Start: Wednesday, July 12, 2000 2:54 AM

Wise-Women List Archive File: Developing Creativity Skills

How to Get a Creative Education?


I'm asking for help, particularly from the graphic designers and artistically inspired members of this list! For various personal reasons (which I won't bore you with!!) I'm undergoing a huge change in my life. Having been doing some thinking about directions, I've decided that I would really like to develop skills in graphic design and artistic 'stuff' generally.

But I'm not sure what's the best way to go about this - and so of course I thought I'd turn to this list!

I have a fulltime job, so if I were to try and do courses, the most I could do would be part-time / evenings. What do you think is the best approach? Is it just to play with stuff like Photoshop and try and do different things? Are their good books to read? Good online courses? Good online resources?

What I need to do is develop my creative self. Part of me feels very inferior when I see the wonderful graphic work my friend and co-worker who is a graphic designer does. But she's leaving (sadly) - however if I play my cards right, then at least some of her work could fall to me. (I'd decided I wanted to do this before I knew she was going!)

I went to a wonderful lecture by Kaffe Fassett (amazing knitwear/patchwork/mosaic etc designer) a few weeks ago, and he said - EVERYONE is (or can be) creative.  i sort of knew that - but still it was very inspiring to hear him!

So - can some of you give me some suggestions on how to approach this?

Question 2:
[The question above] brings up a question to me which may make for some debate - but, is it necessary to have a formal fine arts or graphics education in order to produce good design? Or more to the point - is such an education necessary to produce well designed web pages? Or can one learn by doing and picking things up, reading books and so on? What do you all think?

For starters,for anyone who wants to get a kind of crash-course in layout design there are two great books, "The Non Designer's Design Book" and "The Non Designer's Web Book", both by Robin Williams (not the comedian but a very good writer of computer design related books). She's written other books and all of them are great (my SO who is an engineer by training who has to do quite a lot of layouts, loves her books.)

If you can take any kind of introductory art course that would be great - especially a drawing class. Drawing is great training for your eye and hand. Once you start taking art courses you will probably naturally find the way you want to progress there.

Maybe because I came via a traditional art/graphics route but, though there are specific issues related to web design, I am not quite sure if computer tools are the best for learning artistic things - just because the tools themselves often get in the way.

Though of course, lots of surfing and looking around sites that look good and trying to analyze why they look good certainly does help. You can start at various design-hubs like Project Cool, Cool Home Pages ... - there are many others ... see what appeals to you and why some sites are being rated as being well designed, etc.

Get the programs you want to learn and work in them with your ideas. Play around with any graphics you have to see what kind of different graphics you can make of them. NEVER work in your original file :). ALWAYS save a copy to play with. Draw or sketch on paper and scan it into the computer and play with it in all the programs you want to learn. Don't put yourself on a time deadline but do use the program for something every day if at all possible.

I'd suggest any of the visual start guides - about $20 US each to get started. Do a search at for Photoshop or Fireworks tutorials. will point you to lots of Flash sites/tutorials and they have forums/newsgroups to read as well. The Bible books are good to have as reference too if you learn well from books. There is another newsgroup for Flash that I like- alt.macromedia.flash - and the people there can be very helpful but they do want you to read the FAQ :)

I haven't done any online courses. I do like the Sams Publishing Teach X days.

Graphic program buzzwords are Photoshop-ImageReady/Illustrator and/or Fireworks/Freehand/Flash when you're looking for a job in a shop or corporation generally in my experience at least. Freelance, you can use whatever you want that works well for you :) Personally, I prefer Fireworks to PhotoShop & Paint Shop Pro :) I found that for me, Fireworks has less of a learning curve than Photoshop and I'm more productive in it than in them for now anyway.

On the subject of formal (as in college) education, does anyone know if design and art schools are teaching web design skills (I'd assume they are...) and if so, how are they teaching it?

Here in [a European country] for example, which is very qualification and degree oriented, there's been a bit of a scramble to cover this area because traditional design or arts skills just aren't enough. The main source of education seems to be at the adult education type of schools, where many people are going to get training. There's also an apprenticeship system here, as there is in Germany, which is kind of like the internship system in the U.S. but more formalized - it's actually a requirement for most kinds of jobs to end your education with an apprenticeship period. Many people looking to get into the web business are going this route.)

Getting back to the question of formal vs. informal education though - I kind of agree with[two other comments]. Design and/or fine arts training can definitely help in terms of getting a firm basis. Maybe I just think that way just because I do have one of those...I was a fine arts major for 2+ years before I had a kind of selfdoubt-crisis (my final degree was a liberal arts one...French lit and art history, eesh) Plus I got an awful lot of drawing and illustration training when I was doing renderings of room designs when I was working for an interior design company. That and later working for an ad agency, I got a lot of training-for-the eye and just brute experience with things like deadlines, working in teams, dealing with clients and surviving long crazy hours before deadlines.

On the other hand, I know that most of the computer skills that I have are self-taught (though when going to school was kind of my career I did get in a few programming courses), even if I did have an employer who paid for me to go to seminars and workshops. I just learned Photoshop and Illustrator and Quark and things just because I spent hours and hours of my own time experimenting with it. Anyone with the time and the will could do that without any kind of formal education. I don't know any other way of learning any kind of computer program or programming language...even if having learned some of the theoretical stuff helps.

Then again, given that many people do switch careers, I am kind of wondering how much a college major means anymore in reality. If I was hiring, I'd look at the work experience and portfolio plus actual skills first.

As far as the requirement set by larger companies for having degrees....well, with all due respect to people in the headhunting and HR fields, I think a part of this is because when someone has a degree or a paper qualification (or not) it makes it easier to sort em out. My view of this is a bit jaded because of my brief experience (during my college-as-career days) working PT at one of the top headhunting companies in NY - the kind that only placed executives who earn six figures. They would get truckloads of resumes per week. As one of the lowly minions, one of my tasks was to sort em out - we were told to 1) dump any resumes from people over 40, 2) dump any from obscure colleges, 3) dump any that were poorly typed, etc.

One thing's for sure though: with all due respect to fans of other programs, if you ever want to get a look at a bigger web design company, you'd better know (really know) certain programs: Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver/GoLive...HTML fundamentals...that's just for a kind of "web layouter" type position. Not that other programs aren't good - but that's what is used in the industry. Right now my company's essentially a 2-person business, but for some reason in the last couple years we've been able to get some biggie customers. We network a lot with other companies, often forming groups to tackle large projects - and even at other small companies, when you're doing bigger jobs, you need some standardized tools to deal with, so whenever we or another one of our partners hires someone freelance or otherwise, they have to know these kind of "standard" tools.

But in closing; creating websites employs a huge variety of skills, and I think that there's a place for all kinds of people still. After all people have been designing for paper for thousands of years....but the GUI interface was only invented in the '70s :)

Well, obviously, I don't think a formal design education is *necessary* because I've done it without one :-D I know I'm not as good as some people on the list at the graphic design part, but I'm learning. I've bought books and practiced, and worked successfully as a desktop publisher for several years. I did do a lot of drawing and painting when I was a kid, but I never was very good at drawing, so I didn't pursue it. I loved Spirograph - making complex designs with some technical help :-)

Designing, though, laying out a page, balancing elements, organizing information visually - that I can do.

I'm better at organizing, writing, and editing, which I think are at least as important as visual design.

The original question was specifically about graphic design, rather than web site design, though. I agree that self-teaching can leave holes in your education, but that doesn't mean you can't develop good skills in various areas on your own.

I agree with you on many of your points here, but I don't think a "formal" education in college is required, as you've alluded to, nor do I think it offers an advantage in web design. While this has held true in the past for print, this is no longer my experience as it pertains to web design. The way in which design is manifested on the web differs substantially from print and a very different skillset is required. In fact, the creative process is much more challenging because there are so many technical issues to address. I have watched many a print designer AGONIZE over production of their first, and second, and third . . . website -- with all their theory in tact!

I agree that the application of design elements and principles can be employed in very effective ways on the web, and that they serve to raise the level of visual communication across the spectrum. Without question! [Two other people] posed some interesting questions, like : can this be learned on your own? Yes, it can -- with books, online lists like this, online and offline tutorials, continuing education. I'll be teaching courses at the college this fall which deal specifically with design theory as it pertains to web design, and managing yourself within that corporate framework. This is a fairly new medium and the technical issues that the web proposes are currently not addressed in any design theory class I've been in (and have looked for in the interest of others), nor are the cognitive and navigation issues addressed. And what if someone doesn't want to be a print designer? What if they want only to employ these skills in website design? Most agencies I know of know the difference, as well.

On typography, well, I can't say enough about typography. I love typography! I was fortunate enough to work in one of my first jobs with someone (he was my boss then) who apprenticed back in the '20s as a typographer. I learned mountains of information about typography from him. It was an opportunity I never could have found (and only scantly) in a classroom. And were ol' Mr. Mitchell still alive today, he'd cringe at the inability of HTML text on the web to be kerned in any sort of delightful manner. : ) Well, he'd probably cringe at a lot more than that. :D

Anyway, I guess I have to say that I respectfully disagree about a design degree giving a designer an advantage in the web design field. URLs and portfolios speak volumes for any clients I approach for work, and for anyone who's approaching me for work. The other most important factor for me in hiring: how determined and amicable is this person? Do they have such an attitude that they'd be impossible to work with? Passion, talent, and yes, skill, are a really nice combination. : )

[Formal education vs. self-taught:]
I've got precious little time to go into this the way I'd like to , and I think it's really a question of semantics here -- or, at least, for me, the word "formal."

I mean, what does "formal" mean really? Does it mean you have to sit in a classroom and acquire recognized accreditation? If it does, then I disagree wholeheartedly with the notion that one needs formal training. This could be taught or learned while someone was sitting on a log.

Some forget that design discourse in a "formal" sense isn't really all that old, and that this type of training (and many other types of training) had been done through apprenticeship (and self-teaching). Granted, we've learned a lot about colour theory since the days of Aristotle, Forsius or Aguilonius. And yes, a classroom often expedites the initial process and offers us a culmination of information that has been garnered over centuries -- yet it serves only to point us in the direction of years of continued study and application. The classroom is just a beginning. And it really doesn't offer us a solid foundation for dealing with real clients in the real world, either. That part comes later in the School of Hard Knocks.

I believe another important point here is that the internet and our grossly busied lives have also pushed us as a society in the direction of self-directed learning. I believe education as an industry is going to go through a major overhaul as a result of this. In a sense, we'll have swung the pendulum back to the days of apprenticeship. And many agencies recognize this now, too. Very often, we'll see postings for employment opportunities with a requirement for a BDes or "equivalent."

The reality is that most of what we learn as designers is self-taught and through the guidance of others more experienced. Thinking, doing, seeing. For that, I don't believe we need a classroom. Just my .02.

I think that education in any form is a wonderful luxury, and almost a necessity if you are young. Not for what you learn, but for how you grow through the learning.

I have taught graphics, business and computer to adult students for over 10 years, and most of these people are lucky to be able to squeeze the short-term, job based retraining into their lives. Going away to full time school is as unachievable as deciding to be an astronaut would be. Some will say that where there is a will, there is a way, but once you have the responsibility of a partner and children to consider, those are just words.

Whether you enter formal schooling or do it on your own through books and courses, the route to being a designer is long and mountains of work. The process is the same. In fact, in some ways, I believe that reading 20 books on design is more valuable than classroom learning with one instructor, no matter how talented that instructor. Nobody, especially in design, can leave their own mark off their teaching.

I was formally trained in fashion design, and graduated at the top of my class with a 3.8 grade point, much to the consternation of many of my instructors. They hated my work and in three years of intensive study, rarely missed the opportunity to tell me how uninspired and uncreative my work was. My marks came from pure technical excellence, almost brilliance, so while they thought I was an embarrassment to my field, they could not mark me down for it. Putting me down was the only option left to them. Luckily, I had the arrogance of youth, and the feeling that they had to be wrong, since what I was doing was all I could do. If it was in me, and I worked so hard and was so good at it, how could it be wrong?

And by the standards of the day, my work was certainly understated. My classmates were designing flowing caftan affairs, with capes and scarves and pointy things hanging everywhere. My designs were working women's clothing done in rich fabrics, with comfort in mind, and a feminine dash. Three years after I graduated, the world was all a raving about the new line from Alfred Sung ... and without a word of lie, my final line, the big project of the whole three years, could have slipped right onto the runway with his.

I was in a good school, and quite frankly, I think those instructors meant well. They were just missing the magic that there is room for many styles to be "right". I have often wondered if any of them looked at the Sung "revolution" and thought of me. But I doubt they did. And it did not matter. Though I graduated at the top, and had three top job offers, I decided not to pursue that field - mainly because of the people I would have to spend my life with. At that time, most in the industry were either certifiably nuts or sharp toothed sharks.

But that schooling did me well. Not because of what I learned, because I could have learned that in the library, or certainly by buying the number of books my tuition and housing cost. Plus, I could have done it without anyone telling me my design was wrong. But living away from home, and learning to defend my ideas, even if against those who were supposed to be helping me was a very important part of my maturing process.

My story is not unusual - unless you fit into a closely defined "standard" which is different for each institution, you will struggle. School of any level is not the safe and wonderful, nurturing place that we like to think of them as, but taking 2-4 years from your life to focus on one subject is a good exercise. Design schools can be great and inspiring and I would encourage anyone leaving high school to choose that route. For those in mid-life, unless you have the easy opportunity to attend school, design can be learned on your own. You will have to work like you have never worked before, as anyone in a creative field knows, and you will never be "done", but you will not be if you go to school either.

Employers do often insist on the degree, and if that is your goal, you might want to look at getting the paper. However, if you already have a degree in something else, I think your energies would be much better placed into building a dynamite portfolio - of your work. A college created portfolio, by design, gives the instructors what they want.

Employers use degrees often to prove the ability to finish something and to demand a certain maturity ... if you are 30+ and have a degree in anything, plus a great portfolio, it is one short sighted employer who will not look at you.

If you are looking at business on your own, your portfolio is all. I doubt that even one of my clients knows that I have formal design training. I know that not one has ever asked me.

I guess that is probably more than two cents worth, but having been through high level design training, I have to say that is NOT where I learned to run a successful Web design business ... not even close, so to think that is the only way to get to a level of design excellence brings out the "wait just a minute here" in me. I celebrate that I had that chance, but no way was it the defining solution to this question.

I'm an Executive Recruiter on my day job, and my company specializes in creatives in advertising and media. Every job we have listed requires a BFA/BA in a design related subject.

Although it's not mentioned, preference is given to graduates of prestigious design programs, especially for candidates with less than 5 years full time experience. Whether or not anyone likes it, candidates with top grades from SVA, The Art Center, etc., Yale, NYU, Parsons, UT, etc., (and those who pursued extra training at the Atlanta or Miami ad schools) who studied under acknowledged masters tend to have superior portfolios, get in the door quicker, and command higher compensation packages than those without formal training.

If you're going the independant or small business route, then formal training and qualifications might not be a necessary consideration. But it is a fact of life if you're going to be working in an industry that employs a large portion of professional designers.

Formal training certainly doesn't hurt anyone :) BUT many people also have a flair for it naturally. It is important to find where your strengths in web or graphic design are and stretch them as you learn. If you work to your own skillset while developing new ways of seeing and doing, which many times is determined by what clients or co-workers or vice presidents like or do not like, then you get better and try more things. Sometimes ya fall flat on your face and have to start all over again. :)

I have a friend who designs using geometric shapes and placement on the page and I do a lot of this too. She has never had any formal training in design or art. She earns a living web designing because her clients and customers like her sites, her customer service, and her prices. She is an extremely knowledgeable computer technical, network, hardware, programming person also :) I like her sites too...they are well-organized, crisp, and to the point. They are easy to navigate, her graphics are small download, and lovely to look at. but most importantly, I have no problem knowing right away if they sell widgets or women's clothes or music.

I did a graphic for work utilizing vanishing point, depth illusion and focus. My site content author had me rework it to suit what she wanted to see. No vanishing point, depth perception/illusion or focus in that graphic anymore {sigh} because she wanted everything out where she could see the pieces individually.

I have had some semi-formal art training in workshops and with other artists as well as lots of books but I did not go to formal art or design school. They wouldn't let me into their art or design classes because I cannot draw to suit them, I have the added difficulty of lazy eye which means no depth perception in the real world, and I tend to utilize color harmonies differently than they want me to do. They also told me I couldn't paint, I couldn't design, and I should be a happy little file clerk. I went into mainframe programming instead where they told me I couldn't program.

After earning my 2 year degree they said I would never get, I programmed in the corporate world for about a year - maintenance programming is BORING!!!!! 10-11 years later, I earn my living as a web/graphic designer. The vice president of our department likes my work {G}, most of my co-workers like it, and my freelance customers have liked what I have done for them....but none of them know anything about web design or the Net except what they do or don't like when they see it and what they can afford or are willing to pay for. {smile} I entered one painting contest as an amateur fairly soon after beginning to paint in oil {learning from Bob Ross TV programs where EVERYONE can paint btw} and won third place. I have shown my work to one gallery so far and I have paintings there now today. I also have sold many paintings and just this week, a painting collector told me my use of color is luminous.

Am I ready to design for the major players? Maybe not but who knows unless they try for it? I've interviewed with some of the bigger companies though I didn't get the job :) Lost out to someone with more experience every time so far but I was good enough to be considered along with them. {SMILE} Can I earn a living doing what I want and love to do? Yes. Everyone out here doesn't want or need or can afford the Net Rembrandts or Michaelangelos. They do want the best they can get for the money though and they compare all of that when deciding to hire or not hire.

And everyone is creative - those of us who do it for a living though know that it is generally 95% effort and hard work and that we have to be creative on demand. Creative people work at it and develop it. Yes, you do have to pay your dues and you have to continue to pay them as you get better.

[Large companies requiring employees to have formal design degrees]
This may be the case with this some recruitment agencies for web design, but from what I've seen, from the in-depth conversations I've had with people in this industry, from the employment postings I've seen, and from what I've read, this is no longer a major consideration. Where it does seem to be a major consideration is in the minority of high-end agencies who specialize more in print and need a web team. Understandably. Those designers will need to speak the same language.

In my few years around this business, as I've said, I know that degrees are most likely to help you in landing that great job at an agency or design house for print-related communications. I have talked with many recruiters on a one-to-one basis on this same topic of web design. It's a fairly new medium to all of us, and there is a lot of web design talent out there that has made their way through self-teaching. They are also being hired by agencies, agencies who don't want to pay for that kind of learning curve. That self-taught talent is also being hired by larger and smaller companies alike who now specialize in web design (because agencies don't).

I think there's an important distinction to be made here between print and the web. Like it or not, we're moving into an age where visual communication is being produced by the masses -- which is bound to bring up that age-old debate of "high" and "low" art, but now with a new twist -- technology. How dare an artist who is not "formally" trained call themselves an artist? Geez, I dunno. All the artists before mass education came into vogue seemed to do alright. We still borrow their ideas. And heck, Henri Rousseau made a name for himself by imitating naive art. Folk art's quite the rave. And well, Andy Warhol has some thoughts himself on bringing art into the hands of the people who consume it (along with countless others). It's all pretty fascinating to me, and I really think it will offer us some delightfully interesting ways of looking at and discussing design.

[Again, regarding large companies requiring employees to have degrees]
I think that you make very good points to go to the top of the agency world, which really has nothing to do with Web design. I am assuming we are talking about Web work, since we are a Web list.

Considering that, I went to [a major metro area job listing site] as you suggested, and searched [a recruiter name] as you suggested. But when I forced the [recruiter name], plus the word Web, most results did not even mention degree. I only went through the most recent 20 job openings, but of those 20, only one required a degree of any kind. Three stated degree preferred but not required.

The Web is a new world. I worked in the print world for ten years, and yes, for the top agency positions you needed paper, the more prestigious, perhaps, the better. But even in print there were/are hundreds of thousands just like me, making a good living doing brochures, newsletters and ads for our local insurance companies, industries, car dealerships, etc. Not one client, ever, print or Web, ever asked me for educational experience. Every single one asked to see my previous work.

If you have the chance, I believe you should go to school - I would love to focus on learning more about design, even now, especially now, and to have a year or more to do it without the pressure of production would be heaven. But do you need it? I say a resounding, no way ... unless of course you have your sites set on a top creative position in one of the top agencies in a metro area. Then you must play by the rules.

Thanks everyone for the interesting discussion! One thing I didn't make clear - I am only looking at graphic design as it relates to the web. I love working in web design, and hope to start getting private work while keeping my "day job" (for the moment). But working in the web is such a big area nowadays - gone are the days when all you needed to be able to do was write html code!

And I wanted to avoid a tendency to learn a little bit of this and a little bit of that - ending up knowing just a little bit about a lot of things.

So, I'm going to try and add good graphic design skills to what I can do, and leave the database/cgi/perl etc etc to others (though I'm not going to give up on learning javascript!)

I guess what I want is to learn to "unleash my creative side" (hope that doesn't sound stupid!) and develop graphic skills that I can use on the web. It seems to me that there are two sides to this - the creative side, and the technical/skill side. I need to work on both.

Has anyone got any suggestions for good design books I could look for? I'm certainly going to look for some books on typography - I do love type and fonts, though I'm afraid I could only recognise about 10 (?) at the momeht - not the 200 as someone suggested!!

Thanks again to everyone - you're wonderful!!

IMHO, formal courses are the way to go.

My feeling is that the tools of the trade are secondary to developing visual communications and conceptualizing skills. Site building/development and production are complementary disciplines, but different.

Before you start, there are number of excellent design, color theory and typography books you can start with. Here's a few, and all should be available on Amazon if you can't find them in your University's library:

Josef Albers' "Interaction of Color"

Rudolf Arnheim's "Visual Thinking"

Anything by Robin Williams, especially the "Non-Designer's Design Book" and the "Non-Designer's Web Design Book

Jean Bourges' "Color Bytes"

Betty Edwards' "Drawing On The Left Side Of The Brain"

Anything by Edward Tufte, especially "The Visual Display of Quantative Information" and Envisioning Information" (very expensive but worth every penny)

Adobe Press' "Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Really Works"

I love Kaffe Fasset's knitting and needlework patterns and magazine. Unfortunately, when I went head over heals for computers and the web, it exacerbated carpel tunnel syndrome, so I had to choose between computers and a lifelong hobby of needlework.

Kaffe is right when he says that everyone can be creative. I'd like to add to that is all it really takes is learning how to look at things carefully and critically.

HTH, and we're here for advice.