Design ≠ Photoshop

Why our intro Design Essentials course on Designlab doesn’t teach tools

There’s one recurring type of question we get from prospective students at Designlab, and it’s related to design software. How important is it to know Photoshop? Do you guys teach Sketch? This course doesn’t look like it covers Illustrator skills, not sure if it’s for me!

So I figured I’d write a quick post outlining our thoughts on beginner design education, and why we take the approach we do.

Design  Tools

Knowing design and understanding the principles of what makes “good” design are very different from being proficient at the tools used to create high-quality design.

Put a different way: you can be familiar with every single feature of Photoshop — how to create bezier curves, how to apply drop shadows with opacity, how to slice up your mockup into high-resolution assets, how to create a distressed “grunge” effect… but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know anything about how to create “good design.

Here’s a case in point.

Learning capital-d Design is quite different from learning how to be great at the tools. It consists of a more nuanced set of skills:

  • Understanding how to “see” design, and training your own aesthetic senses to distinguish between good and bad. As you start looking at more and more examples of design work, your “eye” becomes more sophisticated, and you begin to recognize the subtle effects that go into making great work.
  • Knowing how to apply these sensibilities and instincts to your own work.
  • Understanding the foundational principleswhat is visual hierarchy? How can you create contrast and visual interest in your work? What are the core tenets of typography? What is the difference between a warm and a cool color in terms of how it’s perceived? These core principles never change and apply across any type of work you create. These are all techniques that you could practice with something as simple as Keynote. However, they’re a set of skills that you must practice and work on over time to refine.

Look at the difference between the following two pieces of work:



Same tool used, same level of visual “polish” in terms of effects, but one is objectively much better design, because the person who created it understands the core principles of hierarchy, space, and balance.

In our opinion, only when you begin to master these core principles does it make sense to “graduate” to more sophisticated visual work. And that’s when you can focus on tools.

A couple of useful analogies:

  • Photography — when you’re learning photography, the best way to get started is to just start taking pictures — whether you’re using a point-and-shoot or even your iPhone camera. The core principles — photo composition, light, framing, and so on, will never change. Indeed, trying to use a fancy camera before you understand those techniques will lead to problems — you start to focus more on mastering the camera and its features, and not the underlying art you’re trying to create.

Every great artist can get what he wants with any sort of tools. He uses the tools he does because they make it easiest for him to get the results he wants.

  • Programming — The setup to begin learning programming was typically extremely complex for beginners — it consisted of digging around on the console, setting up packages, downloading an IDE, getting a local server up and running — i.e., an overt emphasis on tools over principles. All of this dissuaded learners from even getting started.  Say what you will about their overall pedagogy and effectiveness, but Codecademy simplified this process to great success. Instead of a mind-melting setup process, you get started with a simple console environment in the browser. You’re immediately tasked with learning the basics (what is a “loop”? how does input/output work? what is the “command line”?), and get to focus on mastering these core concepts. Their product works like a set of training wheels that help you learn the key principles of programming, before moving on to gaining proficiency with the real tools of the trade. 

To summarize:

At the foundational level, we think it’s important to practice visual design with basic tools that make it easy to focus on the core principles. Otherwise, you’re paying attention to gaining proficiency with a tool, without understanding the concepts of design.

As you gain a deeper understanding of what makes quality visual design, you can then begin to focus on mastery within the medium… which merits a deeper dive into design software.

And that’s why our intro course doesn’t teach you how to use Photoshop.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know via email:

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— Excerpt from Crooked Cucumber
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