Erik Kennedy, freelance designer and founder of Learn UI Design


What’s your relationship to visual design?

I think about it all the time!

For one, my main job and source of income is a course about visual design. In it, I try to include the most cogent, lucid breakdowns of visual design that’ve ever existed. Whether I’ve succeeded is for my students to judge, but that’s the level at which I aim to understand and describe visual design.

I also do freelance UX/UI design, so obviously visual design is one side of that coin. And I’ve just launched my first typeface, Figtree, which involved strengthening some totally different visual design muscles.

This is all a sort of unexpected career direction too. I came by software because I fell in love with programming. I came by engineering because I fell in love with physics. A Feynman textbook is currently sitting by my bedside. That I spend my days thinking about serifs and indigo? Ha!

Visual design seems to be more important to you than to other designers. Can you unpack that?

Honestly, I think it’s because of my particular career path. I found the typical “art school” strategies for learning visual design (color theory, grids, golden ratio) basically useless—they didn’t help my bad designs look any better. Because of that, I tried to compile my own strategies—and eventually publish them. Because of that, I eventually created my own course on visual design, and now I think about it constantly!

The irony is if I had learned simple, practical strategies for visual design from day 1 of my design career, then I’d probably think about visual design a lot less today.

Even now, I find the psychological component of design a bit more interesting or meaty—the challenge of working on a piece of software every single day, and yet continually trying to view it through the eyes of someone who’s never seen it before.

Could you tell me more about visual design in your freelance work?

One important lesson I learned fairly early on in freelancing was: find clients for whom you can use as many of your skills as possible.

I primarily do 3 things for my clients: UX, UI, and a bit of front-end development. So clients that have needs in all 3 have always been the best to work with. I win, since I get a bigger project and less overhead. They win, since they get 3 contractors in one who can meet with each other instantaneously, 24/7.

So visual design is always a part of the larger picture for a client project.

What convinced you it was worth the time to build a course around visual design?

When the first article I wrote on visual design went viral, I suspected there might be a market need for a pro visual design course.

I still dumped 11 months into the initial version with very little feedback/testing that it would be worth the time. That was dumb, but I was lucky.

Looking back, why do you think it is as successful as it is?

As you have argued, there’s a dearth of good UI content out there. So it’s a downhill battle! But for Learn UI Design specifically, a few of the things that I think have contributed to its success are:

If courses like yours didn’t exist, what would you recommend analytical designers do to learn visual design?

Does Steve Schoger still exist?

It’d be a bit cruel of me to remove Steve Schoger from existence, so yes.

Yeah, well, first, they should talk to him...

But at a more general level, I’d recommend analyzing your gut reaction to any particular aspect of any design.

For instance, if you notice a font feels very friendly, try to analyze why. What about it makes it feel friendly? Is it a quality you can identify in other fonts that feel friendly? Is it a quality noticeably absent in decidedly not-friendly fonts?

Maybe you’ll see that e.g. monolinear fonts with terminals that end at non-vertical/horizontal angles feel very friendly.

Or maybe you’ll find that most professional designs use much more whitespace than your own attempts. Or maybe you’ll notice that most divider lines in great designs are really very light, etc.

In any case, congrats! You’ve now learned something about design! You can build off of this lesson with others, affixing each into an ever-growing interconnected web of knowledge of craft.

Oh, and one corollary: almost as important as analyzing is collecting (inspiration, examples), and neither is truly effective unless you are actively designing throughout it all, battle-testing each lesson.

Related reading:

How would you magically make this a perfect world in which to learn visual design?

Well, obviously I’d love for the “core set” of frameworks to be much more practical. But I’ve probably touched on that enough.

Another thing I’d love to see is a lot more 1-on-1 mentorship. Many beginning designers (including myself, back in the day) would benefit tremendously from it. I am incredibly grateful for the (frankly) relatively little craft and career mentorship I got, all of which I kind of had to butt in and ask for. If it was just part of the culture that every senior designer would mentor 1.5 junior designers or whatever, I think that would be a win across the board.

Do you think there’s a practical/scalable way to move in that direction?

Maybe the best chance we have is for all the MAANG companies to adopt a “every designer participates in mentoring” policy, and it could percolate out from there.