How to Develop Designer’s Intuition

Have you ever stood next to a designer as they explained how they arrived at their final design? They’ll say cryptic things like “the kerning felt cramped” or “the page was noisy”, so then I changed such and such...

Why can't they clearly explain their work to beginners and non-designers? Do they not know why they make the choices they doo?

They do know. Even if they can’t verbalize it well.

Over the years they've developed designer’s intuition. It's the culmination of all the projects they've ever done. Projects both remembered and in their subconscious. When they explain their work they’re drawing from this intuition.

In programming, if something doesn't work there's often a clear reason why. Maybe a function wasn't written correctly so it won't fire when it's supposed to. You can highlight the specific line with your cursor and explain to someone why it's broken.

But in design, when someone says "the page is noisy" there's no one rule in graphic design that they can point to that explains what they mean. It's likely a mix of several things they're describing. Maybe the hierarchy on the page isn't clear, there's one too many colors, and two competing messages. So they use a word like "noisy" as a blanket statement to describe all of it.

To a novice, the word "noisy" sounds like the designer is stating an opinion. Like a grumpy old man who doesn't like heavy metal music. This leads many people to incorrectly assume that design is subjective. That it's only a matter of taste. But only at the highest levels of competency is this true. In my opinion a 1964 Porsche 356 is a better looking car than a Jaguar XKE from the same year. Both are very well designed so it's a matter of taste which you prefer. But the Porsche is certainly better looking than a Ford Pinto. It has better lines, it's tighter, and as a whole it's more cohesive.

Beginning designers will sometimes defend their work by saying "that's just your opinion!". It's an easy trap to fall into. But that attitude won't serve you well as you strive to get better. You should be critical of your Pintos.

Differing Worldviews

When looking for feedback you want concrete and tangible answers. But the designers you're asking speak a language you don't understand. This is because you’re asking questions from the world view of a beginner and they’re answering from the world view of a practitioner. Here's the difference:

Beginner's world view:

(learning, facts, principles)

Practitioner's world view

(instincts, execution, taste)

Practitioners have been through the beginner stage that you’re in now but they've forgotten what it was like. Now they speak in the language of instinct. Teachers are sensitive to your current skill level but not most practitioners.

From beginner to practitioner

When a designer starts school there’s a lot to take in. She learns color theory. Why some fonts are more expressive than others. Why most stock photos don’t communicate well.

The bulk of her energy is spent in the beginners quadrant. Then exercises begin. It’s difficult and slow going. She has trouble connecting the earlier lessons with the assignment that’s right in front of her.

There’s a lot of back and forth. Learn. Practice. Learn. Practice.

In 6 months things start to click. She says to herself:

"Orange and blue is a nice color scheme but it might not be right for this high-end makeup website I’m designing..."

"Futura is a beautiful and timeless typeface but maybe I need something a little more contemporary..."

“I know Getty Images will have a high quality photo of a kitchen, but Stocksy may have some that feels more authentic."

Years pass. Through repetition and practice she’s internalized the fundamentals and doesn’t even think about them much. She is now a practitioner. Now when a beginner asks her for feedback about a design she replies hazily “that font just feels off for some reason...”

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