As designers, we solve problems. Indeed, pursuing a design education is probably the first great problem we’re tasked with solving. It all starts with uncertainty and learning, moves on into hard work and refinement, and ends (ideally) with a really simple goal: becoming a designer. Staying on course and reaching that goal is no easy task — nor should it be — and a bit of guidance along the way can be a very good thing.
With that in mind, here is some advice to design students either starting, or starting back to school this autumn. Herewith, ten things (naturally!) in no particular order.
No. 1: You Can’t Learn Talent
Let's administer the toughest pill to swallow first: talent is not an acquired skill. Thankfully, the design field is home to a variety of talents. Some people are gifted typographers, while others are more suited to illustrative endeavors. Many aren't skilled visual craftsman at all, yet possess excellent ideas and understand how to articulate and guide others in bringing those ideas to life. The trick is to figure out what you're good at. Sadly, despite the possibilities, some of you may have no viable penchant for design, and one only hopes that your professors have the good sense to steer you toward something more suitable. Self-reflection can help with the re-direction too, so remember to be honest — brutally honest — with yourself.
No. 2: Don’t Worry About Style
Some students have a talent for emulation, which is a particular skill that lends itself to mimicking an existing style. (Truth be told, there are many professionals who do the same.) The problem is that style often comes at the expense of an idea. So, for now: forget style. Understand the problems you’re facing, conceptualize possible solutions for them, then let the graphic conceits that emerge spring from that. Creating a body of work tethered to a particular style is a narrow path with few long-term benefits. It isn't a very good way to keep your brain sharp, either.
No. 3: Borrow (Don’t Steal) Freely
Once you have divested yourself of the urge to imitate, it’s time to start using other people's ideas — which is not the same as plagiarizing. (I said “use,” not “steal.”) One of the great joys of studying design comes in observing how your peers think about and solve problems — often the same problems you yourself have been assigned. You should always be open to learning about how other people think, and presenting work to your faculty and classmates is a valuable opportunity to gather input that improves upon your ideas, or dispenses with them in favor of stronger ones. Often, students are too proud to take those ideas and run with them, questioning their own confidence or fretting over a lack of ownership. (Get over it: most of you, upon graduation, won't be executing your own ideas as a junior designer anyway.) Bear in mind, too, that when presenting your portfolio, no one will know which ideas were or weren't fully your own to begin with.
No. 4: Consider the (Authority Of The) Source
Frequently, those same too-proud students are all too ready to receive art direction and conceptual input from their professors without questioning them. This way lies madness: after all, the very fact that you are pursuing an advanced degree suggests that you have the capacity to think for yourself, which means occasionally rejecting such input. Do yourself a favor and remember this: teachers are sometimes wrong. In fact, some of them are almost always wrong. Don't exchange your own good judgment for questionable advice. Not sure how questionable it is? Take it to some other teachers and see what they think. Not sure who to show? Here’s a good rule of thumb: teachers who are also practicing designers tend to be better barometers of judgment than those who teach full time (and have done so for the past few decades).
No. 5: Edit Your Own Work Judiciously
That said, there are plenty of working designers who are equally clueless. (You may even end up interning for one of them.) While real-world experience is calculable, remember that professional work should not automatically find its way into your portfolio. And while it may be difficult to fathom, the work produced during an internship might easily be inferior to your student projects. Never feel obligated to show work that is real if it's also mediocre.
No. 6: Edit Your Own Work Really Judiciously
Another pitfall in portfolio creation is the over-inclusion of self-initiated work. And as thrilled as you were at the time you produced that Saul Bass-style-inspired movie poster based on an obscure eighteenth-century novel, do not automatically assume that this warrants inclusion in your book. Such projects are entertaining, and while they may demonstrate skill and technique, they often lack any real purpose. (This includes exercises from your Type I class and your early forays into life drawing. Less, in this case, is unquestionably more.) With no real purpose, there is no way to measure how effectively these types of projects communicate. And clients (at least the good ones) come to designers for effectiveness. So feel free to keep doing self-initiated projects, but remember to make something that actually means something, says something or solves a problem of some kind.
No. 7: There is No Freedom Without Structure
Learn about grids and use them. If your class is assigned a brochure for IBM, use their brand guidelines, and push them. If a project is too open-ended, create some constraints yourself, and abide by them. Fonts, colors, type sizes and styles: deploy these things with consideration and judgment so that they make good sense conceptually as well as formally. Or look for natural constraints within the problem itself; a label for French wine might use a typeface designed by Georges Peignot, for example. Constraints exist for a reason: use them, experiment and play with them, learn to love them. Limits, whether you like them or not, are realistic. They also create an ideal environment for the incubation of solutions that don't rely too heavily on decoration or style.
No. 8: Change Brings Clarity
If real problems and reasonable limitations leave you struggling to think of a good concept or a way to execute it, go for a walk. Or take a shower. Sometimes the best way to think is to not think at all.
No. 9: Sleep Brings Even More Clarity
Do yourself a favor: though you may feel enormous pressure to do so, don't pull all-nighters. For one thing, it's bad for your health. For another, it's better that things are completed, than necessarily completed perfectly. Exhaustion numbs the brain and doesn't result in good work anyway. Get it done, get some sleep, fix it later. The word “deadline” has to be one of the great misnomers in the English language. Rarely is death ever involved, and never has it resulted in a better solution.
No. 10: Be Yourself
This last piece of advice qualifies everything you’ve read thus far. For that matter, it qualifies any advice about being a design student you've read or heard before now, or ever will, and here it is: Don't attempt to conform your behavior and personality to the particularities of others. Being empathetic and open to other perspectives is important (especially when clients are concerned) but you should never subjugate your own perspective and personality simply to please others. (Even clients.) Seek help where you need it, whether it’s help spelling or kerning or public speaking. If you're afflicted with these or other such shortcomings, seek the aid of colleagues who are not similarly afflicted. Ignore those who tell you not to waste your time watching TV: they might as well tell you to never have another beer or stop playing with your pets. There's nothing wrong with enjoying what the pretentious among us would consider ordinary. After all, most of the people we design for are pretty ordinary. So go ahead and be ordinary. Be authentic. Be real. And above all, be yourself.