By Melinda Rainsberger, UX Designer
Recently, I was asked to review high school portfolios for my alma mater, RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design. I saw about 30 portfolios in four hours (I’m a fast talker). I saw a lot of amazing artists. But there was one piece of advice that I gave to every single one. It can seem rather silly and inconsequential when your ultimate goal is to be a graphic designer or photographer or something that doesn’t “need” drawing skills.
I went to 10 years of concentrated art programs (probably 4500 hours of art and design classes), and I was not significantly better than the average student when I started college. This is the “trick” to getting good:
Draw. Every day. From life.
Don’t draw from memory. Don’t draw from imagination. Look at something, and draw it.
What I learned from all that art school was that art is a conversation between the maker and the audience that asks “Have you ever really noticed this thing?” Art takes some small thing and amplifies and elevates its unique qualities so other people can appreciate and understand it as well. By extension, design is an attempt to solve human problems, with a foundation of art.
The whole process starts with seeing. Just like we write book reports to show we paid attention to the book, we draw to ensure we really paid attention to the visual details. It’s not about the quality of the drawing, it’s about the quality of the seeing.
Before you start to suspect I’m an art school snob, let me say: this isn’t about the quality of realism in the drawing. Stick figures are some of the best forms of drawing out there. Quick, clear, and effective. I love your stick figures.
The first iPhone size was based on the reach of the average thumb. It’s a size that was so popular, Apple was forced to bring it back after they’d discontinued it. It’s good design because the designers and engineers looked at a LOT of people. They looked at how they hold small objects, and how they might read with one hand. They looked at pocket sizes (women’s pockets are historically tiny). The first iPhone design is still popular because of this attention to detail.
The iPhone is an easy, famous example of good design. But examples exist in even the most unexpected places. I firmly believe many of Tim Burton’s early films are just an attempt to show how wondrous snow can be. The Nightmare Before Christmas is the story of a kid from sunny Burbank trying to show other people how much he loves snow. As fantastical as his movies are, the best are still grounded in everyday observations like this.
RISD doesn’t care about finding people good at drawing; they care about finding people interested in the world around them and solving problems in unique and wondrous ways. RISD grads tackle everything from Google doodles to home decor. Drawing from imagination or photographs doesn’t show an interest in this big, beautiful, weird world we have. RISD is first and foremost a design school—and design solves human problems. And if you aren’t really looking at the world, how will you ever change it?
Just like good science, good design identifies the problem, studies it, identifies possible solutions, and then experiments until a solution is found. I still start by hand drawing wireframes for websites—not because I want a drawing of a website, but because drawing is the quickest way to design 100 versions of a website and find the one that can change the standard of care.