Working on Visual Design

by Marty Alchin on November 18, 2007 about Django

It’s no secret that I’ve been very involved with Django, which requires a lot of design with regard to programming, but it doesn’t really deal with the visual aspect. Instead, that’s (rightfully!) left to graphic designers. Unfortunately, this only works at its best when you have access to a designer. When building my own site, I’m constantly reminded that I don’t have design skills, nor can I hire a designer. In fact, that’s one of the biggest reasons I’m on Blogger at the moment; I just can’t manage to get a personal site that looks good.

However, I’ve been working on that for quite a while, and I’ve found that Inkscape is the one graphics app I can actually wrap my head around. Maybe it’s because I know SVG so well, maybe its interface just makes sense to my mind, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve been using it over the past year or two to try to increase my design skills.

I haven’t made huge strides, but I’m certainly improving. The biggest hurdle I tend to have is that I can’t easily visualize what I want to do, so knowing what a program can do doesn’t really help much. But since Inkscape makes it easier for me to get from concept to reality, I can prototype what rough ideas I do manage to get in my head. What does this mean for me? Once I can see it, I can more easily figure out what’s wrong with it, and go about fixing it.

Before Inkscape, I had no way of reliably getting my idea blobs, so I had to try to finish them in my head, which certainly doesn’t work (at least for me). Now that I can actually see them and tweak them, what I’m finding most amazing is that I’m more and more able to flesh out ideas in my head, before hitting Inkscape. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s actually the imperfection that makes it work so well for me. If I could perfect the images in my head, I’d have that much harder of a time getting Inkscape to match, and I’d get even more frustrated.

The funny thing is that I still think like an engineer. When I have an image in my head, I quickly start looking at the curves and figure out where nodes and control points would go, how many shapes it would require, how they’d have to be stacked, what transformations would make it easier, that sort of thing. With Inkscape being based on an open spec, I can even do most of what I need directly in a text editor, without using Inkscape at all! It certainly helps to refine it in Inkscape, of course, but I can at least get the rough idea out.

I’m also learning to simplify things. Most of the time, when I have something in my head, and I can’t manage to get it into Inkscape quickly and reliably, it’s probably too complex. In a way, my inability to work on complex imagery has forst me to be more minimal in my designs, which looks much better. Some people can manage to be complex, but a good minimal design is better than a butchered copmlex one any day.

What this all means now is that I just ditched a copmlex design for the Django-driven version of my site, and now that I have a simpler one that’s easier to work with, I should be able to have it up a lot sooner. The design has been my major stumbling block, but with that a little more out of the way, I should be off Blogger soon.