unofficial point is to relax! Take a deep breath and enjoy the process. Don't take yourself so seriously that you forget to appreciate the what you have learned and continue to learn. Compare your earlier work to your most recent work and admire how for you have come.
posted 03/19/12 by Karl in Dallas | Report Abuse