What designers must learn
Eric Madsen, The Office of Eric Madsen
My impression after interviewing students over the years is that there is generally very little awareness of the graphic design profession at the high school level. It doesn't seem to have changed much since I was in high school, but let's face it, there haven't been many prime-time television shows about the adventures of a graphic designer either.
One of the most important things a prospective graphic design student can do is to discover for themselves as much as possible about the profession outside the college curriculum. Early in their college studies, students should visit design firms and talk to people successfully practicing graphic design. This will help them know what to demand of the curriculum, will put them in touch with the reality of the profession, and in turn will make them more marketable to an employer.
They should demand that outside designers be brought in for lectures, critiques or special project assignments and that studio tours be arranged. I recommend internships and believe students should show their portfolios for review after their second and third year, or even after each semester of those years. The student will learn that the subject of typography is absolutely critical, that exposure to a wide variety of design problems is essential, that the concept or idea behind the design is key, that practical knowledge of production and design skills is as important as theory, that exposure to basic business practices is helpful, and that the importance of the portfolio can't be overemphasized. At the moment of the interview, the portfolio becomes the student.
They will also learn that the ability to write and speak effectively, even to spell correctly, is essential. The designer's client base is the business world, and the successful designer is one who is prepared to communicate with this market. Designing is only a small part of the process. Planning, listening, writing, estimating, scheduling and supervising are all part of a designer's role.
One last thought: Be prepared for the fact that your parents will probably never understand what you do for a living.