Knowing How to Use Adobe Illustrator Doesn’t Make you a Designer.

There’s a meme currently doing the rounds along the lines of … it might only take me thirty minutes to do, but that’s down to thirty years’ experience.

The sub text being that you’re not simply benefiting from the time someone’s spent on a task, but the years they’ve invested in developing their skills and expertise.

It’s something we so often forget when we’re valuing services, particularly design. If I think about my own company, The Velvet Principle. The day rate we charge for our creative director Sean is considerably more than a junior designer. But something that takes the junior a day or so to do, he’ll cover off in a couple of hours. Making him the most cost-effective resource in the company, despite the higher headline rate.

What About Technology? 

Technology is often cited as the solution to increasing productivity. This is true in the design world as it is in any other. During his time as an information design student, Sean spent hours hand rendering text and graphics. The advent of Adobe’s Creative Suite has had a huge impact, reducing design time considerably (and some argue the craft).

Back to my own early working days. When you wanted to communicate in writing you wrote a letter. A piece of communication, that you passed to a secretary to type. A secretary that had been to college and developed their skills to a recognised level of competence. You spent time crafting the content – making sure that the message was clear. The secretary provided a second pair of eyes to sense check and correct any spelling and grammatical errors.

Today, thanks to Microsoft Office and email we can spend a whole day sending off a raft of emails. Technology has significantly increased our ability to communicate, but along the way we seem to have sacrificed quality for quantity. Technology has democratised, what were previously specialisms taught in colleges. However, knowing how use Microsoft Word, doesn’t make you a great writer. Just as knowing Adobe Indesign and Illustrator inside out, doesn’t make you a designer. You need to study and learn the basic principles to understand what constitutes good design or writing.

The Importance of Training and Experience

I’m not a designer and don’t have a degree in a visual communication subject, but I have worked in a design environment for a number of years. I have picked up on aspects of good practice and feel fairly confident that I can distinguish good design from the merely adequate.

The ‘knowing how to use design tools, does not a designer make’ was brought home in stark reality just recently. In my capacity as chair of the Sign Design Society I was involved in judging an industry awards panel. The majority of the judges were practicing designers. Designers that had studied graphics, typography or similar at university and honed their craft through years of practice.

As no doubt the case with all awards, there were entries that stood head and shoulders above the rest; one our two at the opposite end of the spectrum and a wide band in the middle. Among the inbetweeners, were many examples that fulfilled the brief with creative and visually appealing solutions. But there was something that didn’t quite sit right. Something that although I couldn’t put my finger on, my designer colleagues immediately locked onto as soon as they saw any images.

Subtle things like the kerning and leading in the text (space between the letters and lines); marginal differences in font weights between letters; use of different, albeit very similar fonts. Things that an untrained eye couldn’t pick on, but none the less had an impact on the quality. It’s this attention to detail, that separates the mediocre and adequate from the good and the great. A software package is simply a tool – it can only create great design in the hands of a skilled designer.

If a Job’s Worth Doing…

If you’ve got something you want to communicate, you’ll need it to cut through the noise and rise above a deluge of competing messages. Whether it’s a promotional flyer, brand identity or wayfinding sign, it’s the details that will determine whether it flies and maximises your investment.

Nowhere is this return on investment imperative truer than in wayfinding.  Signs don’t come cheap and could be in place for tens of  years. Early in his career Sean worked on the Pool of London wayfinding.  Twenty years later, some of these original signs are still in use today. So, if it’s important enough for you to invest time and money into the design, why risk putting it in hands of anyone, other than a trained, experienced designer?

After all you wouldn’t want your appendix whipped out by someone who’d watched a couple of videos and been on a week’s course. You want someone that’s been to medical school, got the certificate and had plenty of practice on live patients.