Undergrad at the University of Southern California (USC) was one of the most defining times in my life because I got to try almost everything. Things I never knew existed, like real ramen instead of instant ramen (Thanks, Little Tokyo in Los Angeles). Things I realized I actually hate, like science labs. And finally, things I ended up loving — design. In fact, I loved it so much I switched my major from biology to design. Best decision EVER.
After working as a designer for several years, a part of me still wishes I’d taken more advantage of design school. As I’m writing this, I am preparing to go back to school. In a month, I’ll be at the Letterform Archive for Type West, a postgraduate certificate program. So it’s got me thinking about what I would’ve done differently as a design student. I even asked my colleagues about their college experiences. After a ton of analysis, I’ve deduced everyone’s insights down to five lessons.
Whether you discovered that design was your jam ten years ago or ten days ago, I hope these tips will help you get the most out of your time in design school.
1. Treat school projects like client projects
Procrastination ran in my blood (as it does with most college students, no?). With constant distractions like parties and friends down the hallway, I couldn’t be blamed! Not to mention the several campus jobs I had to keep up with the bills. During those late nights before the critique, I often ran out of ideas as my bed called to me. I would start doing arbitrary things to make the design feel “done.” The next day, I would wear my all-nighter face like a badge of honor because that was the sign of “hard work.”
In my last year, I made a new friend named Jake. Jake would pour his heart and soul into every assignment — no matter how big or small. He went out of his way to try new materials and explore different creative directions. Being “done” wasn’t enough. The design had to be done well. Fresh out of school, Jake had a polished portfolio, ready to send to top agencies and companies.
That’s when I realized that design school is special. In my previous science classes, assignments were only proof to the professor that you studied. You’d never look at your papers or tests again after submitting them. But, the projects that you do in design school are shining representations to the world of how your mind works. So don’t showcase the sleep-deprived brain on 10 cups of coffee. Instead, treat school projects with the same seriousness as you have with client projects by giving them enough time for exploration and iteration. You’ll be on your way to a thoughtful portfolio and successful career.
2. Choose collaboration over competition
In a school project, you are the creative director, art director, lead designer, everything. Not only are you establishing the vision, but you’re also executing on every little detail. You get to call all the shots, including whether you incorporate your peer’s feedback during a critique. So, I often overlooked my peers’ feedback, and I wasn’t the only one.
But in the workplace, you are working with other creatives and several stakeholders within a client’s company. At times, everyone’s ideas may be conflicting. It may be instinctive to think, “I’m the designer, I know what’s best.” In my experience, when I welcomed other points of view and continued exploring the design, I ultimately arrived at a stronger solution. Oftentimes, great design is a result of many minds coming together or ideas that have built off of each other. There are no heroes in design, only a collective genius. So I encourage you to come to crit with an open, constructive mind.
Not to mention, school gives you a community of designerds who are all passionate about the same things you are. If you want to do a passion project on branding but lack illustration skills, then ask a friend who’s always doodling to collaborate on an idea. Or if you and a friend both love the same type of music, partner on designing a fictional music festival. Building these relationships and cultivating community will establish a strong support system as you start your career.
3. Be a design sponge
At USC, our curriculum exposed us to sculpture, painting, drawing, etc. I took classes that allowed me to play with cameras one day and toy with 3D printing another. It wasn’t until I no longer had (free) access to this wealth of resources that I realized just how valuable they were. Experimenting with all the tools and technologies that your school has to offer opens you up to more possibilities. And by tools, I don’t just mean physical things like printing presses and software programs. I also mean student clubs, events, and other opportunities that enable you to try new experiences and widen your perspective.
Outside of the classroom, the design world feels infinite and constantly evolving. It’s tough to know what you want to do after you graduate — until you try it. I learned that I hated advertising after interning at an advertising studio. I realized my love for building brands after my first job on an in-house design team.
Here are some ideas for you to test: Intern with an in-house design team or at a studio. Shadow a freelancer. Have an informal interview with your design idol. Or pick your professor’s brains at office hours. I didn’t realize that professors are usually practicing professionals until I graduated and they became my peers.
As you’re practicing design, you’ll start to develop your taste. Who are your design idols? Your favorite agencies and brands? What did design look like in the 1920s versus 1960s? In America vs. Japan? What are contemporary designers saying about the design industry through blogs or Twitter? The more you know about where design has been and where it is now, the easier it is for you to see your role in its future. This level of clarity will differentiate you as a candidate from just another pretty portfolio.
But design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Designers are purveyors of culture. Be observant of what’s happening around you. Be curious about the world. Go to that local band’s concert. Your collection of experiences will become fodder for inspiration every time you sit down to create.
4. Design is thinking AND making
I was raised like your typical Asian A-student. Perfectionism and overplanning ran in my blood. When it came to designing, my process pretty much went down like this:
- Research, lots
- Think of cool ideas
- More researching and more thinking
- …a few days before the big crit
Sketch a ton of ideas
- …the week the project’s due
Frantically choose one idea to make “presentable”
My senior year design teacher saw through my bullshit and failed me. Let me break it down. I was afraid to start sketching without “enough” information so I over-researched. Once I started sketching, I was afraid of committing to a single idea, worried that it wouldn’t be the best idea. It wasn’t until I started designing for technology brands that I found the cure to my perfectionist curse — iterative design. Iterative design is a process of trying out all the possibilities to see what works and refining as you go. It’s about designing by making, learning by doing, critiquing and tweaking. Now, I set time limits for the research and sketch phases to equally honor the creation phase.
5. Keep all your work
I recently caught up with an old colleague, Linna. She was entertaining the idea of moving to an agency after a recruiter reached out to her. “Sorry, I’m pretty exhausted right now because I had to work on my portfolio last night,” Linna told me. This surprised me because the last time I saw her portfolio, it looked polished. Turns out, the agency wanted to see more of the process behind her polished work. Off she went digging for old sketches from over 10 years of experience.
Despite all the pristine projects we see on Behance and Dribbble, hiring managers actually want to see your process. They want to understand the thinking behind the pretty mockups. In our modern digital age, it’s so easy to make designs look good with all the mockup templates available. The standout designers put meaning and ideas behind each design decision. So, keep all your sketches, document your thoughts, and share them in your portfolio.
After graduating, I often reminisce and found myself wishing I did this or that. I feel lucky to have the chance to go back to school with these insights in mind. I hope you’ll find these tips useful as well. College is a special time in your life. So beyond the sleepless nights and seemingly never-ending projects, don’t forget to pause for a moment, take it in, and have all the fun.
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. If you’ve enjoyed this, give it as many claps as you’d like. Have feedback? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you couldn’t tell by now, I love feedback.