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Making Smaller Circles with Visual Design


Visual design is a field drastically under-supplied with good learning resources. This could be of absolutely no relevance to you, but it was crucial to me when I started trying to learn it systematically. In that attempt, I came across The Art of Learning and gradually got much better at learning; along the way, I picked up some lessons that may turn out to have relevance for you. Writing about them all would fill a booklet, so in this article I’ll only give you some thoughts on the principle from The Art of Learning that has been the most consistently helpful to me at every level – Making smaller circles.

My initial use of Making smaller circles was for learning the macro from the micro. In my case, that meant designing the least complex element that requires the same kind of choices as a full-scale work (such as a printed page or webpage, for example). Using web design as an example, the humble webpage button is a good choice for this, since designing one entails decisions about typography (the design of text), color and layout; for the same reasons, a paragraph with a title works well. After designing many iterations of those basic elements, I was surprised how considerably my grasp of the fundamental principles was strengthened: earlier, I thought these elements would be too trivial to focus on. But I found that my workflow sped up greatly and a slowness I hadn’t even been aware of had disappeared – as if I’d been wading through molasses and suddenly broke free. I found the takeaway for learning abundantly clear: there is no “too trivial” element of the whole to focus on.

After many exercises involving just one element, I moved on to small-scale pieces consisting of a few elements, as a way of probing the understanding of my principles in a controlled environment. While doing these exercises, Tim Ferriss’ thought from The 4-Hour Chef that “the burden on working memory is what makes something easy or hard” kept popping into my head. It seemed absolutely true to me the first time I’d read it – but now I felt I understood it on a visceral level. A better understanding of fundamental principles also led me to appreciate design in a new way: a beautiful design now seemed to be simply one whose elements are in harmony. This isn’t a new idea, but I couldn’t appreciate it viscerally or experience it influencing my work before I’d refined my understanding of the key principles to a finer level. I should note that grasping what “being in harmony” means for any group of elements is arguably the stuff of being a great designer – it wasn’t that I achieved this, but I found the mark to aim at.

I eventually realized that this approach made me better attuned to the interplay of various elements. In many cases, a good design has a fractal-like quality: its parts mirror the whole. I now regularly work “from the inside out”, planning a piece not from its frame or the most visually dominant feature, but from the element that “carries most of the load” of conveying the message. This is analogous to planning a story from the most important element (the one carrying most of the narrative load) outward – which could be the characters, the setting, or the story arc, or some other element. Why this approach? Because I find the characteristics of this element determine most of the other relationships between elements, and these are what makes up the entire work. In many cases, these relationships mirror those within the main element – and those of the main element with secondary elements may mirror those between elements further out, and so on. This is how the work gets the fractal-like quality I spoke about earlier. In this way, using Making smaller circles for learning was a stepping stone for using it to learn about the structure of a full work. Broad usefulness of this kind, at any degree of proficiency, is the reason I’ve found this principle so universally helpful.

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