Josh Berta

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Design School?

A collage of the author's student work

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.

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Comments [19]
I have to vehemently disagree with #4. That sort of attitude towards teachers is so prevalent today and is utterly undeserved. What is the point of attending school if you go through it believing your professors are always wrong? In my experience, those professors that recently entered academia from professional practice offered little in the way of personal development and critique because they did not know how to teach students.

Teaching IS an art and like architecture itself, you must practice it actively to understand the art of critique and how to encourage others to challenge themselves. Those that dedicate their lives to teaching wish to see other grow and question how architecture is practiced. This is invaluable. So students, your professor may not always be right, they are human, but never discredit them.

It's disappointing that DesignObserver has posted this.

I have to agree with Dani
Whilst there are a few good points raised here it leans towards sweeping generalisations that are neither insightful nor helpful. The 'rule of thumb' used to divide teachers from practising professionals is a good example. I find such statements arrogant and deeply offensive.
I too am surprised and disappointed that Design Observer has chosen to post this.

Why would you not want Design Observer to post an opinion you disagree with? Good grief - I believe the phrase he used was 'sometimes' wrong. I think teachers are strengthened by having a working practice, and I would also argue that a seasoned teacher who has see hundreds upon hundreds of student works and processes is incredibly informed to help students. The takeaway from this point was for the student to trust themselves (which is often confused with laziness) as articulated in #1.

Regarding number 4, I agree with Josh on the general principle. As a designer, you'll have no shortage of authorities telling you what to do: teachers, bosses, clients, focus groups, even bloggers. Learning to question authority early and often is healthy.

I do feel that good and not-so-good teachers come in many flavors. Some of my favorite professors were career academics. Today, as a practicing designer who sometimes teaches, I am more in awe of their commitment and stamina then ever.

Now, watch this:
Michael Bierut

I just want to say that I totally value Dani and Steve's opinion, even if I think they've described my words in more absolute terms than they are written. My experiences have shaped my opinions, and therefore this list of advice, and I'm glad their opinions are different than my own. That's a foundation for discourse.

What I don't value is any sentiment that Design Observer shouldn't be a forum for opinions that might be unpopular. That's the opposite of discourse. And any educator who doesn't value discourse sits squarely in the category of teachers I'm cautioning students about in point number 4.
Josh Berta

As an acting student, number 4 certainly hits home. With a variety of teachers, with different opinions, you often have to ignore some - many contradict with each other.

It seems number 4 and 10 need to work together. Otherwise you are the words and ideas of your teacher, and the words and ideas of the of the rest of your class, too.

Interesting post!
Tom J Hume

I've taught a couple of times at Carnegie Mellon. That made me keenly aware of something I did not fully understand as a design student. And this touches on both 4 and 10. Students often get completely wrapped up in trying to figure out how to satisfy the teacher. They lose site of the fact that they are in school entirely for their own benefit. I think that's the real luxury of school--that you are really doing it entirely for yourself. It's hard to understand this as a student. But it is an opportunity that you may never get to experience again in your professional life as a designer. It's something to embrace and take full advantage of.
Rob Henning

I have to comment on number 6. Perhaps as an employer, Josh Berta doesn't want to see self-initiated work in portfolios. I would argue that self-initiated work can be some of the strongest and certainly the hardest to do. At some studios or in-house jobs it would only make sense to show more "efficient", commercial work. I have gotten jobs I wanted based on my self-initiated work, because it was truly the work I wanted to make. I also want to comment on this sentiment, "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". It is sometimes the happiest of accidents or strangest of paths that leads us to fulfilling work. Need I say more than Best Made Co?

Again, thanks for your opinion Elle. Though, it is frustrating to see my words twisted yet again. So let me be clear. Plenty of self-initiated work is incredible in all possible ways. I _never_ said not to pursue self-initiated work. And I _never_ suggested you leave it out of your book. I suggested that the self-initiated (and student) work you choose to show demonstrates purpose and effectiveness.

And, last I checked, Best Made Co. sold effective things that serve a purpose.
Josh Berta

Not sure why there can't be active dialogue about this. Isn't the point to have a critical discussion? My intention is not to bash anyone or twist words. Best Made is an intelligent company born from a brilliant designer, but I'd argue that he followed a passion, not having a groundwork previously set in stone.

I appreciate you further clarification. My opinion differs, but I can understand where you're coming from and respect your opinion.

I really like the conversation that's happening around point #4, and have to, of course, chime in:

Rob Henning's point that students often get wrapped up in doing whatever they can to please a teacher or professor is poignant. And spot-on. I wish someone would have told me, on the first day of my freshman year at design school, that I was going to school for me. That seems so simple, but it is so easy to forget.

As a recent design school grad (can I say that? I've been out for a year...), I largely agree with Josh's point #4. I'd like to make an addendum, though: students should make their own decisions, but listen when teachers give them feedback—even if they later decide that they do not agree with the feedback.

There's a fine line between making your own decisions and being an argumentative jerk. If a professor attacks your design, or doesn't understand part of it, speak up! If they just subjectively don't like it, chill out and listen to what they have to say. Saving your arguments for when they are really important will actually encourage people to pay attention to you.

Why does anyone need clarity? The answer to that question should be the basis of all questions, in school and in professional life.

Nice article, Josh. Thank you.
Tushar Gupte

Do people just skim through the article and then post comments?
Or do people just like to argue for the sake of arguing?

No idea why Josh's words are being twisted.

He is completely right, I had great teachers and I had absolutely rubbish ones. Unfortunately I didn't have the self-confidence as a student to ignore the rubbish and my work suffered because of that.

Great article.
Jad Eid

I'm not commenting on the content of this particular article (which I find helfpul) but rather attitude of the comments which largely discourage conversation and represent a larger whole. People have different views and come from different backgrounds. This counts, let's talk about it. I don't like seeing that people who disagree are automatically outcast. I know the design community can be small but on this level it seems to be absolutely suffocating.

Perhaps we need to think about this a bit more:
Jeff S.

I feel that the writer is being disingenuous with his responses to posters here, when saying that his words are being twisted.

Firstly in saying "they've described my words in more absolute terms than they are written" - I would say that "teachers who are also practicing designers tend to be better barometers of judgment than those who teach full time" is quite a forthright (and massively generalising) statement, and Steve is responding specifically to this.

Again, when complaining that Elle is twisting his words, Josh says "And I _never_ suggested you leave it out of your book". No... you you didn't say that absolutely, but that was pretty much the main gist of what you were saying in Number 6.
El Bozo

I thought now might be a good time to shed a little more light on the roots of the advice in the oddly controversial point number 4.

I found the guidance I received as a student finishing my program to be of great service toward refining and bettering my portfolio. So I like to attend portfolio reviews, and hopefully offer that same help to others.

Whenever you attend a portfolio review, you'll see students who all have that same assignment in their books. They all went to the same class, and have the same finished piece to show for it. And sometimes, what you see is that every one of those finished pieces is really bad, even when the rest of the book is quite good. That is a clear indication that the teacher who gave that assignment failed his or her students. And department heads should watch for that unfortunate trend.

Other times you'll suggest a student make a change to something only to have them respond, "Well, it was like that, but then my teacher told me to make it this way." Undoubtedly, differences of opinion factor in. My point is that it's regrettable to see students ignore their instincts in deference to the authority of faculty. Sometimes you have to go with your gut!
Josh Berta

As a fairly recent graduate who (finally) found an industry job about 6 months ago - I can't agree more with most of Josh's points.

I wish someone had told me early that I was in school for me, and not to please teachers. I realized that about 2/3 of the way through school and I wish I had realized it the first day. That said, several of my teachers that I butted heads with the most are the ones that gave me the most insight into my work and my own thought processes.

The main things are: a. Think for yourself. and b. Don't be a dick. You'll always get more from your professors by listening and constructively discussing than by telling them they're wrong and they don't understand you.

One thing I wish was on the list was: Find people that you know will tear your work up and tell it to you straight. I met two of my best friends in the world when they told me one (sometimes several) of my designs were shit in class.

My $.02

I think plenty of people underestimate the amount of creative energy there is to be gained by simply having enough sleep. Agree 100%, some times to get work done its best to take a break from it. great article thanks.

Is – or is this not – about school? “Don’t exchange your own good judgment for questionable advice,” “never subjugate your own perspective and personality ... to please others,” and, if you don’t like what you hear ... “Take it to some other teachers”...? It seems to me that there’s undue attention paid to subjugation: Is school fundamentally oppressive? And if school is about resisting oppression, why the contradictory “no one will know which ideas were or weren’t fully your own to begin with”? Why bother with word like “Self-reflection” or, for that matter, words like “understand” and “conceptualize” if the aim is to resist transformation? Is it pretentious to perceive the world in extraordinary ways? Isn’t it possible to be authentic, extraordinary, and in touch with the commonplace? And, isn’t the commonplace a source of inspiration?

I recognize the inherent pitfalls of braiding disparate phrases/sentences in your post (and I understand that you’re promoting the value of seeking second opinions which is good practice), but it strikes me as odd that, despite your title: 1. You don’t explain the conditions under which learning takes place, 2. That you don’t describe what teachers and students must do to make learning happen, 3. That you don’t put “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory” judgment in context (adjectives better suited to school than “right” or “wrong”-ness), and 4. That you don’t explain what you mean by “questionable” in “questionable advice.”

School, as I understand it, is transformation; it is, as you write, “no easy task”. So, under what conditions would a student reflect upon her or his thinking and methods? What would inspire students to change their ways for the better? Under what conditions would a student seek to better understand her or his problems? What will it take for students to see what others see (their teachers and peers included)? These are vital questions that constitute learning. In the best of circumstances, school not only leads to authentic conversations and lively disagreements but also to a growing sense that it – schooling – is founded on diligence, courage, humility, curiosity, empathy, compassion, and generosity. Human beings (never mind “graphic designers”) are a work in progress, yet this post leaves the opposite impression: Despite the value you place upon “learning ... how other people think”, you appear to emphasize the cultivation of a stubborn (graphic designerly?) persona that could work against hopefuls who must learn to collaborate with others. School is already blighted by complacency.

The difference between teachers and teachers who practice is the difference between those whose “perceptions are bound to the workplace”* and those who engage in a slower process of questioning and dialogue. I think that part of your intention is to highlight the contrast between indiscriminate Art Direction and tactful guidance. Teaching, as I understand it, is an act of design. The more I teach, the more I realize that school is incomparable. Rob’s right, “it is an opportunity [students] may never get to experience again in [their] professional [lives].” School is where students are challenged to look at everything – themselves, their habits, and their own thinking – against a set of circumstances. The professional perspective is also incomparable; it’s where the vigilance and humanity of school meets the action, physicality, and problems of the profession – graphic design as it’s lived, made, and expressed for the benefit of those who “come to designers for effectiveness”. Authenticity comes with time.

*Diana Senechal writing in the Spring 2010 issue of American Educator.
Anthony Inciong

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