Top 10 Things I Learned in Graphic Design School

A couple of days ago I had lunch with Eric Chimenti, one of my design professors from Chapman University. We chatted about the school’s graphic design program and how it has evolved since I graduated in 2004. He asked me what top ten things I had learned when I was in school. Here’s the list of things that I would have loved to have shared with my college-aged self, especially when times felt frustrating or hopeless.

  1. Ask questions. 
    I grew up in South Africa and attended a very strict elementary school where it felt like I was always getting in trouble for asking questions—or at least the wrong type of questions. After a while I just stopped raising my hand out of fear, and I remember hating it because I am a naturally curious person. When I started my freshman year in college I was amazed that I could ask as many questions as I wanted, and that the professors actually encouraged them! All of a sudden I was given professors’ office hours and phone numbers. I didn’t have to rely on just books anymore; I could talk to teachers with first-hand experience and add their insights to my encyclopedia of information. I will admit: I was one of those annoying people that sat front-row of almost every class and constantly had her hand up. I’m pretty sure it annoyed some of my classmates, but I didn’t care; for once in my life I was going to ask questions and learn as much as I could about a subject I was passionate about.
  2. Be creatively curious. 
    I think that our interest in a variety of things ends up enriching our experiences which feeds back into our design work in some way or another. Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford University’s 2005 commencement ceremony, and at one point he said, “Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.” I highly recommend you watch his speech and listen to the great example he gives of taking a calligraphy class just because it interested him, and how it later influenced the typography on the Macintosh computer. Follow and feed your curiosity. You never know how it might help shape a future project or passion.
  3. Take responsibility for your education. 
    If you’re in a good graphic design program, most of what you’ll need to learn will be covered in all the classes you take. But sometimes—and this goes back to being creatively curious—there might be design-related topics that interest you, but that are not on your graphic design syllabus. Advanced printing techniques lacking in your design program? Get an internship with a printer. Contract and proposal writing not covered? Find a design mentor to help you. Your education doesn’t just come from one place. Make sure you follow your gut and learn what you want to learn.
  4. Pay attention to the details.
    Let’s imagine for a second that you’re going on a vacation to Hawaii. You also have an awesome friend who offered to pay for your hotel accommodations while you’re there. Money is no object. Where would you choose to stay? The Travelodge or the Four Seasons? Almost everyone will pick the Four Seasons. Why? Both hotels offer a bed and a shower. But one goes a little further to make your stay more comfortable. At the Four Seasons you get turndown service in the evenings and a little mint on your pillow. The sheets are better quality and the bed a little more comfy. The same reason why details matter when it comes to accommodation are true for both your design work as well as how you manage it. Sometimes when you’re strapped for time, the details get sacrificed. But taking the time to massage those small details makes your design look more professional. The same is true for the overall project admin. You could design the greatest piece of all time, but when you shoot a PDF over to the client that is riddled with typos and the tone you use is off-putting, the way in which your work is received will be affected. Once you’re done with a project, ask yourself how you can make it better. This doesn’t necessarily mean adding more stuff to your design; rather massaging what’s already there. Read through your email at least twice, checking for spelling errors and making sure that attachments are actually attached. Details are intangible, and it is your job as a design professional to make sure that they’re accounted for.
  5. Research, research, research.
    At the commencement of a project hopefully you will get some kind of creative brief to work off of. You’ll probably skim through it, spend some time Googling on the internet, and then start designing. But this is not enough! It’s so easy these days to rely on the internet as your sole resource, and while it’s definitely a good start, it’s not the only resource out there. There are conferences, trade shows, libraries—all sorts of things that can offer a wealth of additional information that might not necessarily be found online. 

    In the real word, the client may be the one providing you with the answers to the creative brief, and I treat most of these much like House, M.D. would treat his patients that come to him with a health problem. He’ll ask them what they’re allergic to, and where it hurts, but sometimes the client is not always honest, or will omit important information because they just don’t know any better. It’s your job to put your detective hat on and find out as much as you can about your client and their product. I mentioned paying attention to details earlier, and the amount of research you do will help you massage the details of your project. Don’t rely solely on the internet for information. 
  6. Stretch and exercise your brain.
    Do you ever have days (or weeks) when the design is just not flowing? You’re in a creative rut, and no matter how hard you try, you cannot get out of it. In my junior year my design professor came into class and told us that instead of working on our projects right away like we usually did, we were going to do some creative exercises first. There was a unanimous groan from all of us. Why did we have to waste time doing silly exercises? We had a lot of work to do and our classroom studio time was precious. Reluctantly we started doing the exercises. Some of them were individual, and some of them required groups. But all of them didn’t take longer than 5-10 minutes. I was surprised when the professor announced that 30 minutes had elapsed and that we could now work on our projects; the time flew by! When I shifted my focus to my project, it felt as though my brain had been warmed up and was ready to run a marathon. I came up with so many great ideas that day, and I know it was because my brain had been creatively stretched with those exercises. Doing creative exercises might seem like a waste of time initially, but the time investment definitely pays off later when your brain is running a creative marathon. 

    I felt so strongly about the importance of creative exercises that I later coauthored two books dedicated to them: Caffeine for the Creative Mind and Caffeine for the Creative Team. Next time you’re in a creative rut and aren’t quite sure what to do to get out of it: give these books a try. 
  7. Let go of perfection. 
    I am a perfectionist by nature, and it’s hard for me to put something out there that’s not perfect or as close to perfect as possible. One evening during my senior year, I emailed a two page sob story to my professor saying how upset I was that I’d been working on my project for two weeks straight and that it still wasn’t perfect enough and that I didn’t feel like I could hand it in the next morning. For once I had allowed more than enough time to work on it instead of procrastinating and putting it off until the last minute. I wanted it to be awesome. But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get it just right. The thought of getting a C, or even worse—failing!—loomed over me like a dark cloud. My professor emailed me back later that evening and his advice to me has stuck with me ever since. He wrote, “Not everything that you design is going to be the best piece of art ever. It’s OK sometimes to do as best of a job that you can and then let it go and have it be what it is.” These might seem like simple “duh” words to everyone else, but to me it was like someone had found the keys to my perfectionism prison and set me free. A heavy weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I set back to work right away. Handing in something the next day was more important than not handing in anything at all, and while it wasn’t the most wonderful thing I’d ever designed, it was at least something and met the project requirements. It’s OK to not be perfect all the time.
  8. Be able to talk about your work.
    It’s 9am Monday morning, you’ve put all the finishing touches on your design project over the weekend, and it’s now time to show off your work to your fellow classmates. Except when you get up there to present, you freeze. When you’re working behind your monitor it’s just you and your thoughts as you design. The design decisions you make are purposeful; they follow the creative brief and/or the research you’ve done. But when it comes time to explain why you made the choices you made, you either get stage fright or you simply haven’t been able to parse the decisions you made in your head into words. Talking about your work is something that gets easier over time. It’s important to be able to present your work and communicate why you made the choices you did. In the real world, clients will not always be as savvy as you are, so you have to be able to tell them why your design is the appropriate direction for them based off of X, Y, and Z. You have to be able to justify it. You can’t say you chose the color blue just because you like it. Sometimes you have to act as a guide for the client, steering them in the right direction, and you can’t do that if you’re not able to talk about your work. 
  9. Consider constructive criticism.
    When you’ve finished a project and put it out there for the classmate/professor/client to critique, it can be hard to hear negative feedback. You’ve poured your heart and soul into your work, and to have it ripped apart can be very disparaging. But, think about it this way: without constructive criticism, how would you grow and improve? If people responded to your work with praise and didn’t challenge it, how would that push you to do better next time? As hard as it can be to do, try to push your emotional attachment to your work aside and listen to what your classmate/professor/client is telling you. Sometimes you might not agree with them, and that’s OK. But more times than not, there’s little nuggets of wisdom there that you might not have seen yourself and it ends up making the project stronger than it was prior to their feedback.
  10. It’s OK to fail.
    Every once in a while you are going to fail. The important thing to keep in mind for when you fail is that you learn something from it and keep going. Don’t give up. Henry Ford said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” Failure is a lesson, and lessons turn into growth and bettering yourself. People view success as a consistent upward-trending line where in reality it zigzags all over the place. It goes up and down and sideways and is constantly adjusting. But you’ll also notice that it doesn’t just come to a halt. If you stop, there’s no chance to make those adjustments that ultimately lead to “success”. So go forth, young padawans. Fail, and fail hard. Learn from those failures and allow them to steer you towards success.