Design literacy is learned

It can be helpful to compare good sign designing to literacy. At one time, and it wasn’t that long ago, few were literate. Reading and writing were mysterious skills, the domain of royals and clergymen. Many today view good sign layout and design in a similar way —as the obscure talent of a  small minority. Some say, “You’re either born with it, or you’re not.” Like an extra chromosome. Often even talented designers can’t explain it. “I don’t know how I do it. I just do it.”

Yet effective design is really not so mysterious. When you strip away complicated definitions and overworked cliches, along with the goofiest of the art jargon, sign design is very much like reading and writing—it is a form of communication. Learning design can be likened to becoming literate.  And anybody can do it.

Through exposure to proven design principles, coupled with a willingness to learn, good sign design can lose its mystery. Design literacy may not be instantaneous, but it can happen quicker than you realize. Much of the obscurity evaporates by simply learning a meaningful vocabulary for design concepts. As author and sign painter Mike Stevens once said,

“The key to design success is an understanding of the theoretical terms of layout. …what we see, imagine and conceptualize as artists is controlled to a great extent by our vocabulary. If you don’t have a name for a particular thing—chances are you will never see it.” —The Mike Stevens Journal, May, 1983.

Further, good layout and design is not a luxury. It’s not something we do on special occasions. Rather, it’s the mark of a professional.


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