From Timid to Intrepid: All It Takes is Practice

by Peg Laflam
Originally Published Spring 1999

What clearly marks the difference between a good designer and a really outstanding designer? What word describes the artist whose work can dominate a room or a wall? What word describes the artist whose wall hanging, quilt or jacket with combinations of colors and fabrics that may startle us?

There can be only one word … intrepid. There can be no room for timidity in good design. But how does one become fearless and bold in the creation of designs and in the use of color? Where does one get ideas or know just which colors to put together?

No one is born with the talent for good design, just as no one is born knowing how to play tennis or ride a horse. It is all in the practice. Think of areas which demand skills … anything from ballet to typing. Let your mind recall a budding ballerina or a beginning typist and you will see clumsiness and insecurity. But as your mind moves ahead and you watch a skilled ballerina or a skilled typist, you see a grace and a flow of beauty that comes from practice.

Designing is no different. The beginner will be insecure, timid and clumsy. At this point some people give up saying they weren’t born to be designers, but the intrepid soul will repeat an exercise, will search out teachers, and will develop skills in designing. As with so many things in life, if you have a desire to do something, then time will be found to learn how to do it. If you don’t find the time to stretch and work at designing, your work may remain at the timid and tentative stage.

In order to be the intrepid designer, one must first learn to see design in everything. A notebook is not only helpful, but necessary. If something catches your eye, you should make a note of it immediately in the notebook. This can be something as simple as a pattern in the brickwork (have you ever noticed that bricks can be placed horizontally, vertically and even diagonally on a building and the direction can give a clue to the age of the structure?), or the lines on a city map showing the streets (compare the streets in Washington, D.C. with those in Manhattan). Stonework, arches, ceilings in the architectural line; tennis racquets, skis, footballs, and volley balls in the sports line; leaves, flowers, streams, raindrops in nature can all be inspirations for design.

After a period of looking for and realizing design in daily life, you can then select a particular subject that intrigues you. By reducing this subject down to the simplest lines you can approach the subject from a new and fresh viewpoint. Take the simple house plant you see everyday. Move your eye in as closely as possible and discover new sights. Take a magnifying glass and get even further inside the leaf or flower. Find a part of the plant which has appealing lines and copy them into your book of ideas. Then forgetting about the original source, consider this collection of lines or shapes as your design. It is important to remember that your finished work need not be realistic, it can be merely decorative. If it doesn’t have the appeal you are searching for, do not despair — repeat the lines or shapes several times, either in a row side by side or by rotating the shapes. Make some of the shapes larger and some smaller; here a copying machine is invaluable. Reverse them so that you have some in mirror image. In fact stand a mirror beside part of your design and see what new designs can be created by repetition of parts of the original. Reverse the positive and negative areas in some. Make combinations or collages of these sketches continuing to move them around until you have a pleasing combination. Soon there will be an area of greater appeal. One way to eliminate areas of lesser appeal and select the area you want to devote your attention to is to create a paper frame so that you can focus on specific areas. Try a round or oval frame as well as square or rectangular to see which best fits your design.

After an area has been chosen, it can be enlarged to any size desired. Along the way you may discover there are some lines that make the design a bit busy, perhaps these lines create tiny spaces or shapes that are barely seen. Do not hesitate to remove them. It takes a courageous designer to remove lines; ask yourself if each line is necessary and if it is not, remove it. In the search for design simplicity, restraint is the key. A good example would be the Chinese Ying-Yang symbol, a circle with a single bold curved line dividing the positive and negative areas.

Once you have completed this exercise, go back to your original design source and repeat from a different angle or viewpoint. It is only by this repetition and practice that you will find yourself becoming the intrepid designer.