Reading Time: 3 minutes

OK, I admit it. I’m not really a proper designer. I have been bluffing my way through for the last 10 years as a professional and yet I have no design training whatsoever. I don’t even have a GCSE (OK, I should say ‘O’ level really) in art.

Until yesterday I thought a ligature was only something medical and most probably painful. Until relatively recently I didn’t know anything about grid systems, let alone use them.

Beautiful ligatures. I’ve always known them, I just didn’t know their name.

But I don’t think I’m alone. I think there are many people in this industry who blundered their way in, and although we are all capable and have some inherent natural ability for layout, colour, contrast, proportions or whatever else, some of us lack a bit of knowledge in the fundamentals of the art, history, mechanics and development of graphic design.

Breaking Conventions

In Cennydd Bowles talk yesterday about ‘The Music of Interaction Design’ at SXSW 2011, he talked of Stravinski breaking common conventions and challenging the mainstream to create something new and different, yet initially very dissonant. At first I thought; “yes!”, “this is what I have been doing all these years; unwittingly breaking some of the rules. I’m so cool.”

Unfortunately, It doesn’t really work like this. True artists that break the rules know the rules to begin with.

> Breaking the rules without understanding them is just being ignorant.

But I believe there is more graphic design ignorance around than we know. I think a lot of web designers, for example, are ignorant about the art of typography. To many, even those I have met with a general graphic design education, typography – especially body content, is a little bit of an after thought. All of our effort goes into creating navigation systems, and ‘Calls to Action’ to get us to content. But the content itself is ‘just some text’ a big block of Lorem Ipsum in a wire-frame which is treated with very little thought or attention beyond a bit of line spacing. Of course, we have been limited with web typography until recently which means we have been able to hide our ignorance.

But now, as Richard Rutter demonstrated in his typography session yesterday, technology is developing fast so we will soon be required to have more knowledge of typographic techniques if we want to excel and keep up.

The Art of Typography

At Reading University, where I used to work in the Computer Services Centre, I spent a lot of time in the Department of Typography. I was always amazed that there was a three year degree course just in typography, and the department was not called the Department of Graphic Design. They specialised. Typography is a true art form in its own right with depths I could never have even considered without studying it.

Really. He’d like to have known, I’m quite sure of it.

I think there are a lot of web designers who need and really crave more knowledge of basic design principles. Of course as Web Designers we have so much more to worry about than the graphic design itself. So it’s no surprise that some of our knowledge is rather diluted. Although we all like to think we know about everything; when, for example, it comes to confidently talking about our design work and explaining our thought processes, I hear a lot of us fail. I am one of them.

We fail because we are working at a subconscious level not really knowing why we are doing a lot of what we are doing. We do it because we have a natural visual ability, but to really talk about our work we need the knowledge and the language to articulate and discuss it. Although it doesn’t mean we can’t produce good work, until we know more of the rules, how can we break them with enough understanding and confidence to create something greater and most importantly; justify, rationalise and explain it to our colleagues and clients.

Keep on Learning

SXSW 2011 has taught me a lot already, made me think and inspired me like it always does. It makes me want to learn more and more – and as I heard someone say yesterday;

> “…the greatest skill a web professional can have is knowing how to learn, to keep on learning and to never sit still.”

This doesn’t just mean learning about new technologies, but also about how we fit in and got to where we are as visual designers.