January 2011

Your journey and mine

Growing up as an architect’s son, I was encouraged to walk around with my eyes open. Quite literally: he told me to always look up as you miss all the detail at eye level.

“All you see is shop windows, Mark. To see buildings, you have to look above all that.”

That simple message has stayed with me for a long time, literally and metaphorically. It’s all too easy – in any design profession – to carry on with the blinkers on. To look at only your own profession to gain inspiration. To read others’ design books and blogs. To engage in meaningful debate on Twitter or to attend web design conferences. This collective experience – made possible with the immediacy of Twitter – is in danger of eroding something that should be sacred; a designer’s own personal journey.

A journey

You may have started your design life as a developer. You may have had a introduction to design at school and stayed true to that one path. For me, my journey started when I was about 7 years old with an obsession with that colourful brick of wonder; Lego. It wasn’t just a toy, it was my passion. It wasn’t just something we did when it was raining outside and Why Don’t You had finished on the telly. From the moment I awoke, to the moment I went to sleep, it occupied my every thought. When I wasn’t playing with it, I was designing for it on paper. On long journey’s I would sketch plans for intricate Cold-War mountain-side bases, or oil rigs, or airports, or large towns. A stereotypical Architect’s son, I know. This preoccupation with make-believe went hand in hand with my other interests: painting and drawing, Dungeons and Dragons (but only because I enjoyed painting miniatures) and designing and building tree houses. Making stuff. All the time.

Design is not art

The desire to make things is what drove me to be a designer. It’s something I am, rather than something I do. That old cliché is true, I think. If I didn’t end up a web designer, I probably would’ve been some other type of designer. I’m not one for self-indulgence, generally, but I wonder what has happened along the way that has shaped me in my profession. What makes me the type of designer I am? Lego? Looking up at buildings? What are the defining points in our professional lives that shape who we are? Well, I actually don’t think it’s our professional lives we should be concen- trating on.

Design is not art. Design is not a pursuit of self-expression. It is a craft and we are the craftsmen and women. We take a brief, work with clients, and provide something at the end of it. We get paid. We move on. To do that well, a designer must be versatile with their craft. They’ve got to have the chops; the theory, the tools, the techniques. They’ve got to be able to apply them appropriately for a given audience. The wider the range of clients and industries you may be asked to work on, the wider your expertise will be stretched. Then, you will be tested. You will have to draw on your experience. And if your only exposure to design is through your work as a web designer, then you’re already fighting a losing battle. Quick! Reach for Dribbble, or for that awesome site you bookmarked last month for inspiration!

Stop. You’re operating in a bubble. And it’s very bad for you.

Schooling vs practice

At this point, if you’ve not been to design school, you may think the best thing to do would be to learn about Modernism, or the Bauhaus, or Charles and Ray Eames. To enrich your design schooling. If you can relate to me, as someone who is a do-er, then I think you’d be wasting your time. History is important. Knowing the roots of an industry is important, but not at the expense of your journey. Your journey should be about you. Not about what you think may be expected.

Schooled designers can be terrible snobs. Generally unable to articulate a process, applied techniques and results, they rely heavily on drawing parallels with art movements and using language that is designed to confuse not clarify. Because design is magic, right?

My point is that design schooling – traditional design schooling – is not what it’s cracked up to be. My advice to anyone who asks about it is to go on a short writing course, or ask a printer if you can shadow or help out a day a week. Go life drawing. Go to yoga. Learn how to be an electrician. Enrich your life with other skills that will shape you as a designer, not shoehorn you into a designer ‘box’.

Let’s not muddy the waters. In my mind, design practice – and when I say practice, I mean ‘doing’ – is not an academic pursuit; it’s a practical exercise, is working with people to create beautiful, meaningful and purposeful things. For clients. For money. Let critical thought belong to the critics. Let design thinking – whatever that is – belong to the legions of designers too busy staring at their navels. Stop. Look at your work and do good work for good people. And then go home and do something else. Stop thinking about design, and look around.

But this is my journey. Go and have your own.


Mark Boulton

Mark is an information designer, writer, and speaker. He's got a thing about design systems and editorial design. Mark currently leads digital communications at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory helping build a new publishing platform for the organisation and a new design system for life sciences.


This article was commissioned for our January 2011 magazine. Like it? View all articles, grab our RSS feed, and subscribe to our newsletter.