Can You Be A Designer If You Have No Training?
I recently saw an online acquaintance of mine share a Controversial Opinion™ that I found challenging:
If you do not have formal training in design you are not a designer.
Right off the bat — L take, and I’m trying not to say that just because I am a designer with no training (lol). I think there’s more ways to be critical here than just being like “haha ok then how me doing design rn”, though. I’d like to interact with this fairly and in good faith, so for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll assume best intentions by the author of the opinion.
I didn’t link the post here because I don’t have any interest in either A. oxygenating platforms I don’t believe in, nor B. dunking on folks who I think just missed the mark.
⛓ Design Isn’t A Thing
Modern design—especially on the web—is just problem-solving. It’s the act of thinking carefully about the way systems and products will work, discovering potential or empirical failures in those systems, and proposing functional solutions. A lot of folks (me) get hung up on the fonts part of Being A Designer, but in earnest, the visual aspects of design e.g. color and type and rhythm and layout just serve to solve a problem, which is that communicating information clearly and memorably is hard.
If this is our framework for understanding design, then design happens in a thousand little ways every day by non-designers. When folks choose the order of items on their restaurant menu, or make the newsletter for their community theater, or rearrange their living room to flow more naturally, they’re thinking about a system and enacting improvements to it. These are just people, though — they’re not necessarily academics nor are they necessarily not, but despite the lack of training in or even awareness of design thinking and discipline, they’re doing design.
⛓ Designers Aren’t A Thing
The threshold for design is care and consideration for problem solving, not formal steeping in impermanent design tools, not a slick BFA from RISD. “Being A Designer” is a mechanism we use to allow people who enjoy the exercise of that considerate problem-solving to do it for a living, but that’s the extent of its utility as a title.
The societal value of someone who spends a lot of time doing design is that they’re practiced in applying frameworks of analysis to problem areas. For example: one turns to a financial advisor because the advisor is practiced in translating financial goals and concerns into investment and wealth management strategies; one turns to a web designer because the web designer is practiced in translating business goals and concerns into web-based solutions.
A really good designer is good because of their aptitude and willingness firstly to discover and constrain the shapes of problems, and then creatively apply different approaches until an amicable solution is found. A really good designer is not good because they know the most about Figma or the best type foundries, but because they’re dedicated to being curious and good at listening.
⛓ Controversial Opinions Aren’t A Thing
This is the least fair and least relevant and least-principled part of this analysis, so feel free to skip to the end bit.
Earnestly, I’m a bit allergic to Controversial Opinions online. In real life, when you form an opinion, you tack it together from inputs you value — a recent article from an expert or a conversation with a close friend — and then you try it out in limited social circles. You ask your friends or colleagues what they think about the new opinion you’ve made, and you reshape it based on the feedback you get.
Being Online shortens and malforms that process, however. For example, when a friend responds poorly to an idea you have that they disagree with, they are likely do so in a kind way. Or when a subject matter expert responds poorly to the idea, they might do so critically and with discipline, and those two safety measures allow you to safely haul your opinion back to the shed for some reworking, or maybe out to the junkyard if you find it to have no durable substance.
But posting online removes those safeguards, and the shape of discourse on Twitter means you don’t get to carefully or with nuance respond to criticisms. In the land of quote retweet dunks, “controversial” opinions can just be wrong ones. Be careful.
Anyone can be a designer, and anyone can engage with design thinking (academic purists HATE him). Tooling is irrelevant, and training has value only to the extent that it makes you a more flexible and curious problem solver, or more fluent at knowing when to reuse tried solutions. “Designer” the resume title is a mechanism for collecting a paycheck, but you don’t need the title to delight in designing caring and considered solutions for your day-to-day work.
Anyway, thanks for reading. If you hate this counter-take, feel free to dunk on me online (as long as it’s funny), or (preferred) if you have ideas of how I can improve it shoot me an email.