Garbage In, Garbage Out
I had a conversation this weekend with a friend of mine who just can't seem to turn the corner in terms of his career. He too wants to be a designer of things, specifically on the web. And since I do that, he was talking to me about his path and the things he is doing to advance along it.
I'll save you the two-hour transcript: the answer is "absolutely nothing."
He doesn't read Smashing Magazine, Ajaxian, 486 Berea Street, A List Apart, PSDTuts, or even PhotoshopDisasters to see how things SHOULDN'T be done (and no, I'm not linking those - if you actually care to read them, you'll find the links on your own). He owns a book on Photoshop and one on Flash - no design books (or even books with pretty pictures), no catalogs from photography houses or design shops. No magazine subscriptions to HOW or Communication Arts. I asked him if he knew what font Apple used before switching to Myriad, and his answer was a question: "Where would I even find that out?" He couldn't even determine the difference between a typeface and a logo with some text illustrated in.
His pedigree? Atlanta Art Institute. He took classes in illustration. He has taken no classes in design or layout and doesn't know the difference between the two. His "studio" is his living room in his apartment - lots of illustrations he's done on the wall, but nothing regarding layout or design, just character sketches and some paintings of flowers.
There's an old programming axiom: GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out.
For those not willing or able to click the link above, the very basic premise is you get out of things what you put into them. Just like making a cake (chocolate, even): If you start with high quality ingredients, you end with a high quality cake. If, instead, you substitute shit for sugar, you get a cake that tastes... Well, pretty bad, I'm sure. I'm not willing to test it.
This is true everywhere, in all aspects of life. Surround yourself with confrontational people, you'll be confrontational. Eat unhealthy food, you'll be unhealthy. Hate breeds hate, ignorance breeds ignorance, etcetera. And where my friend is concerned, I feel he's worse than the person who experiments by replacing sugar with shit in his cake... He doesn't even know where to find recipes for cakes to experiment with.
This is inexcusable. I don't hate the guy, and I don't think less of him as a person... But I absolutely feel no pity whatsoever. Somehow, I found the resources I needed to find to learn the things I needed to learn to do the things I've done, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't find a brand new one.
It's simple: wanting to do or be something is not the same as doing or being it. You can want all you want - in fact, it's the one thing humans can do to an unlimited degree, as there's no fatigue associated with desire. But I'd argue that there's a clear difference between wanting to be called a designer and being a designer, and it all begins with the actions you take to reach your goal.
The same goes with being a writer, or being a football player, or getting in shape, or anything else. If your path is paved with efforts, you'll get where you want to go. If it's paved with words, you're just going to end up stuck on the side of the road with a continual string of flat tires.
Reading a book on Photoshop and thinking it'll make you a great designer is no different than reading the instruction manual for a hammer and thinking that'll make you a great carpenter, or watching a video on how to sharpen a pencil and thinking you're now ready to be the next Stephen King. The art is not the tool.
Ingest healthy food and be healthy. Research successful designers and good design, and be a good designer and make good designs. Study great writing and produce great writing. Or, keep talking about how much you wish you were what you think you want to be and get unflatteringly honest blog posts written about you.