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Learning by Doing

by Taylor Slattery | January 24, 2023

Before four-year schools became the standard for acquiring the necessary skills to enter a profession, knowledge was handed down directly through apprenticeships. Schools attempt to recreate a similar environment as best they can, but there’s no real supplement for on-the-job training. The attention you receive when working with a dedicated instructor one-on-one is priceless, and a lot can be learned simply by observing someone who is incredibly skilled at their craft while they work.

However, with the popularization of digital tools and instructional information becoming widely available, the focus of our industry has shifted. There’s less focus on craft and tradition, and the sorts of institutions that upheld those have begun to disappear. In the past, if you wanted to learn about typography, you might start an apprenticeship under a sign painter or a typesetter at a newspaper. There, you would have found yourself at the tail end of a long lineage of people dedicated to a very specific craft, with each person acting like a link in a chain, simultaneously keeping the tradition alive while passing on the knowledge they’ve gained. As an apprentice and the next link in the chain, you would stand to receive the sum total of their knowledge.

For most of us, this is no longer the case. The path toward becoming proficient at a particular skill isn’t nearly as narrow as it used to be. With the internet, we now have access to a much larger pool of information. We can learn from teachers from all over the world—from sources previously inaccessible. However, with this accessibility comes a new challenge. Having traded depth for width, there are almost too many options now, and it’s now up to us to cut through the noise and try to make heads and tails of it all.

One thing remains the same. With crafts or any sort of skill that involves working with your hands, there is a large chasm between the theoretical and the practical. Whether you receive instruction from a textbook, a mentor, or a tutorial on YouTube, that information is still secondhand until you put it into practice and make it your own. Diving in and getting your hands dirty is the quickest way to gain your bearings and guide your future learning.

Another effect of the democratization of information is that we can no longer accept it at face value. Because anybody can share information online and everybody has the tools to make professional-looking videos and appear authoritative on the subject matter, everything must be tested for validity.

Overall, I think this is a net positive, though. Without the traditional barriers to entry in place, you don’t have to be an accomplished academic to contribute information to the field, and in a very roundabout way, having to test everything for ourselves makes us better thinkers and more responsible consumers of information. While on a surface level, it appears as though much has changed, in the end, very little has—the best way to learn is still by doing.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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