School is hard. Design school is especially
hard because so much of it exists within the abstract, the opinion.
There are few, if any, absolutes as you go through design school. Much
of design education is about learning some key techniques and then
trying to apply them to your work in interesting ways. The following are
some thoughts I have about how to go through a design program and get
the most out of the experience, and beyond as a creative professional.
It is easy to learn and then repeat exactly what you have learned.
However, you will not grow that way. I can see value in the
regurgitation of knowledge if you are a lawyer, but I have a hard time
with it as a design student or a creative professional. You should be
pushing yourself and you should be taking risks, especially in school.
Big risks. Trying what may not work. Asking questions that may not have
answers. Seeing if what you throw against the wall sticks. In my
experience, taking risks in school has always paid off big time.
There are many opportunities available while in design school. For
example: collaborative projects, extracurricular activities, and
freelance work. These opportunities will not always come to you, you
must go get them. Every school has a publications department that
designs and produces internal and external collateral. There is no
reason that you should not be the person designing these projects. Make
contacts and ask for work. If you are talented and a little lucky, you
will get it.
Be aggressive in terms of your academics as well. There are two kinds
of design professors at school: pushers and pullers. Some professors
will push their knowledge on you. Others will make you pull what you
need from them. Ask questions of both. Challenge their statements. Ask
for precedents. Beyond the curriculum of the class, ask your favorite
faculty who they know that needs an intern (because they do know people,
I assure you). Ask faculty if they need any assistance with their own
work. Find out which exhibits they enjoyed at local museums. It is very
important that as a design student you do not sit back and let things
happen to you. Be aggressive and create your own luck and opportunities.
I lecture to my students that they should “fuck the rules” as long as
they have a good reason. I have consistently found that the students
who are conservative, stay inside the lines and try to appeal to the
teacher, are the students who do the most predictable work. Not bad
work, just predictable. Defying the rules forces you to stray from the
path of least resistance and ultimately make work that is more
interesting, more meaningful and more fun to create.
But, that does not mean just be a contrarian for its own sake. It
does not mean ignore any and all guidelines. It means take the
requirements into consideration and break past them with good reasons
and solid ideas. Breaking the rules just to be different is foolish,
breaking the rules because you have a much better idea is smart.
Each designer is born from a unique experience. Classmates in the
same program will have different educations depending on which teachers
they have, what field trips they take, and what books they pick up. As a
designer you need to always be looking at the world around you. You
need to see everything—the kind of detailed seeing taught in freshman
drawing classes—not just looking, but really seeing. You need to be an
observer as well as a maker. You should rid yourself of any
preconceptions of what is and is not worthy of your attention.
Everything has potential to be interesting and influential. Not
everything will be, but the more you see the better your chances are at
seeing something that will be useful to you.
The saying goes that “necessity is the mother of invention.” I
concur, but I think for designers the saying should be “obsession is the
mother of invention.” Obsession is what drives you to explore and find
out as much as possible about something that interests you. I do not
mean that being clinically obsessive/compulsive is something to aspire
to—I have been told that is neither fun or interesting—but I do mean you
need to be intensely immersed and engaged in what you are doing. This
obsession can move you past understanding and awareness into a
translative process where you will start to make things. We are usually
taught that obsession is unhealthy, and in some cases that is true. When
it comes to how a designer looks at the world, obsession can provide an
incredible explosion of ideas as you become so engrossed in something
you start to reinvent it inside your head. Obsession can often help you
to move through the threshold between thinking and making. You should
never hold back your excitement about something that interests you, and
by the same token, you should not hesitate to be obsessive about many
things since you never know where your interests will lead.
Comfort is tremendously overrated, especially as a designer. You know
you can skew some type, add some color, toss in an image and make a
decent piece of design. Maybe it's not great, but it's good enough. It
is easy to get into the habit of making the kind of work you are
comfortable making. Truly great, interesting, inspiring design comes not
from comfort but from discomfort. It comes from the fear that what you
are doing might really suck, but it also might just be brilliant.
Discomfort makes you reexamine what you think you know and how you think
things should work. Being uncomfortable helps you make decisions from
the gut, it makes you push harder and take more risks. Grabbing that
fear, holding onto that uncomfortable, scary place lets you push past
expectations and into the unknown—into a process of discovery as opposed
You should have opinions about design and the world around you.
Preferably, you should have strong opinions. Ideally, you should have
strong and informed opinions. Every great designer I have ever met has
an active stance on design, they do not passively allow work to wash
over them. They have opinions about what they see. Having opinions means
engaging in some kind of internal analysis of the work you see and
formulating a response to it. As an educator I do this constantly in the
classroom, and I try to do it constantly in the professional world as
well. Opinions about design force you to pick a side, and define what
kind of designer you are.
There are plenty of designers out there who punch a clock in the
morning, mindlessly flow some text into InDesign all day, and then leave
at five and don’t think about design until the next morning. There are
designers who casually ignore art and design while they look for the
next reality show on TV. Then there are the other designers who make
more design in their spare time. Their idea of a good time is to look at
typography or experiment with painting or photography. These are
designers who are fully immersed in working visually, designers who are
actively engaged in becoming better at what they do every day.
They say that when you are a police officer you are on duty 24/7/365.
Cops always look at their surroundings from a cop's perspective. They
notice things others do not. They act as a cop would in an emergency
situation whether or not they are in uniform. Most cops I have met and
read about always carry their firearms and badge, even while on
vacation. It is not something they turn off at the end of their shift.
A designer needs to act like a cop. When you are a designer, you are a
designer 24/7/365. Always noticing, always observing, always designing,
even if only in your head. Carrying a camera with you at all times is a
good habit—capture interesting details you come across, not just
because you have an assignment due, but because it is in your nature as a
visual artist to observe and process the world around you. Inspiration
comes from everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time.
One of the greatest things about being a designer is that you do not
finish your design education when you leave design school. You continue
learning for the rest of you life, and you should carry these ideas with
you as you develop and mature into a creative professional.
What purpose do manifestos serve, and why do they appeal to designers in particular? Ellen and Julia Lupton declare their reasons.
Section: Inspiration -
design thinking, graphic design, social responsibility, Voice
Allen offers a personal post-grad reflection on making her way back into professional life with new attitudes about design and the designer’s role.
Section: Inspiration -
professional development, personal essay, Voice, students
Why do we need graphic design theory? Armstrong calls on the design community to meet the challenges of our time and keep the discourse alive.
Section: Inspiration -
graphic design, critique, social responsibility, Voice
Why pursue an advanced degree in design? And why an MFA over a PhD or vice versa? Heller goes to Meredith Davis for the last word on terminal degrees.
Section: Inspiration -
professional development, Voice, design educators, students
Authors report on challenges and insights from the 2010 AIGA Design Educators conference.
Section: Inspiration -
Conference , Voice, design educators
AIGA Baltimore is excited to announce that Orange Element has agreed to be the official Design Week branding sponsor for this year’s fifth annual Baltimore Design Week. Learn more about this Baltimore design agency and their commitment to focus on the Baltimore community and be proactive in helping make our city a better place.
Just a simple idea to take advantage of the iPhone screen. Take a look!
Video: AIGA Medalist Stephen Doyle
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