Tutorial culture vs. Two Goldfish

First thing this morning I followed a link dealt on Twitter by friend Tom Muller entitled You Are Not a Designer and I Am Not a Musician. I’m not one for reading high-falootin articles labelling people this and that, but this article is very well written and got the gears turning. I enjoy articles like that. Interesting points, makes us question our progression and all that, something we should all do to keep things in perspective.

Then, right after that I went to check out someone’s new design and caught a comment below: “This is great! You should write a tutorial on how you did it.” Since the gears were already turning, this one little comment kind of hit home. Right time? Wrong time? Who knows, but here we are.

I got into using Photoshop and Illustrator way back in ’95 when the internet was still getting it’s footing. Years before it would transform from something neat to something very useful. And certainly long before the rise of the tutorial. Back then we had nothing to go on, just the small classes on how to use the basics to create projects in school. Outside of that, thousands and thousands of hours noodling around. In order to achieve new things we had to figure it out. Just want to repeat that, we had to figure it out.

Most of what I know about Photoshop came from one of my favorite artists, Dave McKean. Back in ’97 he and Neil Gaiman released a children’s book called The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish. Beautiful book with brilliant artwork by McKean. I spent hundreds of hours pouring over the pages, closely inspecting his art and dissecting the layers of texture. Looking at the effects on his hand-drawn linework. Trying to discern what was paint, drawings, photography or scanned texture. Then jumping into Photoshop (or my sketchbook) to figure it out. I failed miserably most times, but that wasn’t the point. I learned a huge amount about how Photoshop worked … but more importantly, how I worked.

Fast-forward to now. We have a crazy amount of great tutorials online. Some of my best friends are tutorial wizards who have created a living doing so, such as Fabio Sasso and everyone at the Tuts+ Network. The most important reason I think these resources are valuable is because they teach people technique outside of base-level knowledge of graphic software. They show a concept, then how to make it. Awesome. I’m a big advocate of helping people out, and it’s one of the core reasons I run Signalnoise.

That comment I mentioned above, I’ve been seeing that more and more these days and it’s concerning. When I read that today an immediate translation popped into my head: “I don’t want to figure this out, so why don’t you just tell me?” That’s it, and that’s big. So many levels to that which can’t possibly by contained in one blog post.

I learned skills from my time with Two Goldfish which I still use today. Heck, I used them in creating that graphic above. I’ll probably use them forever. No step-by-step instructions, no downloadable pre-made assets. Just a kid with Photoshop and a lot of time on his hands. That’s what it comes down to.

So why on earth am I writing this? Well, I’m getting the impression that more and more people are becoming dependant on tutorials for what they make. That makes me sad because it’s the complete opposite of how I learned. If you only do tutorials without exploring things on your own, then you learn only 1 thing: how to read. They’re a wonderful place to start, but it’s up to you after that. You should figure out how to do that thing you want to make instead of waiting for the tutorial to emerge. What does Fabio do before he writes his great tutorials? He figures it out.

When you figure things out for yourself it stays with you forever. It’s a sense of pride and richness. It’s an adventure. It’s fun. Because of that, those 2 little goldfish are more valuable to me than all the tutorials in the world.






48 responses to “Tutorial culture vs. Two Goldfish”

  1. conigs Avatar

    Tutorials definitely have their place, but for me, it’s more about technical than creative learning. It’s one of the reasons so many portfolios/reels look the same today (I come from a motion design/editing background). People are gaining great technical skill, but don’t know how or where to apply it. Reverse engineering is a great way to learn. And lately I find myself asking “why did they do this a certain way?” versus “how did they do this?” It makes for much better learning.

  2. Matt Avatar


    Yes, yes, yes.


  3. Matt Q. Avatar

    Gotta say you hit the nail on the head here, James. I have been wanting to start doing tutorials for bits of unknown in Photoshop and Illustrator, but have held off because of exactly this reason. People want a quick and dirty rather than to roll in the mud for days on end trying to figure out what is going to make the piece work beautifully.

    I am completely self taught, and have used the Tuts Plus network as well as Abduzeedo over the years but I’ve always looked at their help as just that, help. A push in the right direction. Now it’s up to me to take the functional knowledge and continue to find new uses for it.

    That is the key to a good tutorial, in my opinion. To leave you with the feeling, “That was cool… what else can do with this?”

  4. Patrick Avatar

    I agree with you completely. Tutorials are definitely a good way to learn how to do things, but should never be the epitome of what you do. Browsing creative websites you’re bound to find many things that are one to one copies of tutorials. It makes me sad because so many people out there have talent to do more but they reach the end of the tutorial and stop.

    Figuring things out on your own can be frustrating and time consuming. The end result however is going to be much more fulfilling.

  5. Jason Avatar

    My use of tutorials usually involves just the learning of a process. Nine times out of ten I’m using the tutorial as a guide for something completely different that I’m making.

    The funny thing is, as I’m following the tutorial I inevitably find other ways to achieve the same result or in fact expand upon the method.

    Putting a tutorial (or rather what you’ve learned from it) into practise for yourself is the true art form and it will undoubtedly show in your work.

  6. Melomag Avatar

    Hi James… i find very interesting what you say in this post because i find myself searching tutorials very often… but i want to tell you that i use them as a way to learn the basics and maybe a little more about PS and AI because at school they don’t teach us correctly and i found very useful to see your broadcasts because it helped me to understand a lot of tools and stuff that they didn’t explain at class. I never look for a tutorial to “steal” something from the author, i mostly use them to understand the tools and learn when and how to use them… i also try to learn about style and stuff that sometimes it’s a little hard to represent. I wish my teachers where better and i wish i could buy the books and stuff to learn properly, but for me this is a easy way to learn if you know how to use the info or the concept of the tutorials.
    Anyway i want to tell you James that you helped A LOT in making me the graphic design student that i am, you made me see and learn how to use better not only the programs but my mind: you taught me better than any teacher i had about design process and investigating on the internet. THANK YOU James really you are the best!

  7. Richard Avatar

    Great post James, It’s one of the big questions every time i read about tutorials… i kind of would like to share my technique with people, and i can understand how running a website offering original content (i.e. not glossy buttons or glassy bubbles etc) would generate a lot of traffic.

    But every one writing tutorials about great effects like the ones you and NoPattern are using for example will allow any given kid to mimick years of experimentation and originality. And maybe even cash in on it with cheap rip offs they would’ve never been able to make if it weren’t for those tutorials.

    I will confess that i have learned a thing or two in the beginning from photoshop, and back in 2003 when there were sites like good-tutorials it definitely gave me an advantage in school.
    But even back then i didn’t take the tuts litterally and always interpreted them in a way of my own… I kind of wish that the pro stuff would be buried deep in a safe. The artists putting through and pushing out great content will keep making the sacrifices (time/effort/frustration/failure) and that’s what in the end will separate the pro’s from the people that just made a copy of another ones’ technique…

    Hope it makes sense, but in a nutshell… tutorials can be either good and bad, it’s best to use some creativity to see how a technique you’re reading about in a tutorial can be used in a totally diferent way, or interpret it yourself… maybe that’s why i loved those old tutorials back in the day… most of them were so chaotic that you couldn’t hardly follow through ahd halfway you’d be stuck!

    And that post on Drawar is highly recommended to everyone!

  8. Daniel Avatar

    Thanks for posting this. There was a time not so long ago that I would look at an original source and try to replicate it, just to see if I could do it. I even did it with your amazing Tron: Legacy poster; I was very happy that I could do a decent job mimicking it. It certainly put my Photoshop skills to the test and I learned a lot about my skills. I know I’m better for it. I think I need to pick this back up again. Doing it certainly inspires me to do more designing that I enjoy doing, and not just the kind that pays the bills.

  9. james Avatar

    So many fantastic comments and insights, everyone. Thanks so much. Really enjoy reading the different experiences on the same topic, and how you dealt with it.

  10. AJ Avatar

    I have never felt compelled to leave a comment to someone’s article before but I felt compelled after reading yours. I completely agree with what you are saying. I have long held the view that following long, step be step tutorials help no one. You hopefully come out with the intended image but most likely could never repeat it on your own. I like to learn new software and techniques by throwing away the manual and jumping in. I will always break it, but by doing that will actually learn about the software and how it works.
    Tutorials have there place and ironically are better for people who know how to use the software already. You get to learn other approaches you may not have thought of and pick up interesting tips that would pass a novice by. Anyway just thought I would add my two pence worth.

  11. oLi Avatar

    First of all: AGREED!

    I am also a self-taught user of all those programms. And it doesn’t matter, wether it’s Cinema 4d, After Effects, Illustrator, Photoshop or what not, it’s sad, that people don’t get the meaning of tutorials at all.

    Thing is, most people post their tutorial outcomes on their site/blog an don’t mention where this comes from. I think it’s okay, to post your learning process, but you should also refer to the source.

    Well, for me, all those tutorials out there are more a bit like a huge library of techniques, which can be used, for fullfilling your own goal.

    I often get stuck in a situation, where I remember that I watched a tutorial, dealing with this certain issue. And than, going back to the tut, just to remember the steps to solve the problem is great.

    Another point is, that design schools can hardly catch up to this fast exploding variety of programms and options evolving in very short time. And tutorials fill this gap.

  12. Marcos Torres Avatar

    Being a tutorial designer, I must say you’re right James. Even making a lot of tutorials lately, I was never that kind of guy who would pick one and do it from the beginning to the end, I always looked for some quicks tips that I could use on my own artworks. Nowadays, whenever I write a tutorial, I always try to make a classic trial/error session of the concept I want to turn to graphics. That’s the source of most of my knowledge, the old and good experimentation, full of trials and errors.

  13. Cameron Avatar

    Very well said James, i couldn’t agree with you more.

    There is nothing more gratifying than figuring out techniques and taking your own path. This is also how new techniques and styles are born after all. Following tutorials to the letter eliminates the chances of these ‘happy accidents’ that you stumble across during the ‘creative’ process.

    I think it is sad to say but, the internet, all be it is a brilliant assest and has changed our world for the better and tutorials are always going to have a place on the internet, (for people who use them in the right way) but it can also be our worst enemy at times in the sense of it being a portal for hard and fast information and some people are getting to used to that fact and becoming heavily reliant on it, which supports ‘lazy designers’ who are developing short attention spans.

    Thanks for the engaging post James. Great idea!

  14. Benjamin Ivey Avatar

    There’s a saying, “You can get whatever you want if you’ll only help others get what they want.”

    A teacher has the ability to explain a complex process in a simply way; so that anyone can understand it. All the best artists I can think of (designers/painters/musicians/etc) were also teachers. They were people who spent time on their own works, but also helped others learn the craft as well.

    If you really want to be a good designer, try writing a tutorial. Try helping others become good designers. You’ll find yourself thinking about design in a whole new light.

  15. james Avatar

    I wanted to post a comment on a couple of things I couldn’t find room for in the article above. I’ve written a handful of tutorials over the last 2 years, one of which is the O Series that went live a while back. I got a lot of flack on one of the steps not being clear, and it always irked me that instead of the reader trying different methods of sorting it out (there was a picture of what it looked like, for pete’s sake) they’d rather comment and bitch about it not working. Because of that, I never fixed the step. Self-sabotage to throw people a curve. Figure it out or quit. Love it.

    Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever read through a tutorial front to back. Back in the day I’d start reading a tutorial and inevitably start messing around in Photoshop halfway through. Which made me lose my place so I’d finish it my own way. Rather funny, but fairly related to the topic.

  16. Nick Avatar

    Stumbled upon the same article this morning and can’t help but agree with both posts.

    Truth is, people are simply asking the wrong question when facing a work of art/design they admire. “This is great! You should write a tutorial on how you did it.” really should be “This is great! please help me figure out why you designed it that way, and why it works”.

    As much as tutorials helped me over the years, they are not what makes you a good designer.

    Knowing photoshop will help you develop your idea if you decide to express it digitally but ultimately, it won’t make your concept any stronger or clearer. However, having a good design process and knowing your design principles will most likely result in a successful graphical solution, no matter if it’s made out of paper and clay or if it’s made out of zeros and ones.

    I bet Saul Bass would suck at photoshop.

  17. Marcos Torres Avatar

    Yep, whenever you don’t spoon feed everything, they always complain and act like little ***** , I know how’s it feel.

    Months ago, I tried to make some Tuts more focused on theories, however some lazy designers didn’t liked the idea of having to learn from theory and not from a direct exercise.

    I think some people like to be brainwashed with tutorials or maybe they don’t know yet that they are not creative at all.

    Well, but that’s life, what can I say.

  18. ryandupre Avatar

    Right on. This makes me think a lot about cooking shows. Don’t just show me the steps, show me the theory behind it. Show me how it works.

  19. Nate Avatar

    I think tutorials are a great way to see how others accomplish a design…being that there are always 10 (if not infinite) different ways to accomplish the same thing. Without ever doing tutorials, I would have gone a much longer harder route to accomplish things visually and never use certain tools I don’t regularly use

  20. Bryan Avatar

    Great point James. To be honest, I view tutorials pretty frequently. I use the tutorial or project file to reverse engineer the process and try to determine what motivated the artist to make the decisions they did. I completely agree with you, however, that much more is learned AND STORED by solving the problems yourself. I use the Envato marketplace as my “Two Goldfish”. I constantly find files of high quality that peak my interest and I try to dissect and recreate elements that interest me most.

    Keep up the awesome work!

  21. Paul Pants Avatar

    I remember doing a bunch of Photoshop tutorials back in the late 90s or early 00s. I had been without Photoshop for a few versions and was trying to get the hang of the tools again. Invariably, every time I started a tutorial I would stray off on my own and try to make mine look different or better (in my opinion) than the example. There is nothing more underwhelming to me than spending time creating something to look exactly like something that someone else had already made.

  22. PJ Avatar

    I remember looking at a certain style of work (that of SuperSilo) and wondering how the hell he created it.I asked him and he advised me to take a look at his video(s) and then learn from there. So I did just that, watched the vids and got a general sense, but I wasn’t fully there yet. So I downloaded the video and looked at it (almost) frame-by-frame. I understood what he was doing now but… I was also making my own decisions such as “If I do step A, B and C in a different order, or with a couple of blend modes thrown in it’ll look a whole lot better”, and from there came up with my own method of working in that style. It’s far more rewarding than just following a template of instructions and creating something bland and unoriginal.

    On a related note I really don’t like when designers give away .PSD files of their tutorials. If you want somebody to learn Photoshop telling them how to do X, Y and Z is perfectly fine (I posted a tut on my blog last week) but giving them all the answers just leads to more copycatting unless people aren’t afraid to go nuts and make something new.

  23. DAN-O-SAUR Avatar

    Hey man,

    what an infinite topic. Educating yourself, thanks to the internet, is the for me is such a valuable task. We can find tutors all over the place. As you said it, back in 95 things like tutorials or how to´s were very rare. A thing that gives tutorials another dimension are the live chats, as your SNBC Show. Idiots like me can ask YOU at a specific time each week questions why or how you did something. Attending Nick Campbells (www.greyscalegorilla.com) and your broadcasts was an amazing experience for me. It forced me to write a semi-good blog post about it (“LIVE CHATS ABOUT LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING” http://j.mp/qR8UXz). I only scratched the surface with most of the topics I included, cause going into detail would have ended up in a book.

    Cool you posted this article. It is always good to be aware of times when accessing this amount of information was impossible.

    Keep it up buddy!


  24. QUEST85 Avatar

    Very well said my friend. By the way, I’m really digging your NASA work. Keep up the good vibes.

  25. Jeff Finley Avatar

    Good one James! As someone who has written tutorials, produced/sell my own video tutorials and even written a book, this topic hits close to home. I have been involved in the “tutorial scene” since 2004ish when Good-Tutorials was popular.

    On one hand, you (and others in the comments) encourage designers to teach and help others, but then also call out the audience who craves and eats up these tutorials. I think we need to step back and think about this for a minute before we jump to conclusions.

    Let’s break it down.

    The authors… Writing tutorials does WONDERS for a designer looking to gain exposure and build his profile as a designer. It helps you in so many ways – not just by getting your name out there, but by helping you communicate better, encouraging you to explain your design decisions, and get you in the habit of giving back. Which is something a good amount of designers lack – they take and take and never give. They feel like if they reveal how they work, someone will take their technique or style, do it better, and they’ll lose the “race” so to speak. I disagree, but that’s a different topic.

    The readers… We shouldn’t really criticize the consumers of our tutorials because 1) we were all there before. We all were noobs looking for an edge. Those who followed tutorials in college (in addition to class instruction) were generally more advanced and performed better in the class. And 2) The problem is NOT with the young designer, but with the state of the web today. It is instant satisfaction. If you can’t show people how it’s done clearly and concisely, and minimize the “figure it out yourself” part, isn’t it expected to get flack? While I totally agree 100% with James, that it’s frustrating that people are so fickle and want it spoonfed, that’s just reflective of our culture’s ADD mentality.

    I mean, look at Google. 15 years ago, if you didn’t know how to do something, you bought a book on the subject or paid for a class. Or took lessons from a mentor. Now you can independently teach yourself just about anything with a few minutes of Googling. In today’s world, that IS “figuring it out for yourself.” There’s so much to take in and so many tutorials on basically the same thing, it’s easy to hate on ones that require more thought and interpretation. Me personally, I admit, I scan tutorials looking for nuggets I can take away, I never follow the whole thing from start to finish. I see an effect I like, scan, take note, try it out, move on.

    Before people used maps, they had to use a compass to find where they are going. Then people used Mapquest, and now everyone has a GPS. I think the whole “figure it out yourself” part isn’t really going away, it’s just changing. We have an abundance of info and resources, and we have to pick and choose what help us achieve our goals in the most efficient way.

    And my last point… Tutorials tend to teach a specific technique, style, or effect. And you can be amazing at all the Photoshop effects and wizardry out there, but that’s not the point. It’s what you DO with that knowledge that matters.

    I like to compare it to learning a language. You spend your early part of your life learning how to speak/write properly, but in the end that’s not the point either. It’s what you have to say that matters.

    Tutorials just teach us some of the building blocks. Everyone has the capability to be technically proficient and “wiz” at software. It’s expected almost. I think think us, as authors, have to expect and write with the audience in mind. We can’t really complain that what we figured out 15 years ago, is now standard practice and likely transformed into a simple filter or plugin.

    You have to view yourself as the makers of what’s next. The things you’re figuring out today can make you rich and famous and change people’s lives in the next decade.

    So of course, with all the shortcuts and tutorials out there, never stop feeding that curiosity and figuring out how to do things that are unexplained.

    TL:DR: It’s not a problem with the reader’s inability or desire to figure it out, it’s our ADD culture. Technique/skill in a software app is only half the battle, it’s what you do that matters, so tutorial consumption only gets people so far. Tutorial authorship does wonders for designers in building their career. And as things continue to get explained, there will always be gray areas that need people like James to figure them out and then be remembered as a pioneer of that particular notion.

  26. Jayson Avatar

    While I can’t disagree with the value of learning things on your own, I have to say I find tutorials to be a positive thing.

    Like James and some other folks, I started out being totally self taught in Illustrator and Photoshop. When I went to work in-house I adopted the practice of checking out what my coworkers were doing as they were working. They’d stop and watch me work too and we’d share tips and techniques. It was mostly quick, little things, but I realized that some of the stuff I taught myself how to do didn’t yield the best results, same was true for some of the things my coworkers did.

    Now that I don’t work in an office with other people, tutorials have come to fill that void. I’ve also found that for me anyway, the more advanced effects or designs that people create in Photoshop can be pretty counter-intuitive. There are some things I’ve read in Adv. Photoshop that I look at and go “Wow, I wouldn’t have ever thought to do that.” I don’t see a single thing wrong with following a tutorial from start to finish if you want. If you don’t know your fundamentals, you’re not going to gain anything from doing them at all. If you know what you’re doing, you’re going to pick up some new techniques to play with on your own stuff.

    I really disliked the Drawar article though. Well written sure, but that dude is really standing in judgement of a whole body of work without any personal experience. His dismissal of client influence in the design process really invalidates most of the rest of his argument for me.

  27. DAN-O-SAUR Avatar

    This is wicked! I am spending over 20 minutes on reading all the great comments now. You hit the nerve buddy. I think this article should be republished including all the comments as a part of the whole! I am happy, THANKS!


  28. james Avatar

    Oh man, loving these comments. Jeff, you might have won the prize for longest comment left on my blog. Well done, awesome points and a terrific analysis. Being that you’ve been in the game for so long, I was hoping to hear your thoughts.

    And to be clear to everyone, the point of this post wasn’t to slag tutorials. I’d never, ever do that. As I said, some of my pals write amazing stuff with valuable process-driven material. Huge help.

    But Jeff, killer reply. You’re right, this is the world we live in now, that instant gratification of being told/shown how things are done is just a part of the internet. And this brings up the question of creativity … that “making something out of nothing” idea and how that raw, dissectional brain power can co-exist in a world saturated with instant gratification. Interesting topic, REAL interesting.

  29. Jeff Finley Avatar

    Haha, I know, I don’t really ever comment on blogs, but it was a combination of your hitting the right buttons AND the coffee kicking in. :-)

  30. Eric Carl Avatar

    I think for professionals to really address this topic they have to remember what it was like to be a noob.

    10 years ago, before attending school, I ate up tutorials like mad because I wanted to make cool shit. As a noob you have no appreciation for design principles – “design” is just effects, created by software. So you try and learn the software. Later on as you pass the software hurdle you realize there are a ton of fundamental design principles like contrast, balance, hierarchy, etc., that the tutorials never taught you. And even if those tutorials existed, which I know some do, you probably ignored them because you’d rather have the instant gratification of making something that was shiny and glowing. But eventually you start ditching the tutorials and buying classic design instruction books that have been out for decades, and you learn the real stuff because you can finally appreciate it.

    I can’t say for sure if it works that way for everyone, but its the path I followed and I think its the a path many others do as well. In that sense the role of the tutorial is strictly as technical instruction for learning software, it’s not something you use to design a some new image to showcase on your website. But its the allure of instant gratification that causes people to treat tutorials as an end and not a means to an end.

  31. Jeff Finley Avatar

    Well said Eric, that makes perfect sense. I think I followed that path too.

    The interesting thing about these tutorials, is they pull in noobs who are learning and then in 5-10 years, those noobs could the founder of an awesome new startup or working for a well-known brand. This has happened to us. So and so read our tutorials in college, now they’re working for XXX and they told their creative director about Go Media and they hire our studio for some work. It’s interesting how it works out. Nooobs are only noobs for so long!

  32. Nick Campbell Avatar

    I learned a LOT by watching others do tutorials. I mean… A LOT!! But, I have always learned the most when trying to figure out how to do it on my own. Seeing something cool and trying to figure it out on my own is always WAY more fun and rewarding than following directions.

    To me, it’s all on where you are in your career. Beginners should totally watch tutorials to learn the tools much faster than a manual. But when it comes down to learning “how you work” as James says above, all of that learning comes from sitting down and making something with no map.

  33. Jack S. Avatar
    Jack S.

    One thing that appeals to me is the occasional fleshing out of a certain element within a design, as opposed to a full blown tut. Talking about how you created a certain aspect of a poster – a reflection, an edge, a texture etc. That is cool and not all consuming.


  34. Joe Cavazos Avatar

    Right there with you Eric, I was infatuated with photoshop before I fell in love with design. The last 3-4years I have made the transition to appreciate design.

    I haven’t gotten much into tutorials till recently that I’ve started using Cinema4d. They have proven helpful to bring the learning curve lower. What I tend to do while going through tuts is think of ways I could use what I learned differently.

    What tutorials and internet as a whole have done is made the gap between noob to non-noob even smaller. If anything, it really pushes me to be on top of my game. I’ve seen some tutorials out there from 13 yr olds. When I was that age I didn’t even know what a mac or photoshop was. This is in back of my mind, and fuels me to never stop learning and growing as designer.

    Tutorials for the most part teach the how or the skill to pull something off. I believe it takes more then just a skillset to be a great deisgner. The greats, like Sir James, are where they’re at because of skill, talent, passion and hardwork. Which there is no tuts for the last three.

    just my 2 pesos.

  35. Matt Avatar

    Great discussion. I began playing with PS around 13 years ago, there was definitely no where near the amount of tutorials around to help me back then. I was always so proud when I achieved what I set out to create, problem solved, understood. Tutorials are great for a short cut to understanding, but if you are bitching about a step missing in a tutorial, you’re completely missing the point.

    Tutorials and ‘Inspirations’ such as those that Fabio does on @Abduzeedo, are fantastic for pushing yourself, seeing something completely fantastic and setting out to reach that level. I’ve often seen pieces that have knocked my socks off and set out to reverse engineer. What I usually ended up with was something completely different and very much my own. Without inspiration, we’d stagnate and become very one dimensional, but we need to be careful we are still creating and not just recreating.

    Perhaps I could write a tutorial on how to get the most out of a tutorial?

  36. Fabio Sasso Avatar

    Hey James, what an amazing post and great comments indeed. Thanks for mentioning my name too :)

    I would like to share a little bit about what I think. When I started writing tutorials, they were simply notes about how I created an image or effect so I could remember in the future. I had just lost my computer with my backup disks with all my files and I thought that would be a good way to keep them safe and also share that with more people… That was back in 2006. Some of those tutorials got popular and PSDTUTS invited me to write for them. I had never done that before, it was so much fun because I was learning so much trying to do things I had no idea how to do them and getting paid for that.

    The thing is the tutorial per se is just the tip of the iceberg, the whole process behind that is much bigger. I remember people asking me why I share my knowledge and the answer wasnt really clear to me, however I always understood that using software and showing how you come up with an idea is different than teaching people how to come up with their own ideas. The process of trying to understand how to make your ideas turn into real things is the most important thing for a designer, and the only way to do that is by trying, making mistakes and learning from them.

    I’ve been writing tutorials for the past 5 years, and, as I said, I never thought about doing that, however I have to say that I’ve never learned so much in my whole life since I started doing that. Trying to recreate things I like taught me a lot about design, how to use software but also and super important, how to organize my process to make it easy for other people to understand.

    Everybody has his or her own way to learn things, mine can be different than yours, however the need to practice is the same for everybody and it’s the only way to learn. As they say, no pain no gain…. I always use tutorials for reference to solve my own problems, that in the end is the most important thing, make my ideas come true in the real world :)

  37. Mark Mastropaolo Avatar

    What I try and take away from tutorials are little things, and mostly related to workflow. If you can make a carbon copy of something, so what. For beginners (students) they’re great and can stimulate & feed the mind.

  38. GuiHarrison Avatar

    I’ve done some tutorial back when I was beginning learning Photoshop (must have been early 00’s) and today I teach personally a couple of people now and then, just because I like seeing people as inspired as me, when I was learning.

    But what really turns me off is when somebody just want to do exactly what I did and never touch the tool again. You can see in their eyes they don’t really care. So I came up with a technique similar to what James posted on the comments. In some parts of the tutorial, I simply don’t say what I did, or just give a hint, like: “In this step I noticed I messed around in the Blending Options (or other tool) to make it look like this.” What happens is, and you can see clearly when you’re teaching live, the people that is really interested and patient, and ready to take control and try it will eventualy figure it out, or ask “In the blending options, you used the drop shadow for that right?”. But when someone is on the second group of people they just go “But where in the blending options? What value did you use?”. See the difference?

    Everybody reads tutorials. Some of them are the pathfinders, some are copycats. But there is a way to filter one from another. Just don’t put little detail on the tutorial. The main thing people need to learn is, like James said once, WHY you did it (eider the composition itself or a step of it to get there).

    Nick Campbell the other day said in his podcast something so truthful that really got me thinking. If you see a tutorial and you immediately go watch/read another one, you are just trying to learn how the guy did it and want to do just that. If, when you finish a tutorial (or see some steps of it) you feel like taking that and making something different. You’ll go far. He used a sink fixer and a plummer analogy. Really brilliant.

  39. TJ Avatar

    There are more graphic designers, editors, motionographers, etc.; than ever in history. That makes for a tough environment to stand out and get jobs. Therefore, often times, we have to do what we do very quickly. Sometimes I find it much more cost effective to look up, “How do I break up text into pieces in C4D?” vs actually taking the time to experiment and figure it out on my own. I am not against this technique, but sometimes I just got to know it A.S.A.P. Tutorials are great for that purpose.

  40. GuiHarrison Avatar

    Gee, sorry James, did a double post there.

    Just remembered another technique I use to filter the really interested people, wich is more efficient and have a double use.

    When I do a tutorial, or teach personally, what I do is to stop in a certain step and star explaining what other directions you can take from there, like “If you want it to look more like a 90’s TV openings you can do this, or if you are more in the old, 2D games you can do that, but in this tutorial, I decided to go this direction and make it look like a zombie movie”.

    When I do that, what happens is the person who is just in for the result, will skip this part, or get impatient or distracted. The really interested dudes are going to ask more questions, or get to another result completely.

    The great about this is that you will reward the people that are interested and you can spot the people that are not. They will have what they want (kind of) but they will not learn as much. Or they might just get bored and give up :)

  41. Gavin Avatar

    Man, tutorials are like crack when you are just starting out! I can tell you! I started following the tutorials on psdtuts, found I could replicate them exactly (Who would have thought with the step-by-step guides right?!) I then started to think that I could help out and record screencasts for them, I did this for awhile but eventually burnt out.

    I think that is whatis happening a lot around the web. Sometimes you load a tutorial and have a quick scroll through, like its an article and then move on to the next one without even doing it.

    I stopped, bought some books with art I liked and actually just said enough, I want to figure it out myself and create what is in my head, not the authors. I never felt the work was mine, no matter how much I manipulated it away from the tutorial. I think ownership is really important.

    The only tutorials I read/watch now relate to 3D software, and I limit them to the basics. No recreate the final images ones, just, this is the name of this and this is what it could be used for. Like the CS Tools ones on the greyscale gorilla. In fact the 5 sec project, wow, all tut sites should do something like that, a section where it just says ” so you followed along ok? Now show us where you used that technique in something original!” and you submit your work.

    Great read!

  42. Quba Michalski Avatar

    Hey James. You really hit 10/10 on this one. I too come from a similar path as the one you describe in your article. Started with Photoshop around 1991 with at the time very limited knowledge of English language – in fact I have learned much of the language by reading the massive manual of the software with a dictionary open on the other side of the desk. There were no tutorials on the web (hell, there was no web), nobody knew what “a Photoshop” is and I just had to wing it.

    I started by trying out every single item of every single menu, trying to figure out what they do. When in doubt – consulted the manual. It was a slow and laborious process, but in the end I gained two rewards: 1. the inside-out understanding of the software and 2. my own process and way of doing thing.

    This technique of “turning all the knobs” stayed with me to this day – this is how I learn new versions of the software or completely new programs and I find it to work out for me really well.

    (By the way, I too drew a lot of inspiration from Dave McKean – in my case though it was the “Sandman” covers that inspired my exploration of new styles and techniques)

    You are not the first, and certainly not the last person to put out an article on the tutorial culture in the recent weeks. The situation seems to be reaching the proportions of an epidemic. As mentioned in your post, more and more users (I cannot call them “artists”) look for simple 1-button solutions to pretty much everything. Pretty much every motion piece I release receives at least one request for a tutorial. Even those shot in live action!

    I think this situation says a lot about the current state of our society. It is not only the visual arts, but all disciplines of life that receive the same treatment. I believe that as a society we have created a monster of a culture where people believe things should be easy, accessible and not require any effort on their side. We are suffering from the effects of the society we ourselves, as advertisers, helped create.

    When I was a kid, a teen, then a student – I was always taught that in order to achieve something, one has to work on. That the role of a human being is to better oneself, progress and work towards pushing the human race forward. This idea was reflected in the popular media I was exposed to and in the behavior of the people around me.

    Gradually this ideal started being replaced by another one – films, books, shows and ads on TV started telling us that you don’t need to be special – you just have to be lucky. This, over time, turned into even worse message: You deserve easy life.

    Let me give you a few comparisons. As a kid I used to watch a game show on Polish TV called “Wielka Gra” (The Great Game). It was a very tough quiz show, where the contestants competed for a moderate money prize, but had to exhibit truly inhuman amounts of knowledge in a given topic in order to get there. You applied for the show to compete in your specific field of knowledge and if you passed the eliminations (not broadcast) you competed one-on-one against another person. There was no time limit for the answers and no multiple-choice format. The contestants were usually academicians – true experts in their field.

    Fast forward to today. All game shows revolve around the idea of “Anyone can win this giant prize”. TV is flooded with various “Call now, and name the name of a popular fruit starting with a letter A to win $1000” schemes. No challenge, huge rewards.

    (Now I understand the reasons behind the switch, from the marketing perspective it makes sense to do that – more applicants means larger viewership – means bigger ad revenue. Still, I hate the message we are sending).

    Another example. Think about some of the movies from your childhood (and from the centuries of written stories). A typical hero would be presented with a conflict, seemingly impossible to overcome, and only through hard work, dedication and his/her unique skill, over the course of the movie learn how to overcome it and reach the goal.

    Then enter the Matrix (I am not a film scholar, but this movie illustrates my point well). The main character is not really anyone special. A magic character offers him a pill he swallows that allows him to become a hero. Kung-Fu? Piloting a helicopter? One-click download to the brain.

    That zero-to-hero model is the base of most of today’s films and stories. It is the base of all the popular culture, ads, success stories etc. Harry Potter, Limitless, It’s E-Z like 1-2-3, Because you deserve the best, call now and win, free money – aren’t those phrases that resonate in everyone’s brain much stronger than say “hard work and dedication”?

    I am not going to write about my personal encounters with “tutorial kids”. Enough have been said by other comments to this post.

    What I am going to say however, is something I stole from a post I wrote on my own site: My main goal with the QubaHQ tutorials is to encourage the learning process – to show new, cool and sometimes unexpected ways of using classic tools and drive the viewers towards their own experimentation. Providing them with ready-and-done project file encourages laziness, plagiarism and relying on one-button solutions. Even if it is just the minority of the viewers following such path – I don’t want to be a part of it. Want cool results – I provide the recipe – do the work yourself.


    I’d like to thank you for taking time and writing this article. Although, as I said earlier, similar opinions have been expressed on several different sites recently, I think it is a very positive sign people are reacting to what’s happening around. All I can hope is that the new generation of users and designers will stumble upon these posts, read them and perhaps come out with enriched with a new outlook at what they are doing.

    I am not expecting a sudden change in what’s happening, but even if one out of hundred realizes there’s more to design than following tutorials – I think we can call it a success.


  43. james Avatar

    Wish I could reply to every point being made in this thread, but it would be an endless cycle. So many fantastic stories and perspectives being brought up here on all fronts. Excellent analysis of our current state of creativity on the web. Can’t get enough of this.

  44. josephnicklo Avatar

    I’ve been thinking the exact same thing. I comment on these tutorial sites every now and then and am amazed at how many “fanboys” there are out there.

    But worry not sir. Experience Creative Directors out there are the ones doing the hiring. They can pick apart the “Tutorial Wizards” and the true Designers.

    Granted, the old school designers from the era of mechanicals, paste-ups etc., are going to eventually retire and in a sense become extinct, it’s values and ideals passed down to younger designers by them that will hopefully instill the appreciation for good design.

    As a Senior Level Art Director that one day wants to be a Creative Director and/or run my own Agency, I can tell you that when it comes to hiring — I wont be looking for “cool photoshop effects”. I’ll be looking at typography (kerning, tracking, leading etc.) grid usage, layout, color theory…

    It’s good to see other people appreciate those things.

  45. David Avatar

    1. I’m sure that there are people who simply don’t feel capable of “figuring stuff out”. I like to compare it to using recipes to make food that you otherwise couldn’t. If all you want is butter chicken for supper, why wouldn’t you use a method that offers you guaranteed results. If you want a job as a head chef, your understanding will need to go deeper than that.

    2. My personal approach (as someone who studied Fine Arts and never learnt software as part of my design education) is to use a tutorial to discover techniques, shortcuts and working methods. I don’t necessarily explore doing things differently. I’ll only modify someone’s technique if I think I can make it work better for my specific situation.

  46. Gavin Avatar

    Taking my point further, I really think it is the responsibility of the author and site, to push you the reader to experiment with what you have just learnt. Again over on the greyscalegorrila, Nick really pushes you to use the techniques you have learnt to develop your own style. He takes it seriously and as a result you feel like one day, you could have your own style and do it professionally like him, and you.

  47. Melody Avatar

    Tutorials for me have been great to pick up on little basic program capabilities I didn’t know about. Photoshop I can figure out, but I was always doing tedious things in Illustrator to get around what I didn’t know. Thanks to tuts+, now I know and work is much better.

  48. Geoff Avatar

    Tutorials definitely have there place in learning the basics. But i agree that they are just the starting point. They just show ONE way of doing a task and there are usually many different approaches to get to the same result.

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