Ask the Experts: How Does Design Work?

Jennifer Cole Phillips and Ellen Lupton know good design. When you run your own design practice (Jennifer), curate a design museum (Ellen), and direct the Graphic Design MFA program at MICA (both), you become a true expert in the subject. They’ve won awards, earned accolades, and generally kept the design world on its toes no matter what project they tackle.

This week, Ellen and Jennifer launched a brand new Skillshare class, Graphic Design Basics: Core Principles for Visual Design. The class is free so everyone can make the most of design! Plus, each student who enrolls by midnight, October 15th will have three chances to win a copy of the book that inspired their lessons.

Curious to learn from the best, we asked them a few questions. Check out their answers below (along with what's in store if you ever find yourself at a dinner party with Ellen!).

Ellen and Jennifer in their new Skillshare class, Graphic Design Basics: Core Principles for Visual Design.

Ellen and Jennifer in their new Skillshare class, Graphic Design Basics: Core Principles for Visual Design.

Which design principle is your favorite?

JCP: Dynamic asymmetry is my favorite. With an early background in painting, I take great pleasure in practicing and teaching students to master compositional tension by distributing elements in space in an asymmetrical yet balanced way. It takes rigorous practice and careful perception. The more one practices, the sharper their visual acuity becomes. A successful asymmetrical composition will engage a viewer’s eye and lead it around and through the compositional space in a graceful, rewarding manner.

EL: My favorite visual design tool is the grid. These invisible guidelines become the architecture of the page. They usually stay in the background, quietly organizing information and creating order and continuity. Grids can also step forward to help create complex, dynamic, richly layered spaces.

Can you ever let go of basic design principles?

JCP: No. The basic principles that energize and drive excellent design must always be present. What changes is that through practice and experience they become part of a designer's built-in toolkit – that is, they emerge unconsciously for the most part and are strengthened through stages of refinement, which I consider to be a critical part of the process.

EL: Most of the concepts we identified in our class are always at work in graphic design, always. Symmetry/asymmetry, scale, framing: these are tools that designers learn over time to use with more subtlety and sophistication. We can each use these concepts in our own way, but they are always there.

Do you notice great (or not so great) design at work in your daily life?

JCP: Oh yes! Everywhere! Often I will notice where good design basics have not been practiced. Things like flat, dull typographic color and hierarchy in newsletters and brochures; or overly expressive clunky typefaces and chaotic layouts in menus. It is rare to find great design in our media-saturated environments, which makes it all the more delightful to discover, create, and cultivate work that adds beauty and order to the world.

EL: I am the world's worst dinner date or travel companion. I never stop complaining.

Join Jennifer and Ellen’s new free class: Graphic Design Basics: Core Principles for Visual Design, and learn five foundational graphic design principles. Whether you're new to these principles or are looking for a refresher, you'll gain a solid understanding of the visual language that fuels all great design.