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Behind the Curtain: a Design Workshop Recap

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I recently led a design workshop for a client team onsite in Birmingham, Alabama. This introduction to design was an all-day event that led over 20 participants through the elements of design, from line and color to hierarchy and typography, with group activities, critiques, and interactive exercises.

While Hashrocket’s training is typically geared more toward development, we found there is also a demand for design training. This in-depth design course proved to be helpful for a group of people who, for the most part, weren’t really designers or developers, and wanted to learn more about the core fundamentals of design. (No matter how long you’ve been in the industry, though, it never hurts to review the basics. Developing the curriculum was a refresher course for me on things I’ve known but haven’t thought about in a while — and then I started seeing examples everywhere.)

Creating Curriculum

Our attendees ranged from journalism majors to self-taught artists, all of whom work with content layout on a daily basis. We avoided computers (technical difficulties are inevitable) and broke out paper, scissors, pens, and glue like it was grade school all over again. (Turns out adults still like arts and crafts.) It can be daunting to figure out where to start for something as broad as design, especially when members of your audience are all at different skill levels, but starting at the beginning — with something as a simple as a line — and building step-by-step on that foundation turned out to be a good roadmap for everyone.

Engaging the Crowd

It was impressive how quickly people picked up concepts they just learned. Some of the most common feedback centered around knowing a certain design looked good, but not knowing why. Attendees had seen white space, alignment, and proximity before, but didn’t know what those things were. “Now I have a name to go with those elements,” said one participant. Most everyone was used to organizing content inside boxes with borders and using all available space, kind of like a jam-packed car dealership ad you see in the classifieds. Using white space as its own intentional element to create breathing room, guide the eye, and separate content really resonated with the group as a whole.

Another hot topic was hierarchy: when everything’s important, nothing’s important. Several participants gave examples of how they marked what was important with notes — which ended up being everything — and then never read those notes again, so nothing was important. That was their own work, so who knows what their audience did with that information? Chances are, the end user didn’t know what was important and glossed over everything. Attendees told me it was eye-opening to review real-world examples of hierarchy, which they connected to their own work in an “aha!” moment.

People were also able to identify goals that designers set and how they accomplished those goals using specific elements such as color, line, and shape. This led to a conversation around being intentional and guiding the eye. One participant said he was used to centering all of his content because, well, that’s what he had always done, and thought things were supposed to be laid out that way. He referenced a real-world advertisement we critiqued and noted how they led you to their logo using negative space, lines, and left alignment. In doing so, he summed up the ideal learning scenario: reviewing the reference, attaching the information he just learned, then explaining it in his own words.

Making it Click

A key element to the success of this event was having participants articulate the design decisions they saw and made. It’s one thing to know a line of gray buttons makes a green button stand out, but it’s an entirely different thing to explain to someone the green button breaks the repetition and creates a focal point. You’ve probably heard the quote, “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” (I don’t know if Aristotle actually said that, but it’s true nonetheless.) You learn so much more when you explain it to others, which was something I learned by preparing and leading the course, and something my attendees learned by explaining design elements to their coworkers.

Driving it Home

All in all, it was empowering for these newly minted designers to see what was “behind the curtain” and how they’d reacted to design elements all along. They told me they planned to use what they’d learned — to sketch instead of going straight to the computer; to set an intention for their design; to rely on proximity and alignment and white space instead of borders and nonstop text — and I believe them. Armed with the ability to identify and implement the fundamental elements of design, they have a greater sense of confidence going forward, and I’m confident that will translate to happier designers — and happier users.

If you're so inclined, you too can book a design workshop with Hashrocket.

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