How photography made me a better designer

5 reasons why photography is the best hobby for designers

If you are a full-time designer like myself, you’d be surprised at what you can do with photography, and how it can help you in improving your design skills. I personally know that there are a lot of designers use photography as their side hobby and some even offer freelance services to make a side income. I also learned a huge amount of lessons and experiences from this hobby.

The objective of this post is to share some key takeaways that, hopefully, will be valuable to other fellow designers out there. (This post will not be covering the technical side of taking photos.)


1. Build empathy

I love to capture stories of people going about their daily lives. When I’m photographing people and their environment, I would often try to spend some time with the subject before clicking the shutter button. In many cases, I’ll try to have normal conversations with them and also listen to their stories. By spending more time building the rapport, I’m able to better connect with the subject and in return make them feel valued and respected. By allowing myself to immerse in this whole process, it helps put my own life in perspective and make me a more compassionate individual, something that is important in the world we live in today.

“Without the participation of intuition, sensibility, and understanding, photography is nothing. All these faculties must be closely harnessed, and it is then that the capture of a rare picture becomes a real physical delight. ”
— Henri Cartier-Bresson

2. Deep observation

One of the most important interpersonal skills being a designer is deep observation. Designers are naturally curious people. We are the type who is constantly fuelled by the desire to know. In design, I’m not just talking about having an eye for UI details and spacing, but also being inquisitive about our end users and their behaviours. Dig deeper into their needs to try to uncover all the ‘why’s.

Deep observation demands not just the eyes but all the senses, and with photography, it gives me the opportunity to practice this skill on the highest level.

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
— Albert Einstein

3. Embrace the Beginner’s mindset

The beginner’s mindset refers to maintaining an attitude of openness, eagerness without thinking about achieving anything. I’ve learned that in order to be good at photography (or anything), I need an exceptional amount of deliberate practice. Don’t be ashamed of failures, it’s okay if the result didn’t turn out well as long as you are eager to learn and grow.

Most of us have these bunch of assumptions in our head that keep us from seeing new opportunities. This expert blindness symptom is the death of creativity. Henri Cartier Bresson was great because he spent a tremendous amount of time consciously perfecting his crafts.

“In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

4. It’s the process, not the tools

For my photography setup, I’m using with the ‘one lens, one camera’ approach. The popular belief that “more lenses and gears = more creative, better picture” is a myth. Acquiring a lot of equipment in terms of lenses and accessories won’t necessarily improve your photography,

If we are always thinking of which lens to put on before taking a picture, we will never be able to truly enjoy the whole shooting experience. And worse it’s that they tend to confuse you and can slow down your workflow.

Most designers always wanted to stay up to date on the latest design-related tools. Take prototyping tools as an example, there are so many different tools out there like Principle App, Figma, Proto.io and many more.

I think that it’s good to try bits of everything. However, always ask yourself, 
1. “Will this XYZ tool helps me in improving my current design workflow?
2. “Will this XYZ tool enables me to achieve better results (deliverables and time)?

Pick a tool that will take less time and effort to complete a task, like using Keynote for rapid-prototyping. Having to know more tools will not make you a better designer. What’s important is knowing which set of design processes to use within the given context and timeline.

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

5. Simplicity

The ultimate goal of photography conveys a message to your viewers. Hence, to achieve that goal, a photo needs to have good composition, colours, subject matter, and lighting. When I’m taking pictures, I will try to see which elements in the scene that I can leave out to make the overall message stronger. Random objects and glaring elements in a photo can distract your viewers to focus on the main subject and its story.

This is very true with design, too. The design that we create must be able to address specific pain points and at the same time, support the business objectives. There is no room for fancy and clueless UIs that ended up looking ‘nice’ but unusable.

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” — Ansel Adams

Final notes…

Lastly, my journey to become a better photographer have been a steep learning curve, I am very grateful for all the feedback from peers and professionals. The more I shoot, the more I learn as there are always new ways to approach things not just in photography, but also in design.

Photography shouldn’t be reserved for selfies. Every shot captures a unique moment to tell a story. There is something about the story of an image that opens up for interesting conversation and discussion. Well, the same goes for design, we should not design ‘nice’ things for the sake of attention, instead, we should focus purely on solving real user problems.

TL:DR

1. Build empathy
2. Deep observation
3. Embrace the Beginner’s mindset
4. It’s the process, not the tools
5. Simplicity (Keep in simple)


I am always open to hearing your stories and lessons. Share your thoughts in the comments!

Thank you!
Twitter @choongchingteo

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