10 Essentials Every Design Student Should Know

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Design students think a lot. They want to know exactly what the future has in store, particularly during this time of economic uncertainty. They want to understand whether there is anything consequential – an essential truth – that will insure their place in design’s future. So, a year ago, before the bottom fell out of the financial markets, we set out to identify 100 essential concepts that design students could agree were important. We surveyed graduate and undergraduate design students, primarily from the MFA Designer as Author program at School of Visual Arts, to determine what issues are foremost on their minds and narrowed them down to the following top ten essentials.

Picking a Design School

There are so many things to look for in a design school apart from financial concerns. Perhaps the most important is “experienced faculty from a cross-section of backgrounds, satisfied alumni, and a relatively small student body,” says Kimiyo Nakatsui. From this faculty, she wants “experience, enthusiasm, energy, constructive feedback with regard to formal design and concept, a unique point of view, and critical thought.” Each school has a philosophy that drives its programs, says Andy Outis, “and this is often expressed through its faculty.” He advises that wannabe students spend time researching the faculty, the work they do, and If possible, how they teach. “Also, look at the sequence of faculty as you progress through the program. How is it structured to build a firm knowledge foundation?” On this track, Lara McCormick insists that the critical qualification is “someone who will push you as a student and challenge your assumptions and abilities.” And this is often, but not always, “a professional with a strong body of work.”

Style Versus No Style

A style is sometimes a designer’s signature, but it can also be a veneer that covers a design. “Style has a functional role for many design projects,” says Randy J. Hunt. “If a design idea needs to connect with a specific audience, the styles the audience is familiar with can be a valuable addition to the design tools at hand.” It’s important to know the difference and be comfortable with how style is used. Not for good or ill, but for real or false. It is the nature of designers to adopt contemporary styles—whether the current fancy is grunge, goth, or neo-modernism—while others borrow mannerisms of the past such as Art Nouveau or Art Deco. Sometimes these veneers are simply outerwear, worn or removed as whim demands; other times, they are codes that telegraph many things, including the intended audience, the message, and the intention. Style can be allure or it can be content. Designers should understand the history of style to be able to intelligently master it.

Developing a Personal Voice

A voice is a point of view—an attitude—that determines how a design approach will evolve. “I want to design in a way that is me,” says Veronica Fauve. “I don’t always want my work to look like it was made from a machine, but it must reflect who I am.” Of course, it is not necessary to have a particular style (i.e. an identifiable look or feel) to affect a personality, but it is useful to develop a singular voice. A voice implies confidence. A voice can perhaps change over time. Above all, designers not be weighted down by dogmatic approaches. Remember that your work is in the service of clients. A client may, however, commission your work because of that distinct attitude that pervades your work.

Accepting Freelance Work from Teachers

When does a student accept freelance work from a teacher? “When the class has ended,” says McCormick, when the teacher is no longer your teacher. Devon Kinch has a different approach, saying that you can turn down the opportunity only “when you’ve sufficiently charmed them with your wit and skill.” Of course, teachers often draw freelance and full-time employees from their classes—what better way of auditioning than to see how they work on assignments? But teachers don’t always wait until school is over. In fact, they might recruit right away. While this is not wrong, it can be problematic. First, it shows favoritism, which is not appropriate. Second, it can disrupt the student’s ability to finish class assignments. If this is an issue, “Politely decline,” advises Outis. “Having too much school work is always a valid excuse. I made the mistake of taking a job from a teacher that nearly overwhelmed my ability to complete my class work. In the end, it worked out; but it was hairy.”

Santa I've been a good girl, please stop

Getting Internships

To get a great internship, it is important to be in the right place at the right time. It also helps to be persistent and confident. “I think this is as much about luck as it is about having the right portfolio,” says Hunt. “I suppose that having an instructor you’d like to intern for, and then proving in class that you work hard, take feedback well, and commit yourself, would lead to a good opportunity for an internship with that instructor.” Internships are key to academic and professional success. Without real world experience, school is just a series of theoretical exercises. Securing the most advantageous internship is as important as getting good grades – maybe even more so. So, what defines this kind of internship? It is not always the one where you are given the license to design, some of the most useful force you to do the grunt work – make copies, produce digital mechanicals, etc. – for this is an opportunity to show how well you function in a large or small organization. While stretching your design muscles is great, every kind of internship will be a building block for the future in some way or another.

Coping with Absurd Deadlines

School is built on a foundation of untenable deadlines. Most teachers couldn’t care less about what other teachers are demanding of students, and so have little patience for excuses about being overworked. No one wants to sacrifice quality, but it is necessary to determine how much time and effort is required for any given assignment and plan accordingly. And when the pressure is intense, triage is always an option. Determine what is the most important—and challenging—of the projects and prioritize. Never be late, but not all projects are created equal. Students are routinely pushed and pulled (and even the slackers can’t avoid the usually heavy workload), so time management is a critical part of a student’s modus operandi. While it is tempting to do a lot in a little amount of time, Joan Booth says to avoid multi-tasking: “Compartmentalizing time and avoiding interrupti
on is the best way to maximize use of available time.” One way to focus on one thing at one time is to develop a disciplinary time chart. Although it’s fine to start one project while finishing another, make sure to devote enough uninterrupted time to the one that is due first. It’s tempting to work on the most enjoyable (or easy) while letting other projects slide—don’t. You’ll get in a hole that is impossible to climb out of. Amy Wang says that it’s important to know when to stop brainstorming in order to have enough time to design, and when to stop designing to have enough time to produce. “I always underestimated how much time it took even if all I had to do was click ‘Print,’ and that wasn’t all I had to do most of the time,” she says. “Treat school like a job,” adds McCormick, “and get projects done one day before they are due.” Still one cannot always give the same amount of attention to every class or project that one would like. “You have to prioritize,” adds Outis. ”Only don’t ever tell a teacher that you devoted more time to another class, ever.”

Typographic Fluency

“It is almost impossible to know the names of all the typefaces available,” says Viktor Rasmusen, “but if I can learn to identify at least 50, I feel confident.” Typography is the lingua franca—the official language—of graphic design. Without it, there is no message. What’s more, without the almost incalculable variety of type styles, there would only be but a single typographic dialect. The fact that letters come in many different shapes, colors, and forms is what gives graphic design its personality, and underscores the differences between messages. While knowing technology is essential, if a student does not learn the difference between families and styles of type, or how and when to best use them, they will not be fluent enough to communicate.

Couture and Fashion

This has long been subject of heated debate. For Nakatsui, students should dress “however they feel comfortable.” But for Kinch, “There is no gray area here for me when it comes to designers: Either you dress stylishly, or you couldn’t care less. Anything in between is suspect.” Another point of view suggests that dress at an art school is a moot point. “You’re going to have people who show up in full goth costumes, painters covered in acrylic, dapper dandies, and the kid in the jeans and a hoody (this was me),” says Outis. “But do wear nice clothes when you’re supposed to, like for crits and interviews, even if it’s just your nicest pair of jeans.” Although the overall philosophy may differ, there is a consensus regarding a couple of articles: wear cool shoes and tortoise-shell glasses. Outis says, “I just started wearing glasses at 33, and already I feel more like a designer.”

Achieving Success

Every student has different measures of success. “Despite a desire for the contrary, grades are very important to me,” says Nakatsui. “However, above and beyond being graded, success to me is struggling through a project and ultimately emerging on the other side with new skills, information, and/or a new process of thinking or working.” McCormick, on the other hand, adds, “When someone I’ve worked with professionally on a project later asks me to work on more projects with them, that is success.”

Ensuring Happiness

In the early 1960s, Charles M. Schulz, creator of the comic Peanuts, published a book called Happiness is a Warm Puppy. A few years later, John Lennon wrote a song entitled “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Clearly, there are different strokes for different folks (and so on, and so forth). Happiness for design students is sometimes fairly elusive, while at other times, it’s as obvious as getting a perfect grade. For some, happiness is measured by success; for others, it is a more existential determination. Whatever you look for on the road to fulfillment, personal happiness is the most essential of all these essentials.