I teach a course at UCLA Extension called Elements of Design. It deals with the stuff design is made of. Things like balance, gestalt theory, proportion, value, color, structure and composition all go into the mix of what design is all about. Students who complete the course come away with the understanding that design is not one thing or another but a conglomeration of elements. Remove one or several and it’s just not design.
We can say the same about designers. Let me begin with this analogy: It’s conceivable that a person can purchase a stethoscope and a white coat, have his name embroidered on it and call himself a doctor. But the proof of his being a doctor is not in his accessories or attire, but in his knowledge.
The person who takes a few software classes, prints up some business cards, sets up a website and calls himself a designer is not necessarily a real designer. He might look like a real designer but without certain abilities that are essential to the craft he’s created a veneer with no substance to support it.
Real designers, whether formally educated or not, are set apart by virtue of what they know and how they apply it. (How and where they learn these things is not my point here.) Beyond technical ability using Creative Suite software, there are critical thinking skills and background knowledge involved in creating successful design solutions.
This is my list of essential knowledge and abilities that are foundational to being a real designer. Lacking any of these ingredients compromises one’s ability to design well, if at all, in my experience. Please note that none of these have anything to do with Photoshop:
Design principles and elements, including gestalt theory;
Color theory, including web and print color, psychology, symbology and basic scientific properties of light and pigment;
Typography, including typefaces and font families, and the ability to select a face based on how it needs to communicate;
Knowledge of design history;
Knowledge of popular culture, current trends and future projections;
Drawing skills, because drawing is a basic form of visual communication;
Verbal and written communication skills to be able to present a solid rationale for design decisions, keep clients informed and educate when necessary.
Then on top of these foundational ingredients we can add technical skill and the ability to engage in the design process to reach a successful outcome. Why? Because a real designer can design with a pencil or a computer. The tool is secondary; the thinking ability is primary.
A few places where you can get learn design without applying to a degree program:
Art Center at Night
Otis Continuing Education
School of Visual Arts Continuing Education
Rhode Island School of Design Continuing Education
Pratt Institute Continuing & Professional Studies
Parsons The New School for Design Continuing Education
Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design Continuing Education