Advice to My Younger Self: Surviving Design School

There’s something uniquely torturous about design school. Students are tasked with making things they like, all while wedging their ideals into the larger fabric of commerce and eventually proving to their parents that they chose a valid college major. My experience of design school, like most, was plagued with self doubt. Why am I not as good of a designer as everyone else? Why can’t I make things I like? How on Earth am I supposed to know which typeface to choose?

Recently, a podcast episode from a group of design students at the Rhode Island School of Design beautifully captured the angst, confusion and tension of design school. After I promoted the podcast on Twitter, one of the students, Brielle Curvey, emailed me seeking advice. As I composed my response, I conjured the image of my 19-year-old self, a shy design student who frequently struggled to hold back tears during classroom critiques.

This advice is for the person I once was, for Brielle, and for the thousands of other design students who feel like square pegs on a board of round holes.

Dear Brielle,

I know how you feel — your struggle in design school is almost a parallel of my own experience. Please know that you’re already doing the right things: by seeking advice and asking questions, you’re already on your way to becoming a truly great designer.

The desire to understand your work on a deeper level is rare; right now, the majority of your classmates, when asked why they made what they made, will just shrug. And that’s okay for now — you guys are young and talking about your work is really hard. With time and experience, many of the issues you’re facing now will be resolved. But in the meantime, I can offer you the advice I wish I heard during my years in design school.

Stop putting so much pressure on yourself.
Yes, as a design student, it’s important to try to make the best work you can and to be thoughtful and engaged in class. But I’m betting you are struggling to make meaningful things, and you are often unhappy with the outcome. Don’t worry: your eye, like everything else in your body, is a muscle, and, in tandem with your brain, it will strengthen over time and you will find your voice. I promise!

Embrace whatever weirdness interests you.
Are you really into super weird, creepy illustration? Bring it into your work, study other designers who use pen-and-ink techniques. Are you obsessed with science fiction theory? Analyze and use the concepts in your designs — go big or go home. Borrow from the stuff you care about because that will help you define your voice. And defining your voice is why people come to you. People don’t hire Stefan Sagmeister just because he makes cool, trendy stuff, they hire him because he brings his weirdness and personality to what he does.

Don’t worry about the cool kids.
There might be one or two students in your class who find their voice early — that’s great for them. Instead of feeling intimidated or frustrated by these people, talk with them about their process. Chances are you’ll either learn new techniques, or you’ll realize that they have no idea what they’re doing. Either way, you’ll feel better!

Stop looking at image blogs.
Seriously. That shit is mind numbing. It’s cool for like, five minutes a day, but then you should stop. Students endlessly scroll through that stuff and it will basically put you in a coma. Instead, carefully hone a list of online design inspiration. Think about what it means to you. Check into the websites on that list when you feel the need. Then, read some science blogs, your local newspaper, graphic novels, or maybe some books on the history of China. Make sure the information you take in is interesting and exciting to you. Remember: the greatest working designers have incredibly omnivorous literary diets.

Give yourself permission to screw up.
That sounds small, and maybe you’re saying to yourself, “I experiment all the time!” But I bet you get upset when things don’t go as you hoped. Sometimes you have to let yourself make the worst garbage you can think of, because only then will the real work flow out of you. If you don’t believe me, try it. For your next class assignment, make the worst, take a moment to make the most cliché idea that comes to mind. Chances are, it won’t be nearly as bad as you thought it would be. And the next version you make will be better than anything you could’ve imagined.

So stop yelling at your inner child. A crazy-but-brilliant hypnotherapist once told me that our inner self doesn’t age, emotionally, past 10 years old. So be nice to her! She can only handle so much.

Be patient. With time, you’ll develop confidence.
The kids I was jealous of in design school, I realized it wasn’t because of their portfolios — which were super cool to me at that time — it was that I envied their confidence. They weren’t questioning themselves and screwing up and getting upset. Mostly, that’s because they were copying trendy work, so they knew their stuff was good. They weren’t testing out new ideas and confronting their inner, critical voice.

Following design trends is fine, and maybe one day you’ll dip your toes into that line of work. But first you have to experiment with the tools at hand and figure out how to make them work for you. Miles Davis wasn’t a great jazz musician because he was imitating others. He was a great jazz musician because he learned every single note and trained his ear. Through this he discovered his confidence, and improvised. Then he blew our minds.

Your process is just as important as the end result.
Make things that matter to you with a lot of research and thought behind it. If you don’t think the visual results are “cool,” stop worrying. Because you know what? I bet your research is really cool. And over time, you’ll figure out the best way to translate that research to the world.

Practice your people skills.
Continue to email people in the design field, talk to your professors and stay in touch with the ones who really had a positive effect on you. Stay at the studio late and talk with your classmates about their work. Introduce yourself to guest lecturers. Advanced Pro Tip™: never underestimate how many doors can be opened simply by sending a thank you note to guest lecturers. Seriously.

The cool kids think that having a trendy portfolio is what will get them a job, and in some cases, it will. But the most successful designers in our industry are the ones who engage with others and truly care about working with people. The vast majority of your future employers will always value the thoughtful, excited-to-learn designer with a promising portfolio over the shrugging, too-cool-for-school designer with the pristine portfolio.

Most importantly, no one knows what they’re doing.
One of my friends who I consider to be an incredibly successful, wonderful designer, says it all the time: no one knows what they’re doing. And maybe you’re beginning to learn this, but slowly as you finish school and begin working in the industry, it will become even more apparent. Your classmates, teachers, future co-workers and bosses: we’re still figuring it all out as we go along. That’s what makes this profession, and life in general, so exciting — we get to work together and come up with completely new ways to solve tough problems. So really, none of us know what we’re doing, even if we pretend we do. The playing field is so much more level than you think.

I hope this is somewhat helpful—design school really is an incredible experience, and I’m so glad that you are trying to get the most out of it. Continue to immerse yourself in your design practice, keep making things that matter to you. What design needs most are students like you to continue to be honest, curious, and thoughtful.


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