Become A Better Designer Through Critical Thinking

Last week I offered some general thoughts on how become a better designer when you’re feeling overwhelmed with all there is to learn. I briefly mentioned critical thinking about design as an important part of the process. I’d like to expand on that brief mention.

Being able to think critically about design is an important part of becoming a better designer. It will help you better understand things you’ve learned and it will help you see solutions to design problems.

Wassily Kandinsky's Composition 8.
Composition VIII: Wassily Kandinsky (1923) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Learning to Think Critically

As I mentioned last week and have several times in the past, both theory and practice are important aspects of learning.

Nothing can replace actually doing something, which is why practice is so important. It doesn’t matter how well you understand the theory behind a grid if you’ve never built one.

However, theory provides context for why those grids are important and understanding the theory behind them helps you know why you’re using a grid, which type of grid to choose, when not to use one, and so on. Theory generally helps you to avoid wasted effort.

  • Practice is learning from your own experience
  • Theory is learning from the experience of others

Critical thinking helps connect the two by looking at actual practice and observing how well it works with theory. It helps you take theoretical knowledge and think how you could apply it practically to your own work, the work of others, and even ordinary things you see around you.

It starts by observing. Don’t just look at someone’s work. Learn to really see it. Observe not only the whole, but the individual parts and think about what each part is doing, is trying to do, and how it contributes to the whole.

The process is a simple one.

  • Observe — Give the work more than a quick glance. Look at the whole. See the parts. Look at it again and again and again.
  • Question — Keep asking yourself questions based on your observations. Why does the design work? Why doesn’t it work? What are the different parts doing? Are they contributing to the whole? Detracting from it?
  • Answer — Think about the answers to all the questions you’re raising. Being right isn’t important. What is important is you thinking about the answers.

Let me give you an example using the image above of Kandinsky’s Composition #8. It’s an image I’ve referred to in the past to illustrate a variety of different principles of composition.

The first time I looked at the painting I liked it. I didn’t instantly know why, but something about the composition felt right to me. I could have left it there and simply enjoyed it from to time, but instead I spent time really looking at the painting and asking myself questions about it and then trying to answer the questions I raised.

One of the first things I notice about the painting is the large circular object in the upper left. Why did I notice that first and why is my eye constantly drawn back to it? It’s one of the largest objects in the composition. It’s also the darkest. The colors (black, red, and purple) mostly contrast with the colors from the rest of the composition. It’s connected to a smaller red circle and I realize I’m not just drawn to the larger circle, but the combined object of both circles. This combined object has a bit of space around it, separating it from the mass of the composition.

All of these observations are teaching me how to draw attention to something in a design. I don’t necessarily know if any of these observations is more important than the others or whether it’s the combination of all of them that makes the object stand out, but I’ve given myself a number of things to try the next time I want something in a design to stand out and attract attention.

Observing other compositions and experimenting in my own work will further help me understand what is happening and why.

Thinking about this one aspect of the composition has taught me about the principle of dominance. Had I been previously aware of the principle, I now have a working example that proves the principle. Had I not been aware of it, I’ve now discovered it, even if I don’t yet know it’s name or that it’s even a principle.

In either case I’ve learned a lot about how design works and given myself a number of ways to implement something in a future design. And all it took was a couple of minutes observing, questioning, and answering. Perhaps some of my analysis about why the object pulls my eye is incorrect. It doesn’t matter. I certainly have a better understanding of dominance and how to attract the eye than I did before those few minutes.

I can similarly look at the composition and think about why my eye moves through it as it does and why it feels right to me. I can ask myself how I feel looking at it and then thinking about why. By continuing to look at the composition and thinking critically about it, I can continue to learn.

Over time I have continued to apply critical thinking to this single composition and through that thinking, I’ve gained a deeper of understanding of concepts like:

That deeper understanding helps me work with all of the above more effectively in my own designs. One painting doesn’t make me an expert using any of them, but critically thinking about a number of paintings and designs has helped to improve my skills.

Don’t just look at a design and decide you like it or don’t like it. Learn to really see the design and how it works. Keep asking yourself questions about why and how it works. Do your best to answer those questions. It’s not important to be right in your answers. The important part is to think about them.

Offering Critiques

One way you can put critical thinking to use and help out others in the process is though design critiques. People ask for feedback all the time on forums and design communities. Unfortunately much of the feedback given has little value. It’s of the form I like this or I don’t like that.

When you see someone asking for a critique see it as an opportunity for you to learn more about design. See it as an opportunity to think critically and gain a deeper understanding of something about design.

Many years ago I was presented a way to critique in a writing course. I’ve adapted it slightly to design critiques over the years and have shared the method here on several occasions.

  • Write down observations as they come to you without any explanation.
  • Choose 3 things you like and explain why you think they work in the design.
  • Share 3 things you think need improvement and how you would improve them.

The first item is simply to help you get into an observational state and ease you in to the other two parts. Explaining why things work is similar to what I did above with Kandinsky’s painting.

Thinking through how you would improve something in a design is more of a challenge. It asks you to not only understand why something doesn’t work, but gets you to think through how you might make it work. It’s one step closer to applying theory in practice.

Summary

There’s a great amount of value in thinking critically about design. Take the time to observe different designs and learn to really see them. Think about why they do and don’t work. Think about what each part of the design contributes to the whole and how it contributes. Observe, ask, and answer.

When giving feedback to another designer give more than a few quick likes and dislikes. The effort you put into the feedback determines how much value both of you get out of it. This is one of those true win-win situations. Trust me when I say, done well, you’ll get the most value from the exercise.

You don’t have to wait for someone to ask for feedback in order to perform a critique. Critique whatever you see. Critique works of art and designs you come across on the web, in magazines, on posters, and business cards. Critique your own work. You can even critique mother nature’s work, though don’t tell her about it. I hear she has a mean streak.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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