This week’s reading got me thinking about the extent to which design can be taught. While there were a number of practical suggestions in the chapter from White Space is Not Your Enemy, most of what the author suggested can be summed up as “don’t use colors that don’t look good together,” which is good, if not terribly useful advice. Part of the problem of course is that design relies on a well developed aesthetic sensibility. Sure red and green are complementary colors, but are the particular shades you’ve chosen? Does it make your website look like a bad Christmas card? Which elements should be which colors? If green is your dominant color, how much red is too red? And the answer to all of that is, it depends. It depends on what looks good, what looks right. And if you can’t see what isn’t working when you look at your website, you’re out of luck.
As a case in point, take my type assignment from last week. The most common (and I’m sure correct) criticism that it received was that the line spacing was too tight. People felt that the text looked cluttered and smashed together. Which is fair. But when I was putting it together, I spent a fair bit of time fidgeting with line spacing. I had let the spacing out some, because Georgia is a fairly heavy font, and then pulled it back in a bit when it started looking like it was losing cohesion. So in the end, what I thought was an appropriate line spacing was actually too tight for most people to read comfortably. The problem of course is that I’m not sure I could have been taught to make that decision correctly the first time.
As such, I’d suggest that teaching design, like teaching writing or any craft, is a matter less of direct instruction than constructive critique. Other than a few very broad and general principles to act as basic guidelines (use lots of space, no Times New Roman) the best method of learning seems to be to make as many mistakes as you can as quickly as possible. The critique is where learning takes place, and where one’s aesthetic sense can be developed. Because even if I won’t ever necessarily be able to see the problems with my design work intuitively, I can start storing away lessons about the way in which my sensibility doesn’t work for other people, which will hopefully let me make positive adjustments in future.