How to Develop the “Eye” of a Designer

Yes, it’s “Eye of the Tiger”, but can’t a designer have both?

Becoming an Interior Designer or Other Visual Creative

Have you ever the heard someone proclaim that they have “an eye” for a certain thing? 

Maybe you’ve heard, “I have an eye for a good photo” or “an eye for fashion”.

Some people even have an “eye” for a bargain.

What is this eye they speak of?

My boyfriend sees hot chicks when looking at this picture. I see variety in unity, line and progression, hue and tone.
Come to think of it, those models aren’t too bad, either.

Well, obviously “eye” is used in a non-literal sense.

When I first began my design journey I thought that some people were just ‘gifted’ with the “eye”, while others weren’t.

It was a little like having “the sight”: an imaginary ability to see ghouls, ghosts and goblins. (Just don’t tell my grandma I said that, because she actually can see them).

I’d always had an eye for lines, since I was about two years of age.

I used to cut up minute pieces of paper and draw geometric shapes in different patterns and arrangements, then gift them to my dad, who would keep in his wallet when he went to work.

These were my early attempts to write “words”.

Thinking about those early scrawls, they were actually more like heiroglyphs or Chinese pictographs than actual Roman letters, but interestingly, my early experimentation with line gave me an early start on being able to see the world in a slightly abstract way.

Lines represent shapes, which represent people. It doesn’t even take a whole lot of lines to create some very memorable images.

I say abstract, since lines don’t actually exist around real objects, they are only implied; but they are relied heavily upon in line art like cartooning).

I went on to the point that I could easily draw the shapes and figures around me without a whole lot of thought or attention to it until I started school.

Once surrounded by other kids who couldn’t draw that well (or maybe just never drew much) I was singled out as somehow special for “knowing” how to draw.

Actually I never really learned drawing, I tried to tell them.

I just liked to draw and so I did.

And anyone could draw like me I did if they tried.

I still haven’ t convinced many people on this, but I still believe that it’s true.

A designer finds a certain joy in breaking the world down into objects, lines, patterns and relationships.

I did have an advantage over the other kids that I didn’t understand at the time.

What made the difference was that I had taught myself to see the world in outlines, and that made it easier for me to translate what I observed to paper.

3D to 2D.

Design has to do with translating and communicating visuals. It is its own language.

However, I had no personal experience with anything related to interior design when I first became interested in it.

So I ended up with the same notion those kids in grade school had about me in my perception of designers and architects.

I wanted to be able to see the world the way they did.

I wished I could.

But I wondered if I’d be wasting my time learning something I wasn’t naturally just “amazing” at, like drawing.

It was around this time, when I was first browsing the architecture & interior design sections of my local library, that I came across a book by famed interior designer and author Vicente Wolf, called “Learning to See”.

Vicente Wolf is a photographer and world-renowned interior designer who began life in the U.S. as a Cuban immigrant model. It was while working in a furniture store that he became interested in design, visiting the great art galleries of N.Y. in his spare time.

Through immersion in the arts he “learned to see”, eventually becoming an acclaimed designer who stunned the world with beautiful minimalist interiors at a time when minimalism was not yet in vogue. Photo courtesy of Vicente Wolf’s website.

This book changed my whole way of thinking and put me on the path to getting a design education.

I came to understand: The reason some people were so good at seeing things that other people weren’t, whether it be Sherlock Holmes on a murder case of great intrigue or an antiques dealer sniffing out treasures at an estate auction, is because they had a “practiced” or “trained eye”.

Over a long period of time spent observing certain things, they had acquired a knowledge (something of a mental database) that enabled them to be a “quick study”.

They were able to pick up on little things most of us would miss because they had honed their skills of observation. They had learned to “see”.

Never mind the old puzzle of black on white or white on black.
Look at the top portion of this 3D object.
Is it convex or concave?
Is there a hollow in the top of this shape?
Or, rather, is there a sphere sitting on top of it?
As a piece of optically illusionary 2D art the answer to this question should be: neither.
What do you think?

Can you tell the difference between a photo that is well taken and one that isn’t?

How would you judge it?

At the most basic level, you might dislike a photo based on what it features.

But with the eye of an artist or designer, you could tell whether the photo was well taken by someone who knew what they were doing or a complete amateur with no sense at all.

Actually, you might instinctively be better at it than you think you are.

Going further, could you explain the principles you use to separate a well taken picture from a badly taken picture?

What ‘rules’ did you come up with to help you compare the two pictures and decide on what was right, and what just seemed “off”?

Beginning to describe and compare what you see is the beginning of you learning to “see” with your budding artistic eye.

Good job, you.

Let’s Test Your New-Found Skill

What’s wrong with this landscape picture? Too much grey sky is the first thing I notice. The focal point is not very clear. The eye is drawn to the colorful buildings in the picture that appear too far down the frame in relation to all the whitewashed sky and haze. We could say it has poor composition.

So, similarly, how do you decide what is good design and what isn’t?

Buildings and interiors are bigger groupings with more complex compositions than photos.

Naturally they are a little more daunting.

At first.

Learning to See Takes Practice

Many untrained people tend to think that the aesthetics of objects and spaces are purely subjective. What you like is what you like, and what I like is what I like.

Or alternatively, some people believe that there are strict rules that may be adhered to or copied judiciously to achieve good design results.

I’ve got news for these people:

Neither one of these approaches makes for good design.

Now compare the picture above to this landscape shot. The eye is drawn to the center of the photo, which feels natural and comfortable. The clouds at the top and the water at the bottom share similar amounts of real estate within the frame and the entire grouping can be seen in a division of ‘thirds’, a clear top, middle and bottom. This is an example of good composition.

Design is a Process, Not a Hard and Fast Set of Rules

What I love most about design is that it’s a process.

While this process does go through navigable steps, these steps may take you a number of different directions in your exploration of a good design.

For example, you and I may start out with the same design directive, materials and suppliers and follow the same sequence, but the results we achieve and the conclusions we come to may be quite different.

What will matter most in the end is that the design satisfies or exceeds the needs of the project or space, and fulfills the technical and practical requirements.

How it looks is only a part of the design solution.

Designers should be patient people because a design never happens in a day.

You don’t just jump into designing a room or a project.

You may have some great ideas, but the final design will need to be informed by many meetings with clients and taking all the data, resources, options and even expected obstacles into account.

When you do present your final design, ultimately, you need to be able to show how you got there.

You have followed a step-by-step process listening, conceptualizing, designing and then going back to listening again, refining the design through editing until you reach your final schematic design.

This should be something you and your client are both happy with, because you’ve been working on it together.

If your creative offering doesn’t meet all the requirements of the brief, it’s back to the drawing board and the process begins again.

For a designer there’s almost no such thing as a ”mistake” in the early part of the design phase when you’re first coming up with ideas. There will be good ideas and less good ideas, but you have to learn to let it flow without judging. The judging, more like ‘refining’ will come later.

Good Design or Personal Preference?

Of course designers have personal tastes and preferences built up over the years they have spent learning and practicing.

Generally, the more someone practices something, the better they get at it.

Ever heard of the 10,000 hour rule?

So, a designer might have a highly refined sense of style, but that doesn’t mean that he or she can’t design well in a style that they don’t personally find appealing.

This would similar to saying that a photographer couldn’t take a good picture because they didn’t like their subject.

Well, it could happen, and that would be unfortunate, but for a professional, should never get in the way of “seeing” what needs to be seen and working with it to get the job done.

It is at this exact time, in fact, that the principles of design are best called upon: When there are no other distractions or ‘fluff’.

At that moment the “eye” of the designer is trained to look for solutions to visual and spacial problems or to recognize and catch flaws or snags before they become real problems.

A designer is, by nature, a visual-spacial problem-solver.

Is this a mess of fabrics and tools or the raw components of the next great design?

Do you have what it takes to develop a creative eye or even become a designer or visual artist?

If you have the interest in it and the determination to see it through, then you do!

Forget natural talent.

Yes, it exists, but it’s not the whole story.

No matter how creative we are naturally at birth, (and I would argue that if you are interested in design you are probably creative in the first place!) still, we all learn to perceive or to “see” the world in different ways.

Our individual perception is based on the way we interact with, as well as across environments, what education we acquire (real life or formal) and what influences we pick up on. 

From the time you begin to make your way in the world you are beginning to “see” more than just the objects in front of you. 

You are learning about relationships between objects and their environment and other human beings, and more importantly, the subtleties of what those relationships might mean.

What are you good at distinguishing between?

Start there.

Becoming an artist, designer or other creative professional is a process, either learned or inherently adopted, but always refined over time.

Wait, so you’re designing your own “eye for design” as you become a designer?

In a way, yes.

As long as you’re able to be self-critical and get rid of what isn’t working and be prepared to make iterations and change.

The process of ‘becoming through practice’ trains the eye to see the world, and more specifically, the items we work with in our trades, in terms of their shapes, forms, functions and relationships.

Then we factor in relationships to space, time, even light.. and a host of other variables.

But let’s go back to the basics for a minute.

We can start our journey into the world of design by studying smaller objects than those found in architecture and interior design.

A blank piece of paper and a black technical pen or a felt tip market is a great place to start.

Think of that toddler doodling with those black outlines and let yourself be a kid again, relearning what you see.

When I started studying interior design I practiced drawing cubes and then adding dimension lines and playing with perspectives.

Later you can explore the relationship between 2D lines and 2D objects, which is at the basis of all design thinking.

You can learn to recognize patterns in arrangement and style. 

Here are some ways to get started developing your ‘eye’:

Pick up an optical illusion book to challenge your visual perception

Sort objects by shape, color and texture

Organize your bookshelf

Create a “table-scape” or a flower arrangement

Start keeping a design sketchbook or collect tear sheets from magazines

Start a Pinterest board

–Create simple systems to explain aesthetic preferences or differences

Personally, I’ve gotten a lot better at finding Waldo since becoming a design student.

All of this is actually quite easy and fun, as once you learn to “see” the way a designer does, you’ll never “unsee” it again.

The book that started it all for me: “Learning to See” is an amazing introduction to design as related to homes, interiors and objects.
Written by Vicente Wolf, legendary self-taught photographer and designer who made the “Top 100 Designers” lists of both Metropolitan Home and Architectural Digest. Wolf has a practice in New York.
Check out his work at

Do you have an eye for something?

Share it with me in the comments below. I’d love to know how you developed your “eye”!

We are on a mission at Design Baddie to make basic interior design information accessible and free to all! Get our introductory interior design e-book absolutely free when you sign up for our newsletter.

Happy design learning!

Read more about how I got started on my own interior design education journey below, and how you can too!

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