#36: 10 Ways to Win at Design School

For the past few months I have had the opportunity to be a professor at a the Southwest University of Visual Arts (SUVA), a private art college. I teach Design Concepts to Junior and Senior level design students. SUVA also happens to be my Alma Matter. I have realized in my short time teaching that there are things that I see, looking back,  that helped me succeed as a student that I can still say are crucial now that I am on the instruction side. Some of them may seem obvious, and some may not.  But I’m here to tell you that if you can remember these things throughout Design School that you will find it to be much more bearable and hopefully even enjoyable.

1. Admit that you don’t know everything.

Something that I have come to realize is that not everybody actually wants to learn. In my experience, in any field, people who sit in the seats in front of an instructor are not always there to learn. Sometimes they are there because they just want to try it out or they are required to take the class. Let me first say that something that might come off harsh: I think it’s a huge waste to spend time and money on something like design school if it is not something you want to learn.
If you come in thinking you know how to do everything and don’t need whatever info the teacher is giving you, then why are you there?
It’s okay to not know everything. School of any kind is for acquiring knowledge. If you are paying to be at a university of any kind, then you should try to get value out of as much as you can. Suck it up and admit that you don’t know everything. It is the best first step to winning at design school.

2. Get over yourself.

Humility is not something that comes easy in any area of life. As artists, we oftentimes have to force ourselves to feel confident because maybe people don’t understand us and we get an “me against the world” mentality. This usually ends up as arrogance if we are not careful. In an instructional setting where you are paying money to learn something from somebody else it become evident to the instructor very quickly that you think you don’t need them. Having a confidence, or a slight ego that enables you to make strong decisions, is a good thing. Having an ego and deciding that you don’t need anybody to tell you that you could possibly be wrong is not going to help you further your career.
Everyone needs someone to “slap” them (metaphorically) at times, and remind them that sometimes being wrong is the best path to what is right.
Getting over yourself means realizing that you will always need other people to be all up in your design business. We need each other to grow and learn and the moment we thing we don’t, we are failing.

3. Do the work.

Not only is it important to want to learn and have the kind of humility of attitude that shows that you want to be better and that you are not always right, but you actually need to do work. Doing the work means exactly what it sounds like: it’s picking up your pencil and doing sketches. It means doing research in actual books (yes, the kind you get from the library or bookstore) and online. Work is talking to people who may be in your demographic and discovering who they are and what they need. It means filling out a design brief (download mine). Make time to get stuff done, make time to do the work and make your ideas come to life! As Scott Belsky says, “Ideas are worthless if you can’t make them happen.”Doing the work doesn’t just mean knowing what you have to do or even knowing how or why you should do it. Nodding your head and saying, “oh yeah I see what you’re saying”, and thinking about that advice doesn’t matter if you don’t actually do anything with it.

Don’t make excuses, do the work and make stuff.

4. Remember WHY you are there.

I am a huge fan of Simon Sinek. I first heard about him through his book “Start with Why”. If you’ve never heard of it I suggest you look up his Tedx talk (it is the 3rd most watched of all the Ted talks). In order to succeed at things, especially at design school, you need to have a “why” before anything that you do will feel like it’s worth it. Nobody wants to devote themselves completely to anything until they know the why; not how they do it or what they’re doing but why they’re doing it. Every day that I teach I have to remember that I’m doing it because I want to help the world have better designers. I don’t want to just complain about how many terrible designers there are, I want to contribute to there actually being more capable, educated designers in the world. Without this why, my purpose for teaching is nonexistent.
There’s no motivation if all I know is how to teach or what to teach-anybody can do that. The why is the magic that gives my abilities passion.
Anyone can come to school and pay a lot of money to learn about Michael Beirut and Stefan Sagmeister or be taught Photoshop and Illustrator, but the best designers became great because they have a purpose, they have a why behind the what and how. If you don’t know why you’re doing design, then you’re gonna have a hard time getting motivated to do any of the things that are in this list. Without purpose there is no passion for what you will be doing. Without passion, you will burn out and fade away and wonder why you wasted so much time and money. 

5. Develop a process.

Every designer, every artist, and every art director, has some sort of process. I spent multiple weeks on this blog specifically talking about my process and how important it is to doing good work that you have a process. Not everyone’s process’ are the identical. There are certain elements of a design process that will be the same for everybody, but others will add in and some will take away to the things that I have.
I find that my process has been full proof and successful in every single project I have implemented it in.
I also was able to introduce this process to my design students and just about every one of them has said that they learned from it and that it has helped them in some way. Check out the posts and consider what your process might be using mine as a jumping off point and writing out your own process to better understand what you do and how it’s important. If you can figure out your process, your work will be better and you will eventually have something to explain to your clients that will help them get on board with your values and approach to design.

6. Learn on Your Own

The classes that you take at school will not be and should not be the only areas where you learn about art and design. You should also be taking your learning into your own hands in some ways. There are so many incredible designers, letters, illustrators, designers, and otherwise creative people on Twitter and Instagram. There are unlimited people and places that you could follow to learn and get inspiration from, absolutely free. FREE! There are lots of people who write blogs on design, creativity, staying motivated, tutorials, and so much more. They are weekly, some biweekly, some even daily, that can help you stay creative and truly succeed.
I find, that even after 13 years working as a designer that now more than ever I am able to stay motivated and inspired by people that I follow and blogs and books that I read.
Long after you graduate from college this will be your greatest avenue for learning and networking with other creative’s all around the world. In a previous post I wrote about the people that inspire me, from musicians to photographers and lots of people in between. You should have a list of your own sources of inspiration and learning that help you fill your blank pages. You should also invest in outside learning as a compliment to your formal education by buying design books. Good design principles and advice never goes out of style and they will be useful to you long into your career.


7. Get Feedback & Take Criticism

This is a skill that takes practice and depends highly on #1 and #2. I have met professionals who have been working in design for years that at times still have a hard time with this concept. It’s important to realize-especially when you are in school-but even after school, that feedback and criticism can be one of the most incredible things you will ever encounter in growing yourself as a designer. Before I became an instructor, I made sure I have opportunities to give others feedback as well as show my work to other designers for critique. I love to be a critic and to be critiqued. Even though I have been doing design for as long as I have and I am absolutely confident in what I do as a creative director/designer, I know that sometimes I can get wrapped up in my own world and not see certain things that someone else with a more objective look might see.
Without that feedback and criticism from others, we can easily get married to our work.
This always results in becoming hurt and taking things personally when somebody says something is not working in our designs. Just like any other skill, learning how to take criticism from others and use it to make yourself and your work better is something that will take time but will be worth it.


8. Ask questions.

This one might seem like a no-brainer right? Especially since you’re probably thinking I’m in art school, I’m here to ask questions. Well, it might surprise you that a lot of students feel uneasy asking questions, primarily because they haven’t done step #2, which is to get over themselves. I think students fail to realize that they are not the only one that may have a question. Chances are, someone else was wondering about the same thing; but somebody needs to be bold enough to ask! If you never ask a question about something you don’t understand or state to an instructor that maybe what they taught was not clear, you run the risk of doing something wrong and never knowing why.
There’s no way that any student can go through school without having any questions at all.
It is crucial to your learning that you understand that asking questions is not only OK, it is very important. Without questions, how will you know if your color choices are cohesive or if your typeface is working? Asking questions is going to be a huge part of your life as a designer. A creative brief, a crucial part of the design process is nothing more than a bunch of clarifying questions for your client. You need to be comfortable asking questions and inquiring further about areas perhaps they need more explanation from your client in order to do you the very best job that you can do. So practice asking questions now.



9. Start doing things right. Now.

I know from experience how easy it is to get into the habit of doing things a certain way because you’re a student and you can. For example, as a student nothing you do (usually) is for commercial use or for any use other than perhaps display at the school, you feel like it’s ok to use pictures you found on Google. It is easier to do that after all. It’s also cheaper. I understand being a broke student and having to use cheap typefaces and fonts that most likely carry viruses to your computer, and taking your own photos for your pieces. I think though, that you can easily get into the habit of doing things the easy way instead of doing things the right way. There are so many instances where something that you could do would be considered plagiarism or a derivative work.
Once you graduate and you become a paid professional, the lines will no longer be blurred, they will be very big and very bold and you could get into a lot of trouble for crossing over those lines.
Whenever possible, if you have the cash to spend on a few versatile typefaces, (pro versions if possible because they have the most variations), or buy a few quality stock photos, I suggest that you do so. There are also many inexpensive and next to free resources out there that will make you look really good. My next post will be a list of these helpful resources that you can utilize. I also suggest that you constantly be on the lookout for anything that you have created to make sure online that there is not something else that already exists that could possibly be interpreted as you copying work. As a side note, during the research part of the design process where you are looking for style references, it is important to remember that you are looking for references; a look and an idea-not something that you have the ability to or should copy exactly ever.

10.Think for yourself and be confident.

When you’re in school it’s really easy to rely on your instructors and even fellow classmates to tell you what you should or should not do. As a creative director and art director at heart, being an instructor has been a little bit of a struggle for me. I have to be very intentional about the feedback I give so as not to not art direct my students. This is especially difficult if I am ever asked, “well, I’m just not really sure, what should I do next? I have had to realize that I need to ask questions of them that will guide them to making the right decision without telling them what one answer could be. Having confidence and thinking for yourself as a designer while you still in school can be tough. You don’t want to be overconfident and not want to take advice, but you also don’t want to be paralyzed by not knowing what to do so much so that you don’t do anything. Like I have said before and like I will be writing about in a future post, there is not one right answer in design. It is not a science, it is not baking. It’s actually more like cooking; there are lots of ways to go about getting the same tasty result.
It is up to you as the designer to put in your own flair, your own flavor, and sell it with all your heart because you know that you made great decisions to solve the problem of the client.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Of course feedback, criticism, and guidance, are what you are going to school to learn. The problem comes when you don’t know how to make any design decisions for yourself. Stop letting other people make your design decisions for you. Stop thinking that you are not capable of making good decisions, I assure you that you are.

So, I hope that if you are currently attending art/design school, or you are planning on attending one, that some of these things will help you. I speak from experience on every single one of these points both as an instructor and as a former student. None of these things are meant to be overwhelming in fact, if you practice all ten of these things you will be surprised at how much easier your life will be until the day you receive your degree. Practicing these things are also amazing ways to be a successful designer. I decided to try my hand teaching because I wanted to help people be better, to learn about the right way to think about design and what it is we do. I tried to do this with my blog, and I hope that I am able to do that with my students now, and in the future. Design is a wonderful world, I hope you’ll join me here. Because design matters.

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