How to Think Like a Designer

It's sometimes easy to overlook design, because its everywhere. In this article we'll discuss how to stop and take notice and think like a designer.

Portrait for EnvatoBy Envato  |  Updated November 3, 2020

Road signs, clothing, cars, furniture and computers are all the result of design.

Design is everywhere, which sometimes makes it easy to overlook, but there isn’t much we see or rely on that hasn’t been designed.

color scheme of yellow pink gray pink orange

One of the defining characteristics of humans as a species is our ability to understand and harness the extraordinary capabilities that tools – like flint blades and the wheel – bestow upon us. What are these tools? Design objects.

Learning to observe the world from a design perspective and think like a designer is useful, since it provides an essential way to understand our world. Design was and is integral to our survival.

Thinking like a designer is not difficult but can require a change in focus. People are already wired as designers to one degree or another as they shape their living spaces, selves and relationship to the world.

Let’s look at some key elements of the designer thought process.

designers aren't artists

Designers aren’t artists. Design’s first emphasis is on utility and function that serves a purpose; it can be a work of art, but that’s not its primary goal.

Design works like the modernist principle form follows function. This idea, developed by architect Louis Sullivan, states that the shape of a building or object should be based on its intended function and purpose. Form follows function was a response to a time when decoration, ornamentation, and artful design were more common.

To think like a designer versus an artist is to question the function and purpose of what you are making as a priority over exploring a concept or aesthetic approach. It’s not that aesthetics don’t matter (they most definitely do!) but they’re not more important than utility in a design. Questions a designer may ask:

  1. Can this solve the problem?
  2. Is this the best or most elegant solution for a problem?
  3. Does this serve a purpose?
  4. Will this help us?

Thinking practically, based on ideas of usefulness and functionality first, can make problem solving simpler and reduce complexity. A design that is approached in this way will more likely have clarity and simplicity.

designers mix things up

Designers follow the rules of form and function but also break rules too.

A good designer really knows how to creatively mix elements up, and they do this in more ways than one.

  • Designers mix up typography, color, pattern, shape and photo to create interesting and effective compositions.
  • They mix up elements and material from different cultures and periods of time to develop visual stories with more richness and depth.
  • They mix their own capabilities and know-how to come up with new solutions that blend technical, creative and cultural ideas.

Essentially, designers learn to be adept at noticing contrasts and juxtapositions and then working with those contradictions to create harmony. Designers, and particular contemporary designers working in web and mobile, have a technical understanding that they meld with their more creative side. We also live in a world with a vast visual culture that graphic designers learn to interpret in fresh, nuanced and expressive ways.

Thinking like a designer means learning how to juggle and integrate very different elements into an organized whole, and this makes the design process a game of balance and juxtaposition.

Margaret Penney – Writer, Designer and Artist

How designers go about achieving balance and juxtaposition in their work involves following a few basic rules.

1. Use Space Wisely

A key way designers are able to meld contrasting elements is through the use of space. If you have two elements in a design with drastically different visual styles you can use space to allow them to coexist within a composition. Space is a great way to reduce visual clutter in a design.

Space is also used to bring elements closer together. Designers may do this either because stylistically the elements are cohesive or because, from an information design standpoint, it makes sense to group them.

You see the use of space to associate content used a lot in editorial and invitation design. In an invitation you may place the date and time close together because as information modules, they make sense located in the same area of the design composition.

2. Align Intentionally

Along with grouping elements in close proximity, alignment is also used to create continuity within a design. Alignment seems like an obvious simple thing that designers do, but that doesn’t make it any less important.

Alignment uses the grid and can be explored via grid-based design in general. The grid is key to organizing the layout of a design in a way that makes it easier to understand and read.

On the flip side, sometimes designers don’t align everything completely to the grid since a design can appear stiff and rigid this way. Designers also use their eye to create visual balance in a layout and tweak the arrangement of elements a bit off the grid if they just *look* better that way and appear more visually balanced.

So, designers use alignment, but do so intentionally, staying aware of the role it plays in the larger composition.

3. Establish Hierarchy

A design has tiers of elements of lesser or greater importance. Design hierarchy is about making the more important elements, information, in a design stand out more.

Designers use a variety of methods to create visual hierarchy. The key ingredients for establishing hierarchy are scale, color and shape, along with the previously mentioned space and alignment. Here are some examples of visual hierarchy:

  • In an invitation design the name of the event may be scaled large to draw attention to it.
  • For a mobile UI kit color can be used to draw the eye to important buttons within the interface.
  • Shapes are used around typography to create a focal point in poster design.
  • The title of an article in a magazine design may be in a display font that appears bold and large within the design.

When designers begin a project, they think about what is being expressed and then organize the design with a clear visual hierarchy. Creating visible hierarchy makes a design easier to parse and understand and enables clear visual communication.

designers love the world

Designers love the world. So, designers follow some rules and employ a variety of techniques in order to create work that has utility, balance and beauty. Designers have an awareness of form, function, color, shape, type, pattern — many things in our visible field.

Developing this kind of awareness of design can definitely make the world more interesting. But, perhaps, one of the more beneficial things about thinking like a designer is not only having this awareness, but also developing a deep appreciation of all that is design around us, and in some ways, made for us.

From a designer’s perspective, you can look at the world as this carefully and sometimes lovingly made place where everything was crafted by some designer or another to be more functional, easier to understand, cheerful, awe-inspiring or just beautiful.

Editor’s note: The background patterns for the images in this article were also designed by the author! Check out Stucco patterns by Hellomartco

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