Saturday, November 5, 2011

How to Think Like a Designer: Applying Graphic Design to Game Design

I made the above posters a few weeks ago as part of a class project where we had to initiate a QR code advertisement campaign, which I naturally dedicated to my Game Developers Club.

Making these posters was surprisingly nostalgic. It reminded me of the three years that I spent learning graphic design in high school. My school offered four years worth of graphic design electives, all of which were taught by the same teacher. Because I transferred into the school during my sophomore year, I only had time to take the course for three years.

That class taught me one of the most important and universal skills that I've ever learned: how to think like a designer. Not only has this applied directly to making websites, but it has also helped me improve at public speaking, cinematography, writing, and of course, game design.

In this post, I'll be analyzing how this class was able to teach me this valuable skill so that you too can start thinking like a designer.

Teaching Style

I've noticed that some of my favorite and most effective teachers were the ones who were kind, understanding, and encouraging. But our graphic design teacher was often the complete opposite.

When giving project feedback, she could be ruthless and unforgiving, especially if you had a really big design flaw in your work. This teaching style was actually very effective in driving home many of the key lessons that I took away from this class.

Listening to Your Design

Because the feedback could sometimes be so harsh, you were really motivated to hunt for design problems on your own rather than waiting for her to butcher our work. And as our understanding of graphic design grew, we eventually learned how to think about our designs on a much deeper level.

This skill is often referred to as "listening to your design". It's when you look at your design from all perspectives trying to find all possible flaws and strengths. As you gain experience and understanding in your specific field of design, you'll gain a better idea of what you should be listening for. But much of it also involves listening to the subtle ways that the design can make you feel and then figuring out why.

Designers Solve Problems

When designers discuss design problems with non-designers (usually their clients), the non-designers are often appalled by the kinds of silly things that designers consider to be problems. For instance, a web designer may spend half an hour trying to find the perfect amount of spacing between a page's navigation elements, but a non-designer might argue that users absolutely do not care about how much spacing there is.

The truth is that people do care, but they just don't realize how important such small details are in defining their experience with the page. The amount of spacing helps determine how cluttered the page feels, which in turn determines how open and user-friendly the website is.

Changing this small value may cause other problems, such as the navigation taking too much screen space for certain monitor resolutions. The complexity of this problem justifies the amount of time needed to solve it, while also illustrating the true nature of a designer's work. A designer's job isn't to come up with creative ideas all day; it's mainly to identify and solve design problems in order to optimize a product's relationship with its end users.

Managing Problems

It is impossible to solve all of a design's problems. Furthermore, designers often run into design dilemmas, where all possible solutions to one problem will simply bring up even more problems.

Most of a designer's time is spent fixing these issues and trying to crack design dilemmas. And because each project has a limited amount of time and resources, designers must properly manage and prioritize which flaws get fixed and which don't. This is actually trickier than it sounds, as a designer could easily spend too much of their valuable time solving a problem that isn't as significant as some other problems.

All Criticism is Valid

For many students, one of the most frustrating parts of the graphic design class was when they got feedback that they didn't agree with. You really weren't allowed to argue with the teacher, and doing so would just make you look like an idiot. Many students felt that the teacher was just being arrogant, but in reality her goal was always to make sure that you never discredited her feedback.

In the graphic design world, disagreeing with and ignoring criticism is one of the most shameful things that a designer can do. If you can't accept and analyze criticism like a humble, mature adult, then working in design just isn't for you.

Designers Bravely Seek Criticism

Given how important it is to listen to your design, it's greatly beneficial to seek new perspectives by asking others for feedback. But seeking feedback is a lot harder than it seems. After working hard to solve a complicated design problem, the last thing a designer wants to hear is that they've missed something. Not only might they choose (perhaps unconsciously) to avoid feedback, but their own "listening" skills may also become biased in such a way as to overlook new issues.

And so, being a designer requires a certain amount of courage. Jesse Schell explains this better than I can:
When we listen deeply we put ourselves in a position of risk. We accept that possibility that what we hear may upset us, may cause everything we know to be contradicted. It is the ultimate in open-mindedness. It is the only way to learn the truth. You must approach everything as a child does, assuming nothing, observing everything…
Designers Don't Design for Themselves

Another reason why some students disliked receiving feedback from our graphic design teacher was because they felt that she was tyrannically forcing her opinions into their design. And many professional designers are in fact tempted to avoid seeking criticism because they feel that it gives them more personal control over how the final work comes out.

But this is based on a really flawed and selfish understanding of design. Design isn't about the designer expressing themselves or fulfilling their own desires. It's about being dedicated to the end users' needs, and optimizing their experience in the best way possible.

Of course, there's plenty of room in the design process for the designer to make individual decisions and to determine the overall direction of the work, but these factors must never be prioritized above the users' needs.

Designers Don't Make Excuses

When you're forced to leave flaws in your design, it becomes very tempting to respond to criticism by explaining to the critic how "unfixable" these flaws were. But all you're really doing is giving excuses and trying to delegitimize the criticism.

A real designer would instead agree with the critic and accept the fact that they failed to solve that specific problem.

Achieving Full Awareness

I personally prefer to think of the skill of "listening" as a state of awareness where one strives to become fully aware of all aspects of a design, both good and bad. As a game designer, I strive to expand my state of awareness past my individual projects and into my daily life.

The reasoning is that a game designer's job is to design experiences. People have experiences all the time, whether it's as simple as enjoying a meal with one's family, or as complicated as training for a marathon. So naturally, game designers should get in the habit of analyzing and critiquing the vast amount of experiences that they have everyday. Doing so will enhance their understanding of what defines certain experiences and how they can be either improved or ruined by various factors.

For example, here at the University of Arizona we have this Mexican restaurant that underwent a complete redesign during this past the summer. They threw almost everything away, while adding modern new furniture and bright new colors. It wasn't until this radical redesign that most of us realized just how atrocious the old design was. The old restaurant was dark, cramped, confusing, and just plain ugly, and yet none of us had realize these problems before the renovations.

If as game designers, we can't even notice when something in our everyday lives obviously isn't working, how can we possibly locate these kinds of problems in our games? Clearly, we're going to need all the practice we can get.

Did you notice how I used only one image in this post? That's pretty uncharacteristic of me, but I simply couldn't find any images that could have contributed to this article.

I can already hear my graphic design teacher telling me that my Mario QR code should be shrunken a bit. I agree.


  1. Yo livio! In fact, I didn't read the whole post, but mainly a bolded line and the one after it or somehting like that. The fact this did not have any picture - it made the whole thing look like a tl;dr deserving post; and then eventually I read the intalics *about* the fact that there were no pictures, and it made me realize that this is what caused me to skim through. Interesting.

  2. lol that is interesting. Although I was kind of hoping that I made the post more accessible by breaking it up into a lot of small, bite-sized chunks.

    I did try adding images, but they didn't really match with what I was talking about aside from metaphorically. They also tended to change the tone of the post to something more childish, which I really didn't like.

    Perhaps what went wrong was the fact that I wrote the article first and then I tried adding images on top of it when it was done.

  3. Thanks for the great post. I'm trying to work out some issues with a game I'm working on and your post helped give me a little perspective.

    I agree it's really hard to get feedback, not only in your craft but also in your everyday life. Yet it's the single most important thing you need if you truly want to get better at anything.