Are Great Designers Born or Made?

Is the ability to design a talent you must be born with or is it a skill you can learn? Successful designers have shown that the answer to this question may not be so black and white.

Famed designers like David Carson have changed traditional design by experimenting with typography and images. His story and others like it support the argument for innate design – the ability to innovate on such a level must come from an internal creativity.

Design by David Carson

Also supporting the theory that designing ability is innate, web designer Kirsten Jahn Richardson, presented this point in an article about this very matter: “We are constantly bombarded by digital images and messages – if designing were based wholly upon training, wouldn’t we all be experts through exposure alone?…”

While Richardson provides a solid argument, it’s hard to deny that even if some design ability is natural, the best designers know the basics and have studied others’ work before adding their own touch to the field. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”

Some designers have even made a name for themselves by successfully emulating others’ ideas or typography. For example, there are an endless number of popular derivative renditions of Milton Glaser’s famed “I Love NY” design or Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art paintings.

Design by Milton Glaser

The gray area of the debate boils down to this: at the core of every successful designer lies an innate vision and drive to produce creative designs, coupled with a foundation of design knowledge. A successful designer needs to bring innovation to the field, but also to learn from others’ failures and successes, as well as their own. This widely-known quote from Ira Glass, applicable to any creative field, best sums up the issue by describing this marriage of knowledge and talent:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap; for the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work… It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” (Check out the video where he says this, made available by Public Radio International).

Do you have additional examples of how design is more talent-based or skill-based, or do you agree that design falls into this gray area? I’d love your feedback!

About the Author:

Jenn Bohman is a designer living in the Philadelphia metro area. She loves all things tech, startup, and caffeine-related.

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