Recently I commented on a LinkedIn post that maybe it’s time to bring back “retro” design classes which foster what I’d term “classic design skills”.

In this era of churning out “UX Designers” through 6-week academies & online programs, there’s a vital need to fill something far more valuable then a quick easy certificate to get a UX job — a deeper understanding of visual communication with manual methods of making them, which demand patience & persistence. Not everything can be a Sketch symbol or Figma component that you copy & paste to meet your engineer’s sprint deadline — nor should they be! To be a good designer one must learn the arts of making with various materials and tools and forms, with deep appreciation for the nuances of what emerges as a result. Mastering that, while incorporating into your own process and approach is one clear indicator of being a good designer. This is especially true with visual communication and related areas, to truly round out a designer’s repertoire of technical ability (making things) and perceptive sensibility (seeing possibilities). 

Which “retro” classes am I referring to? Well, admittedly the classes I myself studied 20 years ago as a student, the benefits of which still influence my work and approaches today:

  • Scientific illustration — to help focus your attention on tiny subtle details and also reveal how looking at something at different angles alters your depiction (and understanding) of reality.
  • Figure drawing — to learn how to render human figures in space and foster a kind of empathy for people in different positions and contexts, via charcoal, graphite, crayon, etc. Truly feeling out the emotional tenor and textures of the moment, which go way beyond simply filling out some persona template!
  • Film photography — to understand how manipulating chemicals & lenses with patience over time lead to images that tell powerful stories, especially in black & white. Hey, you can’t find the perfect image on unsplash all the time!
  • 3D model making — No, not the one using software (like Alias, Maya, etc.) but actually going to the maker-shop to saw, sand, join, drill materials and shapes together to make something of practical use. Yes, it’s super scary, but a worthwhile challenge to foster profound appreciation for the complexity of manufacturing real things. We still live in a world of physical things, and relating those concepts to software UX design can shape a renewed appreciation for the complexity and difficulty of making.

One more thing… perhaps we need a class on simply whiteboard sketching & storyboarding (comic book style) to help visually communicate ideas effectively and why they matter, especially to our non-visual peers in product development who need a little help creating shared agreement on a design and its value. Especially if the root of the team’s issue is not understanding the human drama of the experience we’re trying to improve upon with a certain feature.

Maybe by going “retro” we can amplify & recapture the power we have as designers, defying the pigeonhole notion that we’re simply there to make wireframes & mockups for sprint deadlines. But instead we can help clarify, illuminate, dramatize, perceive, and animate new perspectives on a problem with multiple approaches to bring others on our journey of understanding and solving problems. This is beyond deadlines as well; these classes go a long way towards one’s own growth as a designer, which lasts a lifetime.