Learning Through Exercise — The Bridge Between Theory And Real World Practice

My current approach to learning design is reaching a point where it’s beginning to fail me. I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t work at all, but rather it seems to only have the ability to take me so far and I’m starting to bump up against its limits. With some aspects of design my approach is plateauing at a point at which I still want to climb higher.


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Earlier in the week I mentioned a realization I had about adding a routine of directed exercises to improve my skills working with color. This realization wasn’t limited to color. It was more about learning in general and about theory, practice, and exercise in particular.

I want to share some of the thoughts that have come about through this realization and offer some ideas for how best to learn different aspects of design.

Theory and Practice

There’s no substitute for the doing. I could explain to you everything you need to know to play the guitar and you can read about it and watch others explain the same things, but until you actually pick up the instrument and train your fingers to form chords and play scales you won’t be able to play the guitar. It’s no different with something seemingly less physical like design.

Practice is important because it trains your muscles or your brain to do some things automatically. Practice also gives you a deeper and more visceral understanding of whatever it is you want to learn. If you could only choose one or the other I’d always choose practice, because you simply have to do in order to do.

However, practice doesn’t show you everything. While it lets you feel and climb the trees and see the how their roots reach into the ground, at some point you have to step back and see the trees through the lens of the entire forest. You need the big picture to see the connections between different trees and those connections can take a long time to see through practice alone.

That’s where theory comes in. Where practice is learning from your own experience, theory is learning from the experience of those who came before. You aren’t the first person to design something. Others have figured out lots of what makes for good design so why not take advantage of their experience and avoid some mistakes or let their experience guide yours.

In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of it taking 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Whether or not the number 10,000 is significant in any way isn’t important. The point is it takes a lot of practice to become good at something.

There’s huge difference though, between practicing without any direction and practicing based on some kind of plan. The latter can greatly reduce the number of hours it takes to become good. It’s another reason why combining theory and practice is important. You have to practice, but you won’t need as much practice if you put in some time studying theory as well.

My Approach to Learning

Whenever I approach a new subject, I typically begin with theory. It helps me avoid some early mistakes and gives me an overall understanding that might take years of practice to reach. Ultimately it helps prepare my first few efforts to be better and gives me confidence that I can get even better.

There’s a danger though in that I can easily find myself spending too much time in the theory, wanting to perfect every attempt before I even try. In spending too much time looking at the forest you can lose your connection with the individual trees you’ve been trying to know.

Practice is improved by theory, but theory needs practice. Sometimes I can get that practice through client work. When I can’t it’s on me to create projects that let me apply the theory I’m learning. Sometimes that’s not too difficult. Other times it’s harder than it you’d think.

There’s another way to practice and do and that’s through exercise. The first part of my recent realization is this understanding that exercises can bridge the gap between pure theory and real world practice.

Directed Exercise

Directed exercises give you practice because you have to do the exercises. They teach you theory because they aren’t random. They’re designed based on theory to help you learn something specific or to learn several things in a certain order to maximize what you get from each.

Working through exercises consistently and in a planned way is akin to practicing and performing katas in the tradition of a martial artist.

Those who design good exercises do so based on their own experience and what they’ve come to see is valuable for others to learn.

Directed exercises aren’t the same as real world practice. You’re practicing theoretical problems that you may never apply directly, though you’ll gain skills you should be able to apply to real world projects.

Toward a New Approach to Learning

The second part of my realization is an understanding that different design skills are best learned in different ways.

I think one of the reasons I find working with color difficult is because there’s only so much theory and it’s only so useful. Choosing colors is ultimately a skill that comes more from experience than intellectual understanding.

A similar situation exists with type. For me the most difficult typographic decisions revolve around choosing typefaces. That aspect of typography is also much more experiential than intellectual. Theory has helped me work with size, measure, and leading, but it can’t give me the eye for choosing one typeface over another.

My guess is I’ll need to find some exercises for working with type the same way I’m currently seeking some for working with color.

Concluding Thoughts

Not long ago I mentioned the letters of Vincent van Gogh and how they offered a good path to follow for maintaining a blog about design.

There’s a connection between van Gogh’s letters and what I’m talking about in this post. Those letters often share observations, thoughts, and critiques about daily practice in painting. Some letters discuss the finished work we’re familiar with. Other letters discuss what would be considered exercises designed to learn or prepare for those finished paintings.

I want to take this blog in the direction of van Gogh’s letters, but it hadn’t occurred to me until now that the desire is based on something deeper than this blog. The desire is more about changing how I learn. It’s about putting more emphasis on doing, in a way specifically directed toward learning and sharing what I’m learning.

I suspect it won’t be an easy change for me, given my current approach to learning has developed over a very long period of time. However, I think this change necessary in order to grow past a level of skill that I may have reached or be reaching soon.

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2 comments

  1. You hit the nail on the head “practice makes perfect”..the problem is afterwards you always think “i wish i had done this intead of that”

    • Is it sad that we always think we could have done it better? Hopefully it’s just a sign that we’ve become better designers through the act of working through a project and with out new understanding want to fix mistakes.

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