Design Education: Talent vs. Effort

As director of the Graphic Design + Visual Experience Program at CBU for 10 years I can categorize most students into three categories along the talent and effort spectrum. These categories become evident at different times and in different students.

I have come to value effort in the students. Effort is the great equalizer. It is infectious and can change an educational experience for a group of students by raising the bar in a culture of a program. Effort is manmade. Talent is God-given gift. Effort is a choice. Talent is bestowed on folks who may well be looking to do something else. Effort is self-fulfilling. Talent holds projected potential by the viewer, rarely fulfilled. Wherever students sit on the aforementioned spectrum they do fall into three categories: Worker, Rock Star and Grinder.

First, I would like to define attributes of the Worker. They show themselves a few weeks/months into the process. You can build a program or business on these folks. They come to class always prepared, on time, and ready to complete whatever design problem is set before them. Athletes and other majors seem to fall into this category for me because they are trained to work efficiently and to get to the answer as soon as possible. The one problem is design professors don’t hold the answers, nor should they. Design education is a launching pad not an envelope holding the right answers. There are no right answers — only wrong ones. The Worker’s process is transparent and their development is always moving forward, limitless, but linear. The ratio between talent vs. effort is 1 to 1, equal parts, resulting in a very stable design student, and eventually a great designer.

Next is the Rock Star. They show themselves literally in seconds — maybe even before the first class starts. I have had Rock Stars approach me to get the class waived for them because they “know the software” or have “had a class similar” at a different institution. You cannot build a program on these folks because they don’t seem to hang around. They have greater things to do than sit in a class and learn about design. They prematurely end their education and end up at FedEx or Starbucks not doing design. Their process is cloistered because they don’t show up to class or are working for the deadline and the not honing their own process. They may very well hit the deadline and get their “A” but they did not grow in the process of solving problems which is why they are in college. They are flashes in the sky — not an attribute for someone training for a long rigorous career in design. On the talent vs. effort scales they are uber talented but show little or no effort. As an instructor you get little chance to help these folks because they are busy hitting deadlines and not showing up with work, or more importantly mistakes.

The most rewarding of the students are Grinders. These folks are slowest to show themselves because they take a bit longer to flourish into their maker’s great idea for them. Their stories are varied, broken families, learning disabilities, military, transfers, changed major, young mothers, folks working their own way through and outliers for sure. I don’t know if you can build a program around these folks either because life outside seems to steal them away. Their process can be cloistered but they work hard and you can see it. They demand of the instructor everything but it is worth it. Eventually the Grinder joins the ranks of the Rock Star but in a good way. They get there because of their effort. If you ask for three ideas they give you five. They understand that input into their work is gold. They learn from their mistakes and learn from our mistakes. Life has built into them an appreciation and make the work of professor gold. To see these underdogs get it and rise to the top of the program is priceless. On the scale of talent vs. effort these folks start with very little talent but loads effort. Eventually, the result of their work, also known as skills and talent kicks in and shines. These students become friends, stories to other students and great alumni if life doesn’t steal them away. There are tears when these folks stand before a packed stadium dressed funny holding up a diploma because we had a small part in fighting back life so they could start a new journey.

Design educators, reward effort over talent. And make sure you bring tissue to the commencement.