Design + Math

Designers don’t want to admit it, but math is important to the profession.


My first class in graduate school was a quantitive research class and I really enjoyed the statistics side of things. As I’ve told my designer friends this, they typically respond with something along the lines of “Ugh. I became a designer so I wouldn’t have to do math.” I’m not surprised. I’ve heard the same from designers and students over the years, but I’m increasingly irritated by it for a few reasons:

Designers use math every day. I’m not sure where the myth that designers don’t need to understand math comes from, but it’s not true. I use math pretty much every day in my work. Especially geometry and algebra. Understanding foundational mathematical concepts makes you a better designer.

It steers talent away from the field. Let’s say you’ve got a talented high school kid, who also happens to be good at — or maybe even like — math. Tell them enough times that math isn’t important for designers and they’ll find a different career path. As an honors student, I was told repeatedly through school by well-meaning adults that I didn’t want to take art classes because they weren’t rigorous enough. As a result, I initially looked at options like architecture and engineering. It took me a while to circle around to design.

It undermines the profession. The reality is that designers struggle to be taken seriously by big business. We’ve fought to get a “seat at the table” and prove our value beyond just crafting the look and feel of something. As much as we don’t like it, the “language” of business is often based in math. Ignoring the importance of math simply makes it harder to communicate with business decision makers.

I think the challenge is separating our feelings about “math class” from our feelings about “math.” I didn’t enjoy most of my high school math classes. My algebra and geometry teachers weren’t my favorites. Because I scored a high enough score on my AP Calculus test, I was able to exempt all of my college math requirements, so I haven’t taken a math class in almost 25 years. What I’ve come to realize is that while I disliked the way I was taught math, math itself is pretty amazing. And useful.

Don’t misunderstand me… I’m not expecting designers to line up and take refresher math classes. AIGA chapters aren’t going to start holding day-long math workshops. All I’m saying is that embracing the idea that math is an integral part of design only helps the profession as a whole.

Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, grad student, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He recently finished a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on Instagram and Micro.Blog.