What I learned from taking a first-year design studio

As graduation is quickly approaching, I naturally find myself reflecting on my academic career these past 4 years. Questions like “If I could do it all over again, would I be the same major?”, “Am I content with what I learned over the past 4 years”, and “Did I even learn at all?” have been running through my mind in the past week or so.

Yesterday, I submitted my final project for DEA 1101: Visual Literacy and Design Studio. It’s a first-year design studio; all DEA freshmen must take this class in order to graduate. I’ve known about this class since my freshmen year but have avoided it because it is notorious for its painstaking projects, which include the infamous greyscale and wooden bridge. Students pull all-nighters painting, gluing, and cutting museum board to win the coveted 10 points from Jack Elliott.

Regardless, I decided to bite the bullet and take the class my senior year spring semester. Throughout the semester, a lot of my friends have asked me: Why are you taking a first-year design studio? As I reflect on this course and my entire academic experience, I have come to the realization that I decided to take this class for one single reason — I thought the takeaways of the class were going to apply to many aspects of life beyond just design. Looking back on it now, they really have. Although I may have gotten a pretty mediocre grade and have spent too much time and money on this class, I don’t regret anything at all. As cliché as it sounds, this class has truly changed how I view the world.

What I learned can be boiled down to 3 main takeaways:

  1. Variety in uniformity makes complete beauty.

This statement encapsulates the entire course. The course is titled Visual Literacy for a reason; the class essentially teaches you what makes particular things beautiful. Many well-designed physical products, experiences, and spaces are considered beautiful because there is an underlying logic behind them. There is a strong sense of logic that goes behind design that has variety in uniformity. Mastering this balance between variety and uniformity is special and, if executed well, it can make something truly captivating.

2. Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more.

Meaning is everything. Design is not solely for function or aesthetics — the power of design stems from using meaning to turn space and time into place and occasion. This powerful capability changes the way we, as humans, interact with and interpret a well-designed product or space. And that goes beyond just design. How anything creates meaning prompts us to feel connected and more human.

3. Patience is a virtue (seriously).

After pulling all-nighters sketching and cutting museum board, I learned this the hard way. Patience is needed in both conceptualizing and executing a design.

As a non-design major, I underestimated the time it takes to conceptualize a well-designed product or space. Sometimes, it takes more time to conceptualize than it does to execute. It involves a long, iterative process of prototyping, testing, and refining. Even with a simple minimalist design, hours/days/weeks of conceptualizing went behind its creation.

As a painter, I thought I understood what it meant to have patience in execution. But I really didn’t. When I paint, deciding colors and applying paint are intuitive to me — there is no process or logic behind it. I am simply driven by aesthetics. This class has challenged my execution process, forcing me to be precise in the way I execute — in the way I add white or black to make accurate tints and shades or in the way I seamlessly glue pieces of the museum board together. Patience is important because there is a lot of intention in conceptualizing and executing a design. After all those hours in studio, I’ve realized that intentionality is a prerequisite to great design.

As I take a step back, I ask myself: why did it take me 3 years to take this class? It was because I was driven by fear: the fear of getting a bad grade, the fear of the opportunity cost (like taking a more practical CS class), and the fear of not being focused with my education. It took me 3 whole years to break free from these fears and to fully embrace a playful, exploratory, and open-minded approach to my education.

Embracing this approach is easier said than done. I admit — what prompted me to fully embrace this approach was because I ironed out my summer and post-grad plans. There was certainty in my future. And only when I felt certain about my future, I could afford to take random, interesting classes at Cornell.

If there is one thing I regret, it’s this mindset that I had to earn the privilege of taking classes that interested me. After taking DEA 1101, I am more confused and uncertain about the path I chose to take after graduation. With that, I realize that there is beauty in uncertainty. Exploring a multitude of classes, interests, and experiences is as exciting as it is scary — you don’t know what you’ll discover along the way.