On Design: Fulfilling the Urge to Learn and Create

As usual, I’m in the midst of a few different processes at the same time, all self-imposed.

I moved on from my last full-time job in March, and in the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a personal re-evaluation of my skills as well as my professional identity. It’s that whole “changing my job/career/identity” mental anguish process wherein,  periodically, I rattle my own cage and see what settles out from the upheaval.

My inner pragmatist has a very strong voice, compelling me to be practical and look for employment opportunities which allow me to use my familiar skills, or to cast a diverse search, in the hopes that I’ll have the right skills in the areas that a prospective employer wants.

“Update or Risk Being Left Behind” – Technical Skills

I started out in computer graphics over 20 years ago, back when the adjective “computer” actually distinguished you from the airbrush artists and print illustrators who were using photo-mechanical processes to create their graphics. I began creating 2D and 3D animation and titles for video, and then got into graphics, icon design and screen layouts for software projects. From these experiences, I always wondered about and cared about the viewer – who they were and what they needed from my work.

Any print design work (business cards, letterhead, and other stock) seemed to come about incidentally from the needs of my current employer or from some freelance opportunity. I wanted to become a good designer, and I especially wanted to know how print design was executed. I became interested in design as an exercise to see how the principles of visual literacy that I’d studied at Emily Carr College were involved, and how style and society influence design.

Overall though, being a child of the TV era, motion, animation and interactivity have always seemed to stimulate me more than static imagery. Over the years, my curiosity about my audience became more and more informed through experience, and began to transform into an interest in usability, and user-centred design.

Gradually, my interest in the user’s experience (the front end) blended into an interest in web site programming (the back end), and so I took opportunities to learn (or at least hack around in) languages like Rexx, Perl, Cold Fusion, Javascript and PHP.

So, my deal is that I’ve been a kind of a Swiss Army Knife of design – I can do (and have done) a little bit of everything. This is also called a Jack of all Trades. I struggle against the corollary of that old chestnut, the dreaded “Master of None”. However, at the 20 year mark in my professional career as a visual designer, I must admit that my skill-set does now feel rather idiosyncratic and in need of a refresh.

In the early days of my career, there weren’t the same dominant players in terms of software tools or computing platforms. I started out building web pages using text editors on Unix, so if I had nothing more than Pico (or, heaven forbid, vi) and a simple Paint program, I could still build a web site. I still tend to be biased towards getting my hands dirty in HTML source code, but as technology has changed over the years and become more complicated and abstract, working solely at the source code level has become more and more difficult.

Nowadays, Adobe is the undisputed “big dog” in the world of print and interactive design tools. I knew that I needed to upgrade my toolkit and skills, so after some online research and reading, I decided to bite the bullet and buy Adobe CS5 Web Edition. With the exception of a video editing suite from Corel and an animation program from another vendor, my whole digital studio will be powered by Adobe.

The challenge for me now is to get up to speed on the current generation of tools, and relearn how to do things in a new, more integrated design environment. For example, a lot of the different tasks that I used to do with four different tools can now all be done within Dreamweaver.

Many Things to Learn

From a practical and creative challenge standpoint, I’ve found that combining a number of related goals into a common, over-arching activity makes a lot of sense for me. Translation: I like to kill lots of birds with as few stones as possible, and my learning opportunities work best when they have a practical goal.

Case(es) in point:

  • When rebuilding my online portfolio, I learned Flash Catalyst in order to create a Flash-based portfolio application that presented a richer user-experience than a straight HTML site, and allowed for fade transitions and nicer graphics.
  • …however, because I now had a larger portfolio with more projects to present, the above project became too complex for a first Catalyst project (which is meant more as a Flash prototyping tool), so I abandoned the Catalyst approach in favour of a new HTML design that used the Lightbox Javascript library, with which I was already familiar. I was still able to use most of previous design and almost all of the production graphics that I’d already created. I’m still satisfied with the end result.
  • I needed to learn about prototyping web pages using Adobe Fireworks. When my ex-employer asked me to update their website and change some of their menu structure, I used it as an opportunity to learn how to create a site wire-frame in PDF format, using Fireworks.
  • For years, I’ve wanted to update “True Life” (one of my personal websites), and change its design from a framed layout (yeah, I know – ancient) to a modern, non-framed layout that used Divs and CSS instead of tables and font tags (again,  ancient). I’m using this project as an opportunity to refresh my skills in Dreamweaver, starting with a pre-made Dreamweaver PHP template and its built-in tools to rebuild the entire site.

Related Posts:

On Design: Visual Literacy in Interface Design

On Narrative: A Story runs through it…

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