Beneath the surface of greatness, there is hidden complexity.
What seems to be natural talent is often bolstered by a deep knowledge of the craft.
The legendary Jazz musician and composer, Miles Davis, was so great because of his dedication to his craft. From his autobiography (emphasis mine):
“A lot of the old guys thought…if you learned something from theory, then you would lose the feeling in your playing. I couldn’t believe that all them guys like Bird, Prez, Bean, all them cats wouldn’t go to museums or libraries and borrow a little musical score so they could check out what was happening. I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music. Knowledge is freedom, and ignorance is slavery. I just couldn’t believe that someone could be that close to freedom, and not take advantage of it.”
It was because of this deep love of music, and the theory behind music, Davis was able to constantly reinvent himself, staying relevant even as prevailing styles changed.
Things are no different in design. Many aspiring designers get distracted by whatever the prevailing style is. Should they go flat? Should they use parallax scrolling? These questions are usually posed as if these elements are part of a stylistic imperative, rather than the result of solving a specific problem with a specific philosophy.
They may piece together elements from a variety of different places, but it never quite looks right.
If you want to truly be versatile in design, (or any craft) and be capable of taking on a wide variety of challenges — even as technology changes — you need a deep understanding of the theory behind design.
Some people think they can just figure things out. That if they try copying the latest trends, they’ll eventually become a great designer.
They might be right, if they happen to be truly talented, and insanely dedicated. But there’s so much going on under the surface of whatever the latest trend is. It’s just a combination of the same factors — with varying inputs — being put together. It’s much more effective to learn to think for yourself through the careful study of the work of the countless others who have solved similar problems well before you.