The Two Practices of Design Learning

Note: This is Part 17 of the Ruminations for Aspiring Designers series.

There are two kinds of practices that are essential when you are learning design: the practice at hand and the practice in the mind.

The practice at hand is what people often see a designer doing. You try out design tools, get familiar with proven methods, take on a project and deliver your design.

The practice in the mind is what people often do not see. You read some articles and books about design, articulate on the meaning of what’s being said, reflect on your own design experience, evaluate your next steps and assess what you’ve learned so far.

The difference between a novice designer and a master designer lies in three important aspects:

  • The volume of the two practices
  • The overlap between the two
  • The visibility of them
Figure: How novice, experienced and expert designers differ in terms of the two practices of design learning.

Novice Designer: Two Practice in Isolation

A novice designer learn about the theory and its applications rather separately. They have yet to connect what they learn to what they practice, especially in terms of solving real, complex problems.

A simple, linear, “from cause A to effect B” problem is easy to handle, while those kind of problems largely only exist in textbooks or tutorials – they only represent the simplified silhouette of the real problems, created to demonstrate the utility of methods.

But a complicated or complex problem is often nothing like what a novice designer sees in their learning. It requires an experienced mind to “connect the dots” and synthesize different types of practices into one potential solution.

A novice designer is often not there. What they learn has a very weak (if at all) connection with what they practice.

As much as their practice is visible, their learning is often hard to see.

Experienced Designer: Bridging the Two Practices

Experienced designers start to bridge that gap. With a lot of practices, they begin to see how what they learn practically translates to what they do in solving design problems.

Their thinking starts to become visible, which helps other people make sense of what they’re doing. They see the connections themselves.

On the other hand, part of what they do also becomes invisible, because their expertise and experience are gradually internalized into patterns (“intuition”) in their mind.

Expert Designer: Symbiotic Relationship Between the Two Practices

Expert designers easily establish visible, explicit and rational connections between what they think and what they do. They are often good at communicating those connections to others. Most things simply make sense to an observer.

On the other hand, what others see tends to be a smaller part of what they really mater. Expert designers practice both their hands and their minds when experienced and novice designers don’t. Learning becomes relatively straightforward due to accumulated experience and method. That’s not to say there are no challenges in learning – there are, but expert designers feel a lot more comfortable and confident in addressing them.

They are also often good at many other skills that are essential to their profession and career, such as communicating design ideas, public speaking, listening and writing. As a result, their practices at hand and in the mind can be easily exposed to the outside world for different purposes such as teaching or consulting.

Their deeper, more serious practices of learning are invisible to others. That’s why others gasp at the brilliance of their masterful service.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke


The two practices of design learning not only explain why learning to use design tools is often the first and easiest way to a design education, but also explain why design tools are actually the least important in your learning.

Talking about the failure of fast education, Jon Kolko suggests that we should “teach slower to teach better.”

Perhaps the same goes for learning: learn slower to learn better.

It’s always better when your practice at hand and your practice in the mind go together with synergy.



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