Can design be taught?

I was never the kid who could draw. My few attempts at arts and crafts were unmitigated disasters.

Throughout my career, I have had the privilege to work with designers. They can make a functional interface a joy to use by adding personality and meaning. I would bet that they could draw when they were kids.

When I worked on user interfaces for projects, I focused on usability, validating assumptions through user research. Even with a perfectly functional interface, I reached a point where only a designer’s touch could make the user experience extraordinary. “What is this designer juju,” I asked myself, “and how can I get it?”

I recently took Code School’s Fundamentals of Design, which emphasizes that design is “intentional.” A good designer can state the reasons for his or her choice of typography, layout, and color. In this way, design is both creative and logical. The logic can be taught, and Code School aims to impart creative intuition as well.


The course started with some basic theories of design. Here are some examples:

  • Color systems – Red/Green/Blue (used for web), CMYK (used for print), Hue/Light/Saturation (how the brain perceives colors)
  • Color and emotion – red means passion, yellow means optimism and creativity, green means serenity and health*

* Colors have different meanings in different cultures, the course notes.

Rules of thumb

Also covered are ground rules that designers know after spending some time in the field.

  • Try not to have orphan words hanging at the end of a line.
  • Use cool colors in the background and warm colors in the foreground, because warm colors appear closer to the human eye.
  • When putting type on top of an image, adjust the image (using an overlay pattern or transparency) to make the text stand out. Do not adjust the text with tacky effects such as drop shadows.


Here’s where it got interesting. The course taught creative intuition through exercises.

The course presents an actual web site and has you:

  1. Drag elements around into layout
  2. Apply a color scheme
  3. Choose fonts and font sizes

All the while, it validates that your selections match design principles such as symmetry (… or properly applied asymmetry) and contrast.

The fact that a computer can detect poor design choices hints that to some extent designer’s intuition can be learned.

How to learn basic design

Whether you have designed in mediums other than web or never designed at all, it is worth exploring these introductory resources.

Read a classic

Check out The Non-Designer’s Design Book for an introduction to the basics of design overall, not just the web.  These foundational principles carry through to all mediums.

Stay up to date

Sign up for, and go through its lessons.  You will learn from the top minds in the field.

Take an interactive course

I would recommend Code School’s Fundamentals of Design, particularly as a compliment to the two suggestions above. brings Rails job offers to you. Free for candidates. Salaries from $75,000 to $250,000. Sign up now!

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