So you want to be a bad ass designer?

If you’re half way to your design black belt, already a semi-professional, continue on, otherwise see the first blog on design studies here. Otherwise, on to mastery.

3rd Kyu - Purple Belt

You need some skills to move from screen to print. Simply knowing most printers work at 300dpi is not going to cut it designer-san. Production for Print is a book I read cover to cover the first time and is something useful for reference going forward. Dealing with the technical requirements of printers will make a huge difference when exporting files, and speed up the process of print production on both ends. When orange looks flat against the rest of the image, when text is cut off from the image, when you change paper stock and the image suddenly appears different, this is the designers fault, not the printers. Essential reference.

Typographers and designers are also known for writing. It’s a big part of engaging with the industry discourse. Tschichold when he was young was arrogant, Morris before he was a nutcase, and Gill when he was already a nutcase. Seeing how values influence design is incredibly important.

Getting into your own writing is crucial. You need to communicate with clients, teams, customers, and maybe you want to contribute to the dialogue yourself. It is never enough to let your work speak for itself, you must justify your work (pun intended). Bird by Bird is often recommended by people of many industries, and Stein on Writing has critical insights into writing and publishing. Even if you only improve your e-mails writing is a powerful tool.

Graphic design is connected to advertising. Seth Godin is not only a marketer, but is one of the biggest bloggers in the world, and his books are a great way to get into his work. Each book deals with part marketing, and I found the Icarus Deception a good starting place.

The Elements of Colour gets dense. It has so much to digest, and a lot of colour theory books will seem more applicable to art. Understanding the principals to any degree is better than trying to blindly rummage through swatches, or more dangerously sticking to stolen and simple pallets.

The Design Way I can not recommend enough. This book I would not introduce earlier, as it can feel heavy. But by now you should be able to grasp the methods and ideas. The book is not about any one discipline, but design as a whole, and can be applied to systems design as much as furniture making.

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research is an optional addition to your collection. I found it very useful, and believe it would be very useful to anybody at any point in their education who wants to go beyond a designed outcome and get into design with real purpose, or work with real purpose.

Additionally, this is a great start to any research, and here is a great resource for effective e-mails.

2nd Kyu - Purple Belt

Don’t even think about getting a new belt until you can engage with the fringes of design. Seeking diverse sources that speak to you and applying them to your work is one of the easiest ways to break away from routines, or to find out who you will be as a designer.


Books on typography and lettering will always be an influence to me. But look to cultural discussions, art, and the cross over areas between art and design. Are they art toys or designer vinyl? Are graphic novels and comics art, design, or literature? Does it matter? Engage with what you like rather than looking to influences that appear when you simply seek out what is labelled design.

1st Kyu - Brown Belt

If you thought getting your brown belt pushed you outside of your comfort zone you will never get your black belt designer-san. Design engages with the world on many levels. You cannot simply learn every function of photoshop, or just translate work to 3D, or build furniture based on design theory. That will make you a photoshop-wizard, a cad-monkey, or a carpenter. All legitimate jobs in their own right, but not what you came here to do.

A designer has an opinion, knows the world, and does something about it. What impact do thinking on war strategy, suicide, societal history, and business have on design? Absolutely everything. If you do not understand the world outside design you do not understand design at all.

It has been said that making no choices about diet is still a choice on diet. You are still on a diet, but a thoughtless one.

The same can be said of anything. If you interact with business, understand it. You will engage though not only with printers, clients, manufacturers, and customers. These are all underscored as people. And if you do not know about people, how are you going to do anything for them?

This is not a prescriptive list, but a descriptive one. You cannot design in isolation. You must find what else in the world is of interest to you and bring it back to your design.

1st Dan - Black Belt

Do you believe you are a black belt? Do you believe you are done? Are you making work or just reading about it? It is not about one thing, but everything. I do not care how many followers on Twitter you have, how much you earn, or what awards you have. The path is yours to chose, and the path to higher rankings is one each person must discover on their own.