Attempting to codify creativity in a very structured way might be an unproductive effort as there is probably no effective way to narrow down the force behind good design to a simple learning process.
The debate on whether the creative mind can be trained, or it is simply innate, shares the same history with many Darwinian anthropological and evolutionary problems. The implication is obviously that there is no straight answer on who to achieve success in the design world, at least from a purely meritocratic point of view. It is probably easier to formalise a marketing strategy to follow, in order to achieve a larger and positive audience, regardless of the actually technical merit a designer might have.
Once we have made this disclaimer, we can write an essay on how to produce good design work, but this would make me more appropriate for an academic context, so I will try to summarise what was the process I followed for acquiring a better understanding of the design process – a process that made me what I am today.
I believe the most important fundament of good design is the deep understanding of the aesthetic problem, much in its essence of being a problem, rather than a set of rules to make beautiful things. The problem is practically that we cannot formulate an aesthetic checklist –we do not actually have universally accepted aesthetic guidelines – therefore there is no factual way to declare something beautiful or ugly.
This problem has practically no solution, and this paradigm forces us to find a solution in the problem itself, which is to say that the ambiguity in the definition of beauty is beauty itself, or rather the meaning of beauty is its own assertive signification.
In order for anyone to grasp this concept in its entirety, he needs to endure some kind of initiation and this initiation is a lengthy process of discovery. Practically the best way to understand beauty is to study how beauty has been interpreted by different people in different places, in different historical moments and across different disciplines, like finding the standard deviation of the perceived essence of beauty. The more someone becomes acquainted with the huge multitude of this disparate attempts, the more he grasps the concept of beauty and the more he can render his own interpretation with confidence of being within the perceived standards of beauty. And even when he decides to change these standards, he can do that with proper knowledge to support him.
As beauty is found in many different fields, and at different scales, there is a lot of ground to cover, therefore it is good to start early in this journey of discovery, even before we think we can come to a decision for the path we want to take in life. A good designer is firstly an explorer, and an explorer that starts early in his youth, to look around filled by curiosity, and keeps an open mind in attempting to understand different minds, different cultures and different solutions to a certain problem.
A part of this journey can be made of course in schools and universities, but that is not enough as there is always more to discover, and there are many areas of aesthetic that are not covered by any syllabus and probably will never be. Also, every country and every culture has its own interpretation of what is necessary to study, and there many interesting subjects might be left out only because of cultural and geographical reasons.
Now, this osmotic education has its drawback: a lot of information we gather might end up being confusing and at times, the indications on what is considered beautiful and what is not, by different cultures, could be conflicting with each other. It is important at this point to mediate the inputs of different ideas and aesthetic values with some kind of training about composition. Composition is what comes to aid when we are trying to put together various elements with differing characters, or we are trying to find a design solution that has conflicting requirements, or too many elements that appear confusing when arranged together at first.
A typical complication of this overload of information, not mitigated by proper training in composition, is something I find common among my clients, who are typically quite wealthy and tend to travel a lot. They would come back after each of their trips and propose changes to the design we have done for their projects, just because they saw something they liked during their travels. In most cases, these clients have no proper understanding of how a design proposal is put together and they would not feel that requesting an intrusion of an idea, which most likely is totally alien to the overall composition, is a totally wrong proposition. So they might want to add a neoclassical detail they saw in a hotel in New York, to a contemporary Zen concept, and have no bad feelings about it.
Composition is something that you learn through the application of theories that intend to teach people about how to assemble different basic elements of different artistic endeavours. And it is maybe here that the richer source of higher learning for a designer resides. It is in the dominion of aesthetic that you need to search for the answers to how to solve any problem of semantic organization of the building blocks of a given artistic problem. This works whether you are working with words in poetry, with notes in music or space in architecture. Therefore, like travelling enlarges your vision and knowledge of the concept of beauty, taking interest in different artistic disciplines amplifies enormously your understanding of composition, regardless of what is the subject you intend to compose.