In the winter of 2012, I moved back to China for my first television job after completing my undergraduate studies in the US. That same winter was when I realized I made a horrible career mistake – I hated what I did.
Having majored in media production in college, I had always dreamed of getting into the film industry. If television didn’t work out, film seemed like a good alternative, or even better, a step-up.
With that in mind, I thought there was no better place to be than Hollywood. That’s when I started to plan a comeback to America.
I spent hours working on my application to a short-term film program in UCLA and gathered everything I had in an envelope, ready to head out to the post office.
But then, it rained. I had to stay home.
If you have never lived in an area with tropical rainforest-like climate where I am from, this may seem odd. But the torrential downpour we have is usually extremely powerful and often lasts for hours.
Somehow, my life completely changed because of that downpour.
While I was waiting out the rain at home, a strong feeling came into my head telling me that I should not send out that application.
Having always trusted my gut, I tossed the envelope in the trash without a clue what to do next.
After some soul searching, I decided to switch career to become a graphic designer solely based on the fact that I had designed my own resume for fun in college.
Fast forward to almost a decade later, I had become an adjunct professor in a couple of universities and an instructor in private design schools. Previously, I had worked at many different design roles in Fortune 500 companies.
So what happened in between?
A Self-Taught Professor With Imposter Syndrome
It wasn’t until some of my students asked me how I learned design that I realized I had actually never studied it.
Looking back to when I decided to switch career to design, I had to enroll in an academic program to get a student visa in order to come back to America.
I enrolled in a night program that offered to sponsor the visa and learned mostly Adobe programs. No design theories were taught and my proudest “portfolio” piece that came out of the program was an awkward digital illustration of Patrick Dempsey.
Yet last year at this time, I was writing up college syllabus and getting mistaken for being a student at the adjunct professor’s office, arguably the best way to start going down the imposter syndrome rabbit hole.
To prepare teaching college classes, I had to read design academic textbooks for the first time. I marveled at how dense some of the content is and how little college-level education has changed since I graduated.
That’s when I decided to ditch the academic materials and come up with my own in more practical and easy-to-understand formats.
As I was Googling visual examples for my PowerPoint slides, another realization struck me – I had open-sourced my entire design education!
Here is how it happened.
Design Is Like A Language
I have always looked for the fastest and most cost-effective way forward. When I decided to switch career to design, I knew I would not be getting another degree.
Having learned multiple languages and became fluent in them by myself, I was familiar with the process of self-studying.
Instead of going through the traditional route of flashcards, textbooks and in-person classes, I built my own learning approach.
I started with textbooks with the highest reviews and immersed myself immediately with books, TV shows, movies and music in that language.
I have never had any luck with flashcards. Instead, I learned about the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curveearly on and realized that by constantly immersing myself in native content, I will encounter the same words again and again. With natural repetition instead of forced memorization, I was able to pick up the language much faster with native-level fluency.
The same approach can be applied to learning design (or any other creative crafts).
When I was starting out, I didn’t learn any design theories. I equipped myself with necessary technical knowledge of design programs, which are similar to grammars in languages. You have to know basic grammars to form sentences that make sense, but just because you know the grammar doesn’t mean you can speak like a native speaker.
In order to sound like a native speaker, you have to observe, listen, mimic and then create your own sentences. Of course, the accent part requires natural talent and lots of practices, but that’s a story for another day.
When I taught myself design, I did exactly the same.
Go Beyond The Lens of A User (parallels “observe”)
I browsed hundreds of thousands of design inspirations and tried to pick out patterns from among them. Instead of mindlessly admiring the beauty of those design as a regular user, I took a step back and asked myself these questions:
“What problems are they solving?”
“Why do they look great?”
“What commonalities do they have?”
“Why are certain things placed in certain places and not others?”
“Can they be done in another way?”
Of course, this is an ongoing and constantly evolving process. You would not be able to answer all of these questions in a few months like you could learn how to drive, but forming the habit to observe intentionally is Step 1 to becoming a great designer.
Watch Others Do It (parallels “listen”)
I remember watching senior designers do their job as a new junior designer in my first agency job. It was like watching YouTube videos live. Even better, I could ask them questions.
Just like babies watch and listen to everything adults say and one day, they will start saying it, we absorb good design practices by watching established designers do it.
This is why I always recommend joining a team where you would be surrounded by a lot of peers for your first design job.
Gather Your Inspiration Folder (parallels “mimic”)
I always remember a quote from Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City – “I did what any writer would do. I pulled an idea out of my ass.”
In reality, this may seem daunting to most people who are just getting started. How on earth are you supposed to pull that design idea “out of your ass”?
It turns out we have tools to help with that.
When I introduced the practice of inspiration gathering, or “mood boarding” as we call it in the design world, some of my students expressed concerns.
“Isn’t that plagiarism?”
That is indeed a valid question, but let’s take a step back and look at it from this perspective.
If a fashion designer designed a bag based on the shape of a star, does that mean they stole it from stars (as in the ones we see in the night sky)?
No, they were inspired by it. There are many ways you can create a bag design from the shape of a star – as long as you are not copying most of what another star-shaped bag design look like, it is not plagiarism.
Just like babies will mimic what adults say before they can speak full sentences, beginner designers can use the help of existing design work that inspired them.
Learn The Rules, Practice The Hell Out Of Them, Then Break Them (parallels “create”)
When we teach design principles, we are actually teaching learned wisdom through years of experimentations “in the field”.
You can learn all the terminology you want, but if you don’t practice doing it, you will not be able to design well.
Just like someone can hear their parents speak another language but never actually converse with them in that language; they will end up understanding all of it but speaking none of it.
When I was doing design back in the day, I never realized there were names to the theories I now teach in my classes. They became second nature to me simply because I observed, listened, mimic and then created my own.
And that is the beauty of creative crafts – you can make it your own after you learned what generally works.
To Become Successfully Self-Taught, Think Like Sherlock Holmes
I have always loved poking around the Internet, and by doing so, I managed to put together my own custom-made curriculum both for my own learning back then and for my teaching in recent years.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for anyone attempting to self-study is not knowing where to start. What keywords are you supposed to search? If you are not even sure what pieces of the puzzle are missing, how are you going to solve the puzzle?
That’s when most people give up.
But not people like Sherlock Holmes. Instead, they think it can’t be that hard – they just need to take it piece by piece and one thing will lead to another.
Indeed, that is exactly how one can open source their own design education (or any other education).
By searching a few keywords you already know, you will find a series of resources in the form of articles, video tutorials, social media posts etc. The smart search engine we have now is very good at suggesting related keywords to what you just searched and you can go down the rabbit hole there – this time, perhaps in a more positive way.
You will find an incredible amount of resources available in every niche on the Internet. Design is no exception.
In fact, one of my photographer friends, who is also a wedding dress designer, learned how to design wedding dresses entirely from YouTube and she was darn good at it! While most people would automatically assume she spent a fortune attending fashion schools, she spent zero money and made it work with a lot of Sherlock Holmes-inspired searching.
The Future of Education Is Open-Sourced
Upon coming to that realization, I decided to put together an entirely free design curriculum that is expertly curated but open-sourced.
As a new creative entrepreneur, I thought long and hard about what product to offer that stands out in the crowded market and really makes a difference.
I knew I want my business to be radically honest as much as I try to be as a person. The content you can learn from any school, including college, private vocational schools, bootcamps, can be found online. Instead of packaging course content with inflated prices and potentially getting more students in debt, why don’t we direct more views to the content creators who spent so much time and effort on making them?
However, as I learned in my professional experience, while knowledge about a craft can be found and shared open-sourced, the soft skills and mentorship that we often had to gain through many years of work experience have a price on them.
I wouldn’t be able to design well if I had not received numerous critiques and feedback from senior colleagues and clients over the years.
I wouldn’t know how to handle a difficult client if I didn’t have the communication and interpersonal skills I developed.
I wouldn’t know how much to charge a client and how to negotiate for more money for my work.
These are precisely the things we don’t talk about enough in schools. And I want to change that.
On the other hand, design is a highly-iterative process. Without constant feedback, design is just a hobby you have for fun.
That is why I chose to release a full-length and free open-sourced visual design course that parallels the content from expensive bootcamps but is accompanied by business classes and on-demand mentoring sessions that are paid.
With this model, I would like to see design education becoming more affordable and accessible than ever while providing the best bespoke mentoring service to those who are serious about making it their career.
The future of education is open-sourced, and I hope my journey can be a reference for you to start your own.