Aug 18

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:

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:

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.

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: harish@trydesignlab.com.

Aug 15


“Suzuki told an old Chinese folk tale about the difference between heaven and hell. In hell everyone has very short arms. They sit around tables full of sumptuous food, trying to eat with very long chopsticks, but they can’t get the food in their mouths because the chopsticks are too long and their arms too short. They try in agony to feed themselves, to no avail. In heaven everyone also has short arms, but everyone is feeding each other across the table and having a lovely time.” — Excerpt from Crooked Cucumber

Aug 12

“The MOOC, by itself, doesn’t really change things, except for the very most motivated student. It’s just an element to be mixed in to get all the steps to get through an entire degree program. And, so, most of these systems will be hybrid systems. After all, a student who could deal with just the MOOC by itself, without any face-to-face contact and counseling, they’re the type of student who, when we had text books, were also capable of getting by and learning the material. The MOOC is not based on new educational knowledge. It’s simply presented in an easier to understand, more interactive way that can be fantastic. So, that’s an opportunity.” — Bill Gates, speaking on the future of college

Jul 19

“In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.” — HST, 1958